Field Herping Ethics

When I’m not out in the field stalking snakes and other fascinating creatures, I can often be found teaching Ethics in a classroom at the local community college.  Ethics is a branch of philosophy that focuses on how human beings “ought” to act.  During the last semester I started to think about combining these two interests in terms of “field herping ethics”.  Field herping ethics includes conversation and consideration of the following:  destruction of natural habitat, handling or not handling the animals, dealing with invasive species, and field collecting.  Below I consider each one of these issues.  This is a difficult and heavily debated subject and my goal is simply to illuminate the issues.  I try, when possible, to remain neutral keeping my opinion to myself as I feel it is best for herpers to weight the issues personally.  

The matter concerning destruction of habitat comes to the fore in a few different ways.  Habitat destruction includes moving shelters and not placing them back where they were found.  Moving a shelter, for example a log, and not putting it back exactly where it was can destroy the microhabitat (possibly making it useless for other herps).   Habit destruction also includes destroying trees, etc.  For instance, scarlet snakes (Cemophora coccinea) are often found hiding under loose bark.  There are people who, here in Florida, are so determined to find scarlet snakes that they will destroy trees by ripping the bark off of the trees in order to find the snakes hiding.  I have been out with friends who have shown me several trees that were, presumably, destroyed by scarlet snake hunters.  Of course scarlet snakes are not the only snakes known for hiding under bark – various other snakes in the USA will take secret shelter underneath loose bark.  The question here is: where do responsible herpers draw the line?  Clearly field herpers want to continue finding the animals in the wild.  Most of the field herpers I know treat herping like a serious addiction – so, though this addiction calls for herpers to find as many creatures as possible, it also demands that herpers maintain the hobby for future personal excitement and for all the animals herpers love so very much.  Habitat destruction, in the long run will not maintain the hobby.  Many hobbyists fight against habitat destruction when it comes from other sources such as big business and construction companies.  Habitat destruction seems to be even more difficult to deal with when the hobbyists are the ones guilty of the destruction.  Again, I try not to offer my own opinion in terms of field herping ethics – but, this issue may be the easiest to resolve simply because habitat destruction is essentially destruction of the hobby.

The second discussion is whether or not we ought to handle the herps we find.  Does it

Photo by: Melissa Coakley

stress them out?  Does it force them, through stress, to find another shelter or home range?  Part of the fun of herping, for many, is the chance to handle and experience a short interaction with a variety of wild reptiles.  But, one must wonder if excessive handling affects the animals, and if so – how?  There are many serious and well respected herpers who believe people ought to think about this very carefully.  Some of the concern comes from the possible negative effects that might be realized in terms of the animal’s health.  Many lizards will drop their tails when they are frightened.  Also, some turtles and tortoises will void their stored water which could possibly lead to dehydration.  What if the herp in question just ate?  Excessive handling after a large meal can, of course, lead to regurgitation.  I’ve been on herping trips where we collected the animals and brought them back to our rooms so that we could photograph them another day.  After we got our photos we released the animals – however, not in the exact places they were found.  This could be an issue for several reasons.  For example, if the animal is ill (or if we made the animals ill) it could now potentially spread its illness over new territory.  Another aspect of this is whether or not we should interfere with herps in danger of dying.  Most of us move herps off the road when we can, but how should we deal with more imminent threats?  For instance, when witnessing a snake about to eat a defenseless little lizard what is the best course of action?  Should we jump in or casually observe?  Ever encounter a herp loaded with ticks?  Should we pull them off or send him on his way with all the ticks intact?

One of the most pervasive issues right now is how field herpers handle invasive species.  One night my reptile club had a guest speaker lecturing on the topic of Osteopilus septentrionalis the Cuban tree frogs.  She asked that we all kill (and she gave us several “humane” ways to do so) each Cuban tree frog that we see.  The room was split over this – some members thought it was odd that she was talking to herp lovers about this and some

Photo By: Melissa Coakley

members thought that it was their duty to rid the state of these invasive amphibians.  An additional example is the famous pythons in the Everglades.  If a herper sees a Burm – should she turn it in to be killed or should she pretend she didn’t see the serpent?  I’m not convinced that herpers will ever come to an agreement on this, but one thing is certain the more invasive species that are found the more bad press the herpetocultural hobby seems to receive.

Finally, the area that sets field herpers at odds with each other more than any other is the debate regarding collecting in the field.  How should this be best handled?  I have been out with people who take everything they find, in attempt to “pay for the trip”.  Sometimes these herpers even catch rodents from the same area as they believe it is the only way certain snakes will eat.  I’ve also been out with people who have the “take only pictures, leave only footprints” mentality.  Is there room for a compromising middle ground?  Should herpers only take what they are personally going to keep or breed?  Is there anything wrong with selling wild caught reptiles?  Does taking a few herps from the wild cause problems for the population in that area?  Is it even possible to vouch for the health of a recently captured herp?  For example, a reptile dealer can’t tell if a snake has been exposed to or affected by pesticides.  Reptiles are notoriously adept at hiding their weakness or sickness.  What risks are taken by adding wild caught herps to our collections?  These questions are worthy of serious consideration.

It is my hope that these categories have given pause and have allowed readers to think about the future of this precious hobby.  Field herping ethics is an area of field herping that deserves attention.  I’m interested in learning what opinions are held regarding these various aspects of field herping ethics.  As a final note, the one area of field herping ethics that I will happily provide my opinion on is my belief that herpers have a duty to involve interested parties from the younger generation.  Many kids have the desire to learn about and observe herps in their native habitat.  But, they don’t always have the means.  Perhaps the best field herpers are the ones who will take the time to indulge the curious young minds out there hoping to catch a glimpse of a snake or a turtle in its native habitat.  After all, this is our chance to pass on the hobby along with the ethics required to maintain the beautiful wild creatures that so fuel our adrenaline just by existing.