Last week, during the school vacation, the gecko exhibit at the Museum of Science Boston was mobbed. Kids nosed up to the terrariums to see the nimble lizards scale the glass. They learned that geckos do not have sticky feet. Instead, tiny toepad hairs allow geckos to climb walls through phenomenon called frictional adhesion.
What exhibit visitors didn’t learn is that some people think it is a bad idea to keep geckos and other so-called “exotic” animals as pets. That’s not a notion shared by the exhibit’s sponsor — a local pet shop specializing in snakes and lizards.
“Geckos – Tails to Toepads” runs until mid-May and features more than 60 lizards from all over the world including the Giant Leaf tails gecko, the Albino gecko the leopard gecko and of course, the animated Geico gecko.
In addition to serving as chirping pests and museum exhibits, geckos are popular pets. Biologist, breeder and exhibit sponsor Stephen Ayer runs Winchester store called Jabberwock that “is dedicated to providing top quality healthy, captive bred reptiles and amphibians,” according to the store website.
While conservation-minded science museums and lizard breeders like Ayer share an appreciation for wildlife, they can clash when it come to the capture and breeding of exotic animals as pets. The list of so-called exotic animals under scrutiny includes bears, panthers, as well as some iguanas, chameleons and pythons.
Groups from the Humane Society to People for Ethical Treatment of Animals oppose the sale of wild animals as pets. And in January, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to banned the sale of the Burmese python and several other snakes, which have become a major problem in Florida. They are considered invasive in the Everglades, where according to the USFWS, the Burmese python has established breeding grounds and is feeding on endangered storks and rodents.
While he doesn’t deal in Burmese pythons, Ayer was quoted in the Winchester Patch news story opposing the ban. He said snake breeders and businesses like his should not be blamed for the problems in Florida.
Ayer argues that the ban is based on “fear and not in science…The idea that these snakes, particularly the Burmese python, could be invasive outside southern Florida is biologically impossible, he wrote in an email responding to questions from “Nature Boston.”
The snakes could not survive through the winter, he said, adding: “It would be irresponsible to suggest that they are a threat to the environment here, or in most of the US.”
And, he argued that some breeders are protecting native species. Development is threatening the natural habitat of the New Caledonian Giant Gecko (Rhacodactylus leachianus) and breeders are helping preserve them, according to Ayer.
A spokesman for the Museum of Science declined to comment on Ayer’s positions.
The exhibit was put together by Pennsylvania reptile zoo, and Aaron M. Bauer the director of the graduate biology program at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, was a scientific consultant. He said that the interests of breeders and owners can conflict with conservation efforts.
“Although most breeders and python owners are undoubtedly conscientious and would not release pythons in the Everglades, such laws at least provide some sort of restriction on the free and unregulated movement of possible invasives around the country,” he wrote in an email.
He suggested regulators concluded that the “cost to the business of breeders is outweighed by the possible good of limiting invasive species… I don’t think that this is intended as an anti-herpetoculturalist measure.”