Snakes curled up in balls, unable to stretch, denied water and shelter to hide, stacked up in plastic boxes. Geckos scraping about in cheap takeaway containers, under the glare of a bright light. Tortoises inside glass boxes, clawing at the walls, longing to escape. If that sounds like a wildlife market, you’re right—it is. But this isn’t in a faraway continent on the other side of the world. It’s a reptile market at Doncaster Racecourse and Exhibition Centre. That’s Doncaster, Yorkshire, England.
Doncaster and the exotic pet trade may sound jarring, but this September, thousands of stressed animals, including snakes, lizards and tortoises, will be displayed, picked up and prodded for hours at one of the UK’s last remaining reptile markets, in one of South Yorkshire’s most popular conference and events venues.
This is the same venue, whose neighbour is the new Hilton Garden Inn. It’s a venue that hosts high-profile concerts—Kaiser Chiefs, Rag 'n' Bone Man and Jess Glynne are all scheduled for the summer. It’s known for luxury wedding exhibitions like Doncaster I Do Wedding Fayre, as well as the Doncaster Racecourse Business Showcase, antiques fairs and toy fairs, weddings and glamorous private parties. And of course, the historic Doncaster Races. In fact, Doncaster Racecourse hosts around 36 race fixtures a year including the prestigious Cazoo St Leger Festival. And a reptile market.
The ‘un-advertised’ event
Doncaster Racecourse doesn’t promote the reptile show—a sign that it’s all too aware of the negative reactions and publicity that would attract. Organised by the International Herpetological Society (IHS), the event is expected to attract big crowds when it resumes its previously regular (four times a year) Doncaster Racecourse.
In the UK, we think of ourselves as a nation of animal lovers and pride ourselves on high animal welfare standards. But what we are seeing here is cruelty, plain and simple. And together, we can do something. While the IHS may exist to promote reptile keeping and breeding, Doncaster Racecourse doesn’t. That’s why World Animal Protection is encouraging the public to contact Doncaster Racecourse’s executive director Rachel Harwood. We need to highlight how these events are harmful to wild animals, and urge her to end their connection with the reptile show.
What goes on at a reptile show?
What’s described as a ‘show’ or ‘breeders meeting’ with exhibitors is, in reality, a marketplace for the UK’s reptile breeding community. It’s where hobby breeders’ can sell reptiles bred in captivity, sometimes in poor conditions, to flog like merchandise. But these animals are not products. They are complex creatures that feel fear and pain, excitement and pleasure—and despite being bred in captivity, they remain wild animals, with the same wild traits and needs of their counterparts living in their natural habitat. Many breeders also design ‘morph’ snakes with specific colours and patterns, a practice that can cause health issues and genetic disorders.
Ball pythons are one of the biggest ‘sellers’ at the reptile show in Doncaster, and one of the most popular ‘exotic pets’ in the country. There are an estimated 800,000 reptiles in UK homes of which 200,000 are snakes. Relatively small and docile, they’re marketed by the exotic pet trade to be a good ‘starter pet’—but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
The truth about reptiles
Ball pythons, as an example, are shy, quiet, non-aggressive, solitary, and nocturnal—and so-called for their tendency to curl up into a ball when stressed. This is sadly a common sight at Doncaster Reptile Show where they are exposed to bright lights, loud noise and handling. They can feel pain and become easily distressed, particularly in cramped conditions where they can’t perform natural behaviours like stretch or hide to avoid stress, or when they are handled roughly.
They’re also intelligent creatures with complex needs, requiring specialised care from specific temperature, light and humidity levels, to nutrition and mental stimulation. Keeping them as pets in captivity only leads to suffering.
The notion that reptiles, be they turtles, lizards or snakes, need less attention than other creatures, and that they’re ‘easy’ to keep, is misguided. And because reptiles look so different to those animals many people feel more of an affinity with, their suffering doesn’t always attract the same concern. But the exotic pet trade is cruel—wild animals belong in the wild. And we need to make it unacceptable that these animals are sold at shows, online or in pet shops.
What can we do?
In most parts of the UK, inhumane wildlife markets like these, where reptiles are sold like toys, no longer exist—and that’s how it ought to be. Doncaster Reptile Show is an outdated event that has no place in our society. As lockdown eases and the June event approaches, Doncaster Racecourse needs to feel the weight of public pressure like never before.
Already, 75,000 people have signed a petition, submitted in June 2020, with thousands more emailing the Executive Director. If we can convince racecourse bosses to stop hosting these events, it’ll be a proud moment for Doncaster and a significant step towards ending the wildlife trade in the UK. Don’t let Doncaster be home to animal suffering.