What is a happy dragon?
Reptiles are often characterized as passive creatures that don’t need much more than a small space with food and water to survive. However, they are far more complex than many people give them credit for, and deserve to live full, enriched lives in a naturalistic setting. We define a “happy dragon” as a reptile living its best possible life in captivity, with all the requirements necessary to thrive (not just survive), provided by reptile-first care.
Reptile-first care means prioritizing what an animal needs to truly thrive, both physically and mentally, and actively seeking to improve the methods and standards of care. By deciding to keep or breed reptiles, we are accepting the responsibility to provide the best care possible.
We believe that, in order to put reptiles first, this care must evolve and grow with new research, experience, and discussion. Being a responsible pet owner or breeder is a continuous journey towards finding better ways to care for the reptiles in our charge.
Reptiles need spacious, enriching enclosures with species-appropriate hides, lighting, and heating to properly thermoregulate their body temperatures and exhibit natural behaviours. We use the 5 Provisions of Animal Welfare created by David Mellor as the basis for our animal welfare standards:
Pet reptiles must have ready access to fresh, clean water and a species-appropriate diet which promotes optimum physical fitness. Thirst and hunger should be minimized, and eating should be a pleasurable experience.
Pet reptiles should have suitable housing, complete with shade areas, shelters/rest areas, and good air quality. Temperatures, humidity, and UVB intensity should be appropriate to the animal’s species. Discomfort and stress should be minimized.
Illness, disease, and injury in pet reptiles should be diagnosed and treated promptly, and prevented as much as possible. Husbandry should foster good muscle tone, posture, cardiorespiratory function, and general physical fitness. Aversive experiences such as breathlessness, nausea, and pain should be avoided.
Pet reptiles should have sufficient space, facilities, and varied conditions to perform species-appropriate behaviors (“environmental enrichment”). Social species should be housed in groups to promote the pursuit of social behavior. Social needs should be met based on factors of safety, stress, and proven benefit, as social behaviors observed in the wild often differ from those in captivity. Freedom of choice should be promoted. Threats and risks to the animal’s safety should be minimized.
Pet reptiles should have regular access to species-appropriate opportunities which promote a sense of comfort, pleasure, interest, confidence, and/or control (“enrichment activities”).
Given these conditions, many reptiles are able to flourish in captivity. Responsible keeping and breeding of reptiles means not only meeting these standards, but also continuously striving to surpass the baseline requirements and further improve care.
There are 3 main areas where we believe the most progress can be made towards better animal welfare in captivity:
Responsible breeding starts with planned breeding. The decision to breed two animals should take into consideration the health of the breeding pair and any heritable health conditions they may pass on to offspring. Responsible choices about which animals are bred, how often they are bred, and which genetics are being selected for breeding are the foundation for better reptile welfare. Well-run captive breeding programs populate the hobby with healthier animals and play a crucial role in decreasing demand for wild caught imports.
Breeders should always make sure they can provide a safe, clean environment for their reptiles with adequate space and species-appropriate heating, lighting, hides, and enrichment. Breeding setups should create an environment that fosters not only the best physical health for reptiles, but also stimulates them mentally. Enrichment opportunities and interaction are essential to producing reptiles with good temperaments and natural behavior.
We acknowledge that there are many ways to be a responsible breeder - there is no ‘best way’ to breed reptiles and the costs and space requirements associated with breeding require a different standard of care than that of pet-owners. Still, we believe that breeders should always be focused on providing the best care possible within reasonable means. Responsible breeders should also take reptile welfare into consideration after the animal has left their care. Providing superb customer education before and after a sale to ensure that buyers are fully prepared to house and care for the animal they receive
Reptile pet owners are one of the best sources of information for determining which husbandry techniques work in practice. By having reptile owners post their care updates on the HappyDragons app, we can assemble data crucial to providing insights into better methods of care. As new findings emerge, our understanding of reptile care changes, so our standards will evolve and update accordingly, with proven evidence from a network of experience. This also contributes to the educational aspect of HappyDragons by encouraging users to take advantage of our resources to learn about and engage in reptile-first care, leading to a larger community of responsible pet owners.