Who encouraged the keeping of reptiles and amphibians in Britain the early decades of the 20th Century?

G.A. Boulenger

G.A. Boulenger

For months now I have been describing what I know of keeping reptiles and amphibians in Britain in the earlier decades of the 20th Century; the books and magazines catering for amateur herpetologists; the importers and dealers and some of the individuals involved. Encouragement also came from the top echelon of British science since keeping reptiles was the method of learning about everything but their morphology. So while fully engaged with research in morphology and taxonomy, George Albert Boulenger FRS (1858-1937) studied reptiles and amphibians in captivity and in the wild: In his obituary notice for the Royal Society (written by D.M.S. Watson,1886-1973) it is noted:

Boulenger always seemed to the present writer the ideal taxonomist. He possessed an amazing memory, he could always tell you immediately the name of any lower vertebrate you showed him and at the same time recall any anatomical feature of interest it possessed, tell you something—often a great deal— about its habits and mode of life, describe its geographical distribution, discuss the variability of the species, and usually give you full references to the published literature. And he could do this for amphibia, reptiles and fishes, a total of more than ten thousand species…Unlike many systematists Boulenger was by inclination a naturalist, interested in live animals of every sort, handling and becoming friendly with many inhabitants of the Zoological Societies’ [sic] menagerie.

H. F. Gadow

H. F. Gadow

Hans Gadow FRS (1855-1928) in his Cambridge Natural History volume on Amphibia and Reptiles (1901) wrote of several animals kept by Boulenger. One example is the Aesculapian Snake now Zamensis longissimus but for many years Elaphe longissima:

C. [Coluber] flavescens s aesculapii is the Aesculap-Snake, for which the almost unknown name of longissimus has now been unearthed in deference to the fetish of priority…Boulenger kept one for many years in a glass cage, where the snake entwined himself round the branches of a stick and allowed us to take him with the stick out of its socket and to inspect him.

Another is Xenopus laevisA few kept by Boulenger in a glass jar have lived for the last eleven years in the ordinary temperature of a room in London.

Gadow, Reader in Vertebrate Morphology at Cambridge, himself kept amphibians and reptiles. His Royal Society obituary notice was also written by D.M.S. Watson:

In order to have first-hand knowledge of these matters, he travelled extensively in Spain and Mexico, observing amphibians, reptiles, and birds in their natural environments. The results are recorded in two books of travel, and in many papers….In some ways, the best and certainly the most characteristic work which Gadow published was the volume on Amphibia and Reptiles in the Cambridge Natural History. In this book, morphology holds a subordinate place, the greater part of it consisting of short and often most entertaining accounts of individual species regarded as animals living in the world….It is full of observations of habits of all kinds—food preferences and the capture of food, locomotion, breeding habits, colour changes, the musical appreciation of Tortoises—many of them original, and most confirmed by his own observations of animals which he kept in his house outside Cambridge. Indeed, the whole book well displays the real love and understanding he had of these beasts.

He refers to some of the animals he kept in Amphibia and Reptiles:

Cistudo carolina [now Terrapene carolina]…One of my males sulked thus for several months, at least we never saw anything of it except the closed shell but it did not starve itself.

Chelodina longicollis…My specimens soon became so tame that they left the water, and ran up to me with the necks stretched to their full length, then snatching a bit of food, and retiring into the pond to swallow it.

Lacerta ocellata [now L. lepida]…One of my own, a half-grown male from Northern Spain, about one foot in length, made its home in a little niche of the greenhouse-wall.

With this endorsement and enthusiasm it is not surprising that interest in, and the keeping of, reptiles and amphibians became popular in those who could afford it. We know, for example from the lists of donors of reptiles to London Zoo, that probably until the 1920s or 1930s, amateur herpetology was an activity of the upper and middle classes. They were the only people who could have afforded to buy any but the most common European amphibians and reptiles that came onto the market.

Encouragement from the top continued after the Second World War. Malcolm Smith (1875-1928) combined medicine with herpetology. After his return from a spell as physician and adviser to the Court of Siam, he returned to London in 1925 where he worked on reptiles at the British Museum. He wrote The British Amphibians and Reptiles for the Collins New Naturalist series which was published in 1951. In his Preface he encouraged the keeping of reptiles and amphibians in order to learn more about them:

The book concerns mainly the field naturalist. Certain observations on habits can be made only in the field, but many others, often regarded as a part of field work, can be investigated with specimens in captivity. The amphibia and reptiles lend themselves readily to study in this way, provided they are kept under the right conditions. For this purpose the open-air vivarium or terrarium is essential. When properly planned and sufficiently spacious—the bigger the better— it can provide surroundings closely resembling those in nature and affords a ready means of observation. Feeding habits, courtship, mating, egg-laying and the production of young—much of the daily life of the animal in fact—goes on as it does in nature. Raymond Rollinat, whose observations are frequently quoted in these pages, gained most of his knowledge of French reptiles in that way, and much of my own information concerning the British species has been obtained by the same means. Practically all of Kingsley Noble’s work on the behaviour of the North American reptiles was done in the laboratory. All our amphibia and reptiles do well in captivity. Even the timid adder, which in a small cage usually refuses food and dies of starvation, feeds readily when kept in open-air surroundings.

An outdoor reptiliary—as in Kathleen Pickard Smith’s Living with Reptiles and as then seen at London and Dudley Zoos at least—was seen as the way to start keeping reptiles and amphibians and of learning more about them.

The more sustained increase in the popularity of reptiles and amphibians was nowhere to be seen, let alone the recent surge that sees more species and individuals (mostly captive bred or ranched) for sale in a single shop in a small town than could have been obtained from all the dealers in Britain in 1958.