My channel actually started out a lot longer ago that most people realise: back in 2012! The channel was originally about fish. (As it happens, I still have the very same fish tank that I filmed in the early days, and I only recently lost a bristlenose catfish which had been in there from day one.) I wanted to make informative videos about them, to put in video format the things I was reading in magazines. Alas, the videos were shoddily-filmed and mostly unedited, so they never did well (not to mention the fact that most people don’t want to learn how to keep fish from a child). I lost interest in it.
In the meantime, I was getting older and learning from other people’s videos that apparently certain herps did not require lighting – for instance, leopard geckos like the ones in my local pet shop. I’d actually wanted a Pac-man frog but a leopard gecko was just as good, so in April 2014 I got a female leopard gecko which I named Cleo. I had the same ambitions to make videos about her as I’d had for my fish, so the content started up again. Again nobody watched it and I gave up, but in 2016 I stumbled on another YouTube channel made by a lad exactly my age which was all about his pet reptiles… and he had 700 subscribers. I’d only gotten to 64 and had stagnated there for months. As I looked further it turned out that there was a whole group – about six or seven young, English teenagers making YouTube videos about pet reptiles! That was it: if they could do it, I could do it, too. Time to get serious about making videos.
From the very beginning I wasn’t happy with the way I was keeping Cleo or the information I was trying to divulge. Too much of it seemed wrong. All I was doing was parroting what I’d read in care sheets or heard in other videos – I wanted to help other people look after their pets by sharing that information, but I wasn’t truly confident in it. You see, confidence obtained through understanding is more closely tied in with the truth than confidence taken from popular opinion. I sort of knew this from the beginning. Let me give an example.
The reason I got a leopard gecko was that apparently it wouldn’t need lighting. Every care sheet said it; every video confirmed it; every big breeder was shouting it from the rooftops. I had been given confidence from popular opinion: I hadn’t gained it through understanding. The argument (which still circulates dogmatically and popularly to this day) was as follows: “leopard geckos are nocturnal animals and therefore do not receive exposure to sunlight; hence, they do not require lighting”. So far so good, I thought at the time – but then the argument continued. “As nocturnal animals, leopard geckos have very sensitive eyes, so any exposure to light will necessarily be damaging to their vision.” I could not believe this. I suppose I couldn’t speak for their behaviour in the wild, but when I saw videos of people letting leopard geckos walk around their gardens in broad daylight, I knew that the narrative had to be wrong. So, was it just this that was wrong, or was everything else false as well? Did my leopard gecko actually need lighting, and was I causing her to suffer by keeping her in the dark? My confidence from popular opinion had been shattered: confidence from understanding was the only way forwards.
From more-or-less that point onwards, I questioned everything, and it only drove me further to make videos where I tried to make sense of things rather than just repeat what I’d been told.
Actually, the most popular videos on my channel are some awful slide-shows about morphs which I knocked up some years ago on various nights after school. Literally all they are is captioned pictures of corn snakes, bearded dragons, etc. showing the different colours you can get – which is a bit soul-destroying, to be honest. I’ve spent hours upon hours – days, even – on more recent, informative videos which have only a few hundred views versus over one-hundred-thousand views for my old leopard gecko morphs video made in half an hour. I can understand why: morphs are often glorified as the be-all and end-all of reptile keeping, so people generally want to know what morph their new pet is, or they want to make sure they choose their favourite when they go out to buy one.
After those videos, the ones that do well are reptile room tours. People like being entertained, so a good 20-30 minutes of just showing people reptiles exploring and feeding (with a little bit of commentary) is bound to do well. Again, these videos are easy to make, much more so than the animated information-heavy ones, but I do actually like them. Simply showing people reptiles in large, naturalistic enclosures can really work wonders for getting points across about proper husbandry.
The reptile room tours are always fun to make because it’s an excuse to spend a couple of hours looking at my animals and enjoying their presence! My favourite videos of all, though, are the “Species Spotlights”. I’ve only done four of these and haven’t done one for some months as they’re not at all popular. Certainly, in three of the episodes I made the taxonomy segments much more complicated than necessary, to the point of resorting to special-pleading for their necessity and purposefully mispronouncing words to make the topic seem approachable… This probably turned a lot of people off. The thing is, though, what’s in these videos is what I really enjoy: I like taxonomy and cladistics, and I like learning natural history. I think in the future I will re-do some of the videos in that playlist as I really would like to make more of them, but there’s no point if nobody will watch them.
The funny thing is, because I’ve grown up with social media being my primary source of herp-related content, I don’t really know what it was like without it. I wasn’t involved in the hobby in the 00s, so I don’t know what it was like pre-YouTube etc.. With that being said, I did use forums initially. (I wonder if I will be in the last generation to remember these sites?) Their successors have undoubtedly been Facebook groups, and I can see why: no site costs for admins, live chat, easier photo sharing, and of course, a user-friendly interface for phone clients. I think this is beneficial in the sense that more people can access a variety of specialist groups more easily, but with more people comes more scope for spreading folklore husbandry… and of course, arguments. In any case, I think the good probably outweighs the bad here, at least considering the Facebook groups I’m involved with. Being able to access dozens of knowledgeable folk across the globe in real-time (as opposed to putting something up on an old-fashioned forum and waiting a day for a response from the one person who happened to log in) is a real improvement.
But with regards other social media, I’m not so sure. Information is information in a forum or Facebook group. Videos are different. Rarely is people’s writing so horrendous that you get bored and move on, but that’s not true with a video: it’s incredibly difficult to make a video which ISN’T boring and still teaches people information. There is also a monetary reward for highly successful YouTube videos – not so for written posts. The culmination of these facts is that YouTube tends to appeal to people who are making videos for the point of entertainment (who will be successful and therefore get paid) and drive away those who are making videos for the point of education (who will put in lots of effort and get nothing in return), at least within our hobby. Worse, entertaining content also happens to be that which involves poor husbandry, so YouTube in a sense drives the promotion of outdated practice. I hope to be making a difference in this regard…
The one thing YouTube offers which other platforms don’t is longevity. If I make a video today and you search for something like it in a few months, my video will still appear; if you make a post on another platform, it’ll almost certainly be buried in a day or two. So, even though it’s incredibly difficult to get an educational YouTube video about reptiles performing well, if you can do it, the time invested will be well worth it. Conversely, if you make a cracking Facebook post, it’ll probably perform well but die off before the week’s out. I include this point mainly to incentivise other keepers: if you think you can promote better welfare than you normally see online, please have a go at YouTube, because if you can get it right (albeit no simple task) you can have a bigger influence than you realise!
That’s a difficult one to answer. My first instinct is to pull for the trigger and say that visual content has been a hindrance to most species. The kids getting into keeping herps these days do so through videos, for the major part. As I explained earlier, YouTube tends to foster excitement and sensationalism, not necessarily animal welfare. This generally means lots of animals with cost-effective caging in a small footprint. The result is that the future generations of the hobby grow having seen nothing other than massive collections, unboxing videos, and tiny, paper-lined racks. They don’t know any different, so when somebody comes along and points out that all this isn’t the best for the animals, they’re hardly going to be receptive to change: “what is the alternative?” Therefore, the environment created isn’t really one that you’d consider beneficial as far as the reptiles themselves are concerned!
However, having said all that, when people do chance across videos where the creators are making a real effort to look after their animals, those videos can leave a lasting impression. Some of my favourite comments turn up on my reptile room tours – people who have only ever seen racks click on the video thinking that that’s what they’re about to look at, and then they see lighting, plants, and SPACE for the first time, and judging from their reactions, it gives them ideas. (That not to say that I think my vivaria are beyond improvement or the best on YouTube – far from it. They’re in the minority, though.) It’s true that you have to see something to believe it. It’s all too easy for writing to come off as “elitist”, but you can’t fake a corn snake coiled around a branch under a UVB tube and a halogen lamp: it just looks right, whereas seeing one wedged into a glorified tupperware doesn’t.
What I’ve been getting at in this rather long-winded answer to the question is that for the majority of species being kept as pets, videos have scope to do a lot of good, but right now the good is so sparse compared to the bad that on the whole, the influence is probably negative. (This might be another good time for me to try and appeal to other progressive keepers to start making their own videos – please do!) Those species which have benefitted most must be those which are kept least by the sensationalists and most by those who are more progressive. I can’t think exactly which species this would be, but to choose out of the most popular “pet” species, it’s probably crested geckos – with bioactivity and jungle-style setups being a trend at the moment, crested geckos tend to get kitted out with decent enclosures more often than the other popular herps.
Having talked about reptile keeping, I must also point out that reptiles in the wild might have benefitted from their social media coverage. More so than ever before snakes and lizards are ordinary things to have sitting round the house, and I would like to think that this has made people more aware and more tolerant of herps out in nature. This is another can of worms I don’t want to open here, but it’s at least something to consider.
In my own early days this was true – I learnt everything from YouTube. It’s not at all true anymore. I still watch some videos and pick up odd little facts here and there, but I don’t learn about husbandry from YouTube. Applying the general principle from earlier – that you find the truth by understanding things which are sensible, not by accepting the opinion of the crowd – I’ve come to realise that almost everything I ever learned from YouTube videos was either entirely nonsensical or strongly misguided. Nowadays I take advice from those who can give satisfying answers when questioned, can back up their opinions with peer-reviewed papers, or (most importantly of all) just make sense.
With regards my own videos, peer-review is something that I’ve recently become involved with. Two Facebook groups, Advancing Herpetological Husbandry and Reptile Lighting (which are ran, I should think, by some of the Rolls-Royce in herp keeping) are now offering a (free) peer-review service to anyone making videos about herps. Not many people have submitted videos yet, but I can confirm that it is well worth it: the review team points out mistakes or make suggestions which, when implemented, give the video a whole new flavour and appeal. Nowadays, any serious informative video I make gets submitted for peer-review before being released to the public.
I don’t know for certain, but I’m going to guess a lot. If someone makes a video where they use a particular product and sing its praises, then if that video gets a few thousand views, there will be a few thousand people suddenly more willing to use that product. Most of the big channels these days – heck, even the smaller ones – are sponsored by some reptile company or another.
You might be wondering if I am at all sponsored, the answer to which is yes, I have been. Generally, I won’t accept this anymore because I want the freedom to give products down the banks if I don’t like them. I try to make scientific videos, but how can you separate science from persuasive branding when you know that money is involved? With this in consideration, I will not and have not for some time accepted anything like free lighting or supplements (where scientific rigour is of importance), but I am happy to give, say, a bespoke vivarium-building service a shout-out in return for a discount (assuming the vivarium is actually any good). A viv is a viv; science ain’t gonna come knocking tomorrow to tell you that your review is a lie, but it might just with a lamp.
Going back to the question, as I’ve already hinted at, you can’t underestimate the passive effects that videos can have on people. If someone watches a video with a certain product just happening to be on display, they will be more likely to use it. I hate to have to return to this topic, but racks vs. naturalistic enclosures are the best example I can think of. Everyone sees people using racks, so they use racks. If they only saw people using well-decked-out wooden or glass vivaria, they’d only use well-decked out wooden or glass vivaria. I think it is largely as simple as that. As more and more people come to see YouTubers as figures they can look up to, yes, I think that YouTube’s influence on the industry will continue to rise.
I don’t plan very far ahead when it comes to YouTube. Well, I say that, but I am constantly planning large-timescale changes for my reptiles, and it’s my reptiles I put on YouTube, so I suppose I do! Of late I have been focussing largely on lighting and heating for reptiles, and this focus will be maintained through the coming months. I’ve also got planned a video about mites, a couple of episodes on breeding, and a new video about feeding bearded dragons based on some new information that has come to light. This summer I intend on moving my bearded dragon to a new enclosure: at 10×2.5×2′, it’ll be the biggest enclosure I’ve ever worked on. I’ll also be offering updates on my cohabitating trio of leopard geckos which have sparked much conversation and interest since I put them together.
Our conversation with Steve Nichols at the National Parrot Sanctuary, as featured in the December 2020 issue of EK. A must-read article if you are thinking a parrot is right for you!
An interview with Paul Rowley from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, all about his work with venomous snakes and the work taking place to improve the lives of those affected by snakebite.
Interview with Peter Hoch, the founder of Lucky Reptile and influential figure in the European reptile hobby.