Snakes have been subject to millennia of prejudice and persecution - and their wellbeing is still being overlooked.
The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) in the UK is propping up the archaic practice of imprisoning snakes in tiny tanks and Tupperware-like tubs in which they cannot even straighten out their own bodies.
Defra, representing the UK as supposedly a world-leading government on animal welfare, has imposed lower standards for snake care than those demanded by many other nations. It has done so simply to appease exotic-pet traders and spare them the inconvenience of having to provide larger enclosures when breeding and selling snakes.
Confining snakes to cramped tanks is no small matter. In the UK, there are around 400,000 snakes in homes and many more in pet shops, breeding facilities, and mobile zoos.
Scientific investigations reveal that captive snakes display over forty stress-related behavioural problems and suffer from diseases as a result of confinement, maladaptation, and poor husbandry practices.
Confinement is implicated in at least twenty clinical conditions, some of which have potentially fatal consequences. The breeding, trading, and keeping of snakes are destructive practices that cause them stress and can even lead to their death.
Over 75 percent of reptiles do not survive one year in the home, and it is industry standard for 70 percent of exotic pets to survive just six weeks at wholesalers.
Defra completed a large-scale consultation in 2018, as part of a plan to develop guidance for the Animal Welfare Act, to agree husbandry recommendations for animals kept in licensable establishments such as pet stores and their suppliers.
The department agreed with the evidence that snakes have a biological need to be housed in an enclosure in which they can stretch out. In went the recommendation that this needed to be mandatory, and out would go years of misinformation on snake behaviour and abuse by the pet industry. Job done!
However, just days prior to the publication of the guidance, a single letter was sent to Defra by a pet-trade vet who keeps and sells snakes pressing for the removal of the provision.
So, without even asking for objective expert input, Defra's civil servants simply threw out the evidence from more than ten scientific publications as well as preceding expert consultation demanding that snakes be allowed to stretch out fully. Job undone!
Snakes are biologically mute, lack facial muscles, and possess fixed, transparent "eyelids", thus for many people they don't tick the "cute" box. But they do suffer. All the scientific evidence confirms that snakes are sensitive, complex, and – perhaps to the surprise of some people – intelligent. The fact that they don't whine or look sad doesn't mean they aren't suffering.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has joined calls from the world's leading reptile experts for better conditions for snakes. They are launching a campaign urging Defra to amend current regulations immediately so that snakes in pet shops, breeding facilities, and mobile zoos must have at least enough space to stretch out fully, thus reducing their stress and suffering.
PETA's campaign has already generated more than 10,000 messages to Lord (Zac) Goldsmith, the minister of state at Defra and a former editor of The Ecologist, demanding this change, demonstrating that ordinary people do actually care about snakes.
Defra's behaviour signals that scientific evidence and proper procedure can be thwarted by a minority with vested interests and by amiable civil servants acting in a skewed decision-making system.
No rational, compassionate individual or government would tolerate legalising the confinement of dogs or cats to glass tanks in which they can't stretch out, and snakes deserve the same consideration.
Essentially, Defra has made snakes the only captive animals in the UK who can be denied the opportunity to straighten out their bodies, and the government's drive to'modernise legislation in favour of animal welfare has actually formalised the abuse of certain species.
Clifford Warwick is a biologist and medical scientist and the author of around 150 scientific articles, books, and book chapters. He is an investigator of the anthropogenic impact on wild animals.