Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?
Do you remember that bit in Indiana Jones, where he falls into a big booby trap filled with snakes? The world’s greatest adventurer, who bested the Nazis, found King Arthur’s Holy Grail and risked life and limb to save his hat…it was snakes that were his one weakness.
In the Harry Potter franchise, there are 4 houses in Hogwarts which the pupils are sorted into based on their characters. The house with all the baddies, which Harry Potter himself begs not to be placed in due to its seedy reputation, is represented by a large snake. Snakes are commonly associated with evil in the books, with the main villain having one as his familiar.
One of the earliest characterisations of the snake which I can remember, is that of Ka from The Jungle Book. I used to be terrified of his hypnotic gaze which he used to entrance Mowgli, and he was the only animal who hung around with Shere Khan (and he wasn’t exactly the nicest tiger in the jungle).
So, snakes are evil, right? Biblically so. They’re bad to the very last bone in their tail, characters from tales of horror. They frighten the good guys. They’re disposable – we cheer when the hero slays them. They’re shifty, cunning, never to be trusted, and they are infamously terrible company to keep. Of all the animals with which we share our planet, snakes are among the worst.
No – not this time, Indy!
The Reptilian Reputation
Reptiles possess a lot of qualities that we naturally fear. We don’t have any natural predators, although there are still animals which we should steer clear of, and those which stir the primal “stay away from this guy” feeling in our gut. Reptiles, particularly the bigger ones, possess all the scary qualities which could be dangerous to humans, and qualities which we naturally fear. It’s in our instinct to be wary of them, just as it’s in the instinct of every creature on earth to be wary of humans.
Historically, humans have had a complicated relationship with the reptile world. They are not like mammals, in which we see so many of our own qualities, or even like birds, whom we admire for their beauty and majesty. Reptiles possess qualities that do not align with our own, and we struggle to relate to them because of this. Something in their cold blood is different to ours, and they share a certain likeness with their prehistoric ancestors, who were the largest predators to ever walk the earth.
They don’t look like us. They don’t feel like us. So, they don’t act like us…do they?
Of all the reptiles, snakes are the furthest removed from humans. They don’t even have legs! Perhaps this is why we find it so difficult to relate to them, or to even accept that these animals are sentient. They aren’t like us, and we all know that humans have a pretty terrible reputation for getting along with those that are different from our own tribe.
Pet or predator?
We live alongside more than 3,000 different species of snake. Of these 3,000 species, roughly…
- 600 are venomous
- 200 are deadly and/or capable of seriously injuring a human
- 100 are endangered
- 164 are traded legally across the world
- 4 went extinct in the last 30 years
- 0 are evil.
All are sentient creatures, capable of feeling fear, pain and stress, especially at the hands of humans
Our relationship with snakes has changed drastically from that of our Neanderthal ancestors, and although many rural communities still have good reason to fear a snake-y encounter, only a fraction of people suffer snake-related injuries each year. These occur typically in Latin America, Asia and Africa, and the World Health Organisation record between 81,410 and 137,880 deaths per year. Snakes are undoubtedly animals to be wary of.
On the flip side, how many snakes do humans kill each year? Nearly 35 million snake skins were reported to have been traded internationally since 1975 for fashion purposes – that’s a lot of dead snakes. In Texas, there is an annual snake-killing festival attracting 30,000 people.
Yet, around 200,000 snakes are kept in UK homes as pets, the most common species being ball pythons and corn snakes. You can also legally keep more aggressive snakes, like the Burmese python or rat snake, without a license. Pretty ridiculous, considering a man was killed a couple of years ago after his python choked him to death.
So, what do we really think about snakes? It seems like we can’t make our minds up on whether we fear them, want them dead, or want them to welcome them into our homes. One thing is for certain – their welfare requirements rarely get met, and they suffer a great amount of cruelty at the hands of humans.
The truth behind the trade
Millions of snakes are traded globally. A recent report from World Animal Protection highlights some shocking facts about the global pet snake trade, revealing that millions of ball pythons have been exported from Africa to North America, Asia, and Europe (notably the UK!) in the past decade. The trading of exotic pets is fraught with welfare concerns, and due to the lack of data on wild African pythons, there is no telling what impact this is having on wild snake populations.
“For wild Ball pythons that become exotic pets, concerns about welfare begin the moment they are captured. Stress and potential illness and injury can result at every stage: capture, transportation and handling before they are exported and subsequently imported, through to their arrival in the hands of a breeder or vendor. After that point, their quality of life can diminish even further – they are often made to endure inappropriate long-term storage, intensive captive breeding, captivity stress, and are exposed to further risk of injury and disease.”
– World Animal Protection Report on the legal trade of Ball pythons
In the UK, reptile markets are perfectly legal. Snakes are stuffed into cramped plastic containers, not all too dissimilar from takeaway boxes, and sold to prospective buyers. You don’t need a license to buy a snake – you don’t even need to know how to look after one. The UK pet trade has a shocking lack of regulation for a nation that prides itself on its “high” standards of animal welfare.
Sentience and welfare
The welfare requirements of pet snakes are rarely met, and to put this simply, this is because they are wild animals that cannot be sufficiently cared for at home. Our demonisation of snakes in popular culture has extremely negative consequences on our understanding of these animals, and experts have found snakes to be highly communicative.
Dr Gavin Smith, professor of sociology at the Australian National University and professional “snake remover”, believes that the demonisation of snakes in popular culture has created an unnecessary fear and hatred of these creatures among humans, when instead, we should be leaving them alone. A recent study also found that snakes have “personalities”, exhibiting their individual behaviours.
Scientific research shows that these reptiles are capable of feeling a range of emotions, and are subject to stress, anxiety, pain, suffering, fear and frustration – all commonly experienced by snakes in the exotic pet trade.
Inviting a snake into your home?
Fancy getting a pet python? Calling her Sally and keeping her in a little tank, feeding her frozen mice from your freezer? Hmm, probably not the best idea, and likely to do more damage than good. No matter how much you’d love your slithery friend, she’ll be a product of the cruel industry from which you got her, and she has very specific care requirements that a lot of exotic pet owners struggle to provide.
75% of pet snakes die within one year of being within a human’s home. That’s a pretty shocking statistic and speaks volumes about our ability to keep snakes as pets (or lack thereof).
It’s common practice for snakes to be kept in barren boxes with a small heat lamp. Recent research has proved that this is not a suitable habitat for a snake, and if a snake does not have sufficient room to extend its entire body length, this can lead to musculo-skeletal problems.
Most households fail to even meet the minimum care requirements for pet snakes, with most of these animals living in substandard conditions concerning mobility, shelter and water access.
I think it speaks volumes that the Ball python, one of the most common pet snakes in the UK, is named due to its tendency to curl up into a ball when it’s threatened and stressed. We should never make our companion animals feel like this, but for some reason, this is just a daily reality for many snakes across the world.
This needs to stop.
How can I help?
OneKind is calling for urgent reform of pet vending legislation, and we want politicians to introduce a Positive List of species that are suitable to keep as pets. This measure has been successfully adopted in several EU countries and provides a way to ensure that only animals whose needs can be met in a domestic environment are kept as pets.
For our autumn appeal, we’re asking for your help to ensure that animal welfare issues such as the exotic pet trade, remain on the political agenda. We want the government to create change, and to acknowledge the sentience and care requirements of exotic animals. Your donations allow us to continue campaigning for these changes, and it’s with your help that we’re able to succeed. We can only get Scotland’s animals the protection they so urgently need through your support and generosity.
If you’d like to help put an end to the cruelty facing Scotland’s snakes, please give a gift to our appeal by clicking here.