Snake Welfare: They Need to Straighten Bodies, Science Says

The welfare of snakes is set to suffer as UK ignores scientific evidence.

Posted Sep 25, 2018

This is a guest essay by consultant biologist and medical scientist Clifford Warwick. His co-edited book titled Health and Welfare of Captive Reptiles is one of the world’s leading scientific volumes dedicated to reptile welfare. Keeping reptiles and amphibians as companion animals (pets) raises many ecological and ethical questions, and I'm pleased to publish this piece about the welfare of captive, sentient snakes. 

"Reptiles and amphibians don’t make good pets 'and should not be part of the pet trade'.”  (Lorelei Tibbetts

"For decades, the best evidence, including reptile-specific scientific and veterinary reports, has made clear the need for snakes to straighten their bodies as an essential welfare element." 

Snakes have five well-known movement styles: ‘rectilinear’ (straight-line), ‘concertina’ (straight, then bent, then straight, and so on), ‘sidewinding’ (diagonal then straight then bent, then straight etc.), ‘serpentine lateral undulation’ (typical ‘snaking’ motion), ‘sliding behavior’ (like descending a drainpipe upside-down), and ‘flying’ (air gliding from tree-to-tree). 

All these styles involve frequent periods of straight or near straight line body postures, and such postures are also commonly adopted during rest. Also, all known species of snake naturally stretch out. So important is stretching out that there are at least 22 conditions of stress, injury, and disease associated with snakes being confined in small enclosures. For decades, the best evidence, including reptile-specific scientific and veterinary reports, has made clear the need for snakes to straighten their bodies as an essential welfare element. 

 PETA (Daphna Dachminovich)
Snake 'racks' commonly used by the pet industry prevent snakes from straightening their bodies and compromise welfare.
Source: PETA (Daphna Dachminovich)

Unsurprisingly, the UK government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (‘Defra’), which deals with animal welfare, long possessed this snake information, as well as specific high-level guidance from the British Veterinary Zoological Society—one of the UK’s leading veterinary groups, the RSPCA—Britain’s biggest animal welfare organisation, the Animal Protection Agency, and independent experts. All this expert information implied the same thing—snakes require the ability to straighten and ‘stretch’ their bodies to maintain comfort and/or health. Accordingly, for the first time under the 2006 Animal Welfare Act, snakes were to be formally allowed the somewhat modest provision of cages as long as their bodies when fully straightened—the so-called ‘1 x snake length’ provision. 

But, despite years of accumulated objective information on snake biology and welfare, the ‘1 x snake length’ provision vanished furtively almost overnight from the rulebook because the UK government chose wildlife trade over welfare. On this snake story, that is the ‘long and short’ of it—and this is the ‘how and why’ of it!

Even though better housing for snakes was on the horizon, more substance was given to the government’s civil servants to underscore the importance of the ‘1 x snake length’ provision. Towards this, Defra was sent the world’s definitive scientific reference guidance on animal husbandry published weeks prior to their own unscientific guidelines. 

However, upon the publication of the government’s guidelines, a major omission (or erasure) became apparent. The firmly embedded ‘1 x snake length’ provision had gone, leaving a strangely and abruptly aborted table of information. Where had it gone? Well, after five years in the making, Defra deleted the provision at the last minute. Why? Defra claimed that none of the material on file was ‘clear’ and that the scientific guidance (which included an extensive review confirming snakes need to stretch out their bodies at will) had arrived ‘too late’ for inclusion. 

Clifford Warwick
All snakes require the ability to fully extend their bodies for their comfort, health and welfare.
Source: Clifford Warwick

To some (though not many), that might sound reasonable, despite a (then) current invitation being in circulation for animal welfare groups to comment on the government’s draft regulations. Reasonable, that is, until one learns that Defra deleted the snake welfare provision weeks after receiving the new and genuine evidence-based information, and just days before formal publication. Pressed for answers, Defra replied that they had been sent late stage ‘information’ from the “herpetocultural and veterinary literature which found that many snakes did not need to be accommodated in an enclosure 1x their length.” And who sent this undoubtedly false ‘intelligence’? Defra confirmed the source to be a single reptile trade representative! 

If that failure in duty of care in objective decision-making wasn’t bad enough, then further questions to Defra certainly proved to be. It transpired that there never was any ‘herpetocultural and veterinary literature’ provided to the Defra officials—none. Unless that is, one believes ‘herpetocultural and veterinary literature’ to mean one typed letter from a pet trade veterinarian protesting that enclosures allowing snakes to straighten their bodies would be unnecessary! Absolute nonsense, of course, and of course there’s more of this nonsense—Defra also admitted to deleting the welfare provision without consulting the stakeholder group that previously agreed on its inclusion.

More to the point—and this is what got Defra interested in the first place—the trade-veterinarian was concerned about the impact that giving snakes more space would have on the industry. Currently, dealers keep thousands of snakes cramped into ‘tupperware’ draws or ‘racks’, and changing that is bad for business. In fact, where businesses sell to other businesses, Defra lowered the bar still further by exempting traders from any cage sizing at all.

‘Impact on business’ was probably all the motivation Defra needed to take away this basic ability for a snake to stretch out. Is the UK’s ‘environment and animal welfare department’ (Defra, or just its officials) now so lackadaisical about evidential quality that a complaint about ‘too big cages’ by a wildlife trade-friendly vet can be suitably ‘balanced’ against a raft of scientific reports to the contrary? Or has Defra slid further into the hands of vested interest coercion? Or is some instructional bias in favour of the wildlife trading industry being handed down from Defra’s Secretary of State?

Bizarrely, although the ‘AWA’ is often hailed as a model for others to follow, the UK now actually trails many other countries’ conditions for animal housing, including for snakes. Worse, and contrary to Defra’s claim of needing to consider the impact of welfare provisions on trade practices, there is no such principle in law or obligation under the AWA to consider welfare ‘impact’ against the wants of industry in this way. For now, at least, snakes will continue to suffer in cramped conditions as long as the government’s own snakes hold out in the grass.

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