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Sentient Reptiles Experience Mammalian Emotions

A detailed review of scientific data finds evidence of reptile sentience.

"...the perceptions’ of reptiles that underestimates them as being unintelligent and basic in their animal welfare needs, can mean that they suffer considerably in captivity." —Helen Lambert, Gemma Carder, and Neil D'Cruze

"3 in 4 reptile pets die in the first year—so maybe humans don't deserve them." —Signe Dean

I've always thought that reptiles are fascinating animals, and never doubted that they experience a wide range of emotions and clearly should be recognized as sentient beings. And now, a new research essay called "Given the Cold Shoulder: A Review of the Scientific Literature for Evidence of Reptile Sentience" by Helen Lambert, Gemma Carder, and Neil D'Cruze, shows that a detailed analysis of available literature clearly supports this view of these vertebrates, who are very popular pets and kept by the millions worldwide.1 Along the lines of the above quotation from Signe Dean, Clifford Warwick and his colleagues note that 75 percent of pet reptiles in the U.K. die during their first year at home.2

"Given the Cold Shoulder" is available online for free, so here are a few snippets to whet your appetite for more. The goals of this study were: (1) to assess how reptile sentience appears in features scientific literature, (2) to learn about how different aspects of sentience have been studied and in the reptiles in which they are present, and (3) to outline future research in this area.

To search for evidence of sentience in the scientific literature, Lambert and her colleagues compiled an extensive list of 168 of keywords that were used to refer to traits and various aspects of animal sentience. These words are presented in their Table A1.

 "Given the Cold Shoulder ," Open access
Number of reptile sentience papers published between 1999–2018
Source: "Given the Cold Shoulder ," Open access

The figure on the right clearly shows that research on reptile sentience has increased in the past 20 years. Lambert and her colleagues found 37 studies in which it was assumed that reptiles are capable of feeling "anxiety, stress, distress, excitement, fear, frustration, pain, and suffering." They also found four essays in which researchers reported evidence that reptiles are able to feel pleasure.

Clearly, these discoveries show that reptiles are far more complex than many people realize. They also have practical implications for reptilian welfare; it's essential to know about their emotional lives to provide them with the best care possible—especially when they're kept in various, and often horrific, conditions of captivity. Claims that reptiles aren't sentient and don't experience a wide range of emotions when compared to birds and mammals clearly are incorrect. However, many people use these misleading views to justify keeping reptiles in tiny spaces in which they can hardly move or stretch, with little to no stimulation. (See "Snake Welfare: They Need to Straighten Bodies, Science Says.")

Lambert and her colleagues conclude that reptiles are fully capable of experiencing a range of emotions and states and that we need to use what we know on their behalf. They write, "a better understanding [of their emotional lives] could help to inform a range of different operational initiatives aimed at reducing negative animal welfare impacts, including improved husbandry and consumer behaviour change programmes."

Underestimating the emotional lives of reptiles is contrary to science. I couldn't agree more with the researchers' conclusions. Clearly, mammalian and avian biases regarding sentience are too narrow.

The researchers also include references that provide evidence that fishes also experience various emotions, and there's no reason to exclude amphibians. This information can also lessen the widespread demand for exotic animals. In her book Do Fish Feel Pain, the late Victoria Braithwaite argues, "I have argued that there is as much evidence that fish feel pain and suffer as there is for birds and mammals—and more than there is for human neonates and preterm babies." (Page 153) (See "A Tribute to Dr. Victoria Braithwaite and Sentient Fishes.")

 Marc Bekoff
A stranded turtle I helped rescue from the middle of road, who was clearly distressed and who relaxed when retrieved and relocated.
Source: Marc Bekoff

Stand by for discussions of future research on sentience in a wide variety of animals. It's high time to shelve outdated and unsupported ideas about animal sentience and to factor sentience into all of the innumerable ways in which we encounter other animals.

We also need more comparative studies on their cognitive lives. There's a tendency for fishes, reptiles, and amphibians to be written off as being "not all that smart"—this is also misleading, given available data.

As Lambert and her colleagues stress, it's essential to get this information out to the public, because a wide variety of reptiles are very popular companion animals; far too often, they're severely mistreated because it's assumed that they're dumb and insentient. Nothing could be further from the truth.



1) The researchers write, "Reptiles are a popular pet around the world, with ownership likely to consist of tens of millions of animals, if not more [7]. Accurate numbers of the trade in exotic pets are unavailable due in part to much of it involving illegally wild-caught animals [8]. In the UK, however, between 2018–2019, there were thought to be around 1.7 million reptiles kept as pets in homes [14]. Whereas, in 2017–2018, the USA was thought to have 9.4 million reptiles as pets [15]. The growing demand for reptiles has led to an increase in their removal from the wild, and an increase in captive-bred operations, both of which have considerable welfare implications for the animals involved [16,17,18]." (Numbers refer to references in their essay.)

2) For more discussion of reptile welfare, click here, and for more information on the emotional lives of reptiles click here.

Balcombe, Jonathan. What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2015.

Barnett, Adrian. Tender turtles: Their mums do care after all. New Scientist, March 20, 2013.

Bekoff, Marc. Snake Welfare: They Need to Straighten Bodies, Science Says.

_____. Dogs Just Wanna Have Fun: Birds, Fish, and Reptiles Too.

_____. The Emotional Lives of Reptiles: Stress and Welfare.

_____. A Tribute to Dr. Victoria Braithwaite and Sentient Fishes.

_____. It's Time to Stop Pretending Fishes Don't Feel Pain.

_____. Fishes Show Individual Personalities in Response to Stress.

_____. Fishes Know, Feel, and Care: A Humane Revolution in Progress.

_____. A Universal Declaration on Animal Sentience: No Pretending.

Benn, Amelia, McLelland, David, and Whittaker, Alexandra. A Review of Welfare Assessment Methods in Reptiles, and Preliminary Application of the Welfare Quality® Protocol to the Pygmy Blue-Tongue Skink, Tiliqua adelaidensis, Using Animal-Based Measures. Animals, 2019.

Burghardt, Gordon. Play in fishes, frogs and reptiles. Current Biology, 2015.

Dean, Signe. 3 in 4 Reptile Pets Die in The First Year So Maybe Humans Don't Deserve Them. Science Alert.

Virata, John. First Of Its Kind Welfare Facility For Reptiles Opens In England. Reptiles, August 2, 2018.

Clifford Warwick, Arena, Phillip, Lindley, Samantha, Jessop, Mike, and Steedman, Catrina. Assessing reptile welfare using behavioural criteria. Veterinary Record, 35, 2013.

_____, Fryer F. L., and Murphy, J. B. (Editors). Health and Welfare of Captive Reptiles. Springer, New York, 1994.

_____, Jessop M., Arena P., Pliny A., Nicholas E., and Lambiris A. Future of keeping pet reptiles and amphibians: Animal welfare and public health perspective. Veterinary. Record, 181, 454–455, 2017.

ZooCheck. Reptile Pets Can Experience Poor Welfare.

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