The study follows a recent and highly criticised move by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to delete a stipulation that snakes caged in pet shops should be able to fully stretch their bodies. Defra deleted the so-called ‘1 x snake length' provision after a complaint by a pet-trade associated veterinary clinic in Swindon - which, extraordinarily, wanted the welfare-oriented rule dropped.
The new article, ‘Spatial considerations for captive snakes
', researched by three leading reptile experts and further informed by some of the world's top veterinary clinicians, reviewed almost 100 publications on snake biology, welfare and caging, and also conducted research at eight zoos.
During just one hour observation periods at zoo exhibits, 37% of snakes adopted straight or near straight-line postures, confirming that when allowed enough space to stretch, they do exactly that! The authors concluded: "…snakes utilize and biologically need considerable space as part of their normal lifestyles…captive snakes may be the only vertebrates where management policy commonly involves deprivation of the essential ability and welfare need to voluntarily straighten their bodies." The authors go on to say keeping snakes in enclosures where they cannot fully stretch is unscientific and unethical and should not be tolerated.
The article blames pseudoscientific information and outdated practices among the pet trade and snake keepers for perpetuating ‘myths' surrounding ‘folklore husbandry' that keeping snakes in tiny enclosures is consistent with their welfare, stating: "Common justifications for spatially minimalistic enclosures and husbandry practices involving snakes in general are based on a number of beliefs, including that snakes are sedentary, insecure in large environments, do not use space, suffer from agoraphobia (anxiety related to open spaces) and anorexia, and further that snakes thrive in small spaces…" and points to "…typically unscientific, often anecdotal, information communicated via keeper-to-keeper, hobbyist forums and magazines, trade and amateur herpetological groups, and ‘care sheets' developed by vested interests."
The authors emphasise that whilst captive snakes in general may endure significant hardship, the ‘racking' system of Tupperware-like boxes and similar cages commonly used by snake breeders and sellers in particular impose many behavioural and physical health problems on these animals, and should not be legally tolerated.
Says Clifford Warwick, reptile biologist and lead author of the study: "The findings of this study will come as no surprise to advanced herpetologists, zoo managers, veterinarians or conscientious keepers familiar with snake biological and husbandry needs - not least given that many already practice or surpass the minimal standards that we recommend. For decades, caged snakes have literally had almost no room to move - now there should be no room for such abuse."
Says Elaine Toland, Director, Animal Protection Agency: "The APA has long argued that snakes, like any other animals, need to fully stretch their bodies for their wellbeing. The tired old claims by those who peddle and keep snakes that these animals do not need spacious environments as an essential component of their welfare have been fully put to rest by this study."