Snakes need space just like all other animals

By Rob Laidlaw

Imagine being in a tiny tank, drawer or container where you can’t even stretch out.

While understanding of the basic biological, behavioural and social needs of wild animals in captivity has grown substantially in recent decades, some animals are still subjected to longstanding, outdated, inhumane husbandry conditions and management, often called folklore husbandry. Many folklore husbandry practices and beliefs are widespread in reptile keeping and exist because they’re “tradition or because they are cheaper and more convenient for animal keepers.

We now know that reptiles and many other so-called lower creatures possess cognitive, emotional and social capabilities that were not recognized or understood in the past. Today, it’s established that reptiles are not biological robots that live entirely by instinct, but are complex, thinking, feeling, sentient animals with lives and interests of their own.

Unfortunately, however, reptiles, and particularly snakes, are routinely kept in folklore husbandry situations, one of the more egregious of those practices being their keeping in spaces that deny them an opportunity to achieve normal postural adjustments (such as stretching out for snakes) or to move naturally. Snakes are unique in that they are one of the few, perhaps the only, animal that is routinely not allowed to stretch out, even though there is overwhelming scientific evidence that stretching their bodies is a basic biological need of snakes.

In the wild, snakes may periodicallly stretch out to a straightline body posture or move forward in a straight line, called rectilinear locomotion. They may adopt straightline postures along natural or artificial features or in other areas for comfort, safety, to aid in digestion, thermoregulatory purposes or for other reasons. Just last week I encountered a native Ontario gray rat snake in a straightline posture warming itself on a bicycle path. After a few minutes of observation I moved the snake to a safe location off the path and then moved on.

Snakes in research studies, when given an opportunity, regularly move from small areas to larger areas where they periodically assume straightline postures for a portion of their time. Independent scientific groups and animal welfare organizations throughout the world now acknowledge the need for snakes to stretch.

Many existing laws and policies mandate that dogs, cats and a wide range of other animals be able to achieve normal movements and postural adjustments but snakes are conveniently, and unscientifically, not afforded the same consideration. Today the scientific evidence for snakes needing to stretch is superior to that available for nearly all other terrestrial animals and it tells us that policy-makers, anti-cruelty enforcement officials, advocates and animal keepers need to rethink what snakes need, how they are kept and how to better protect their welfare.

Zoocheck has been working to improve the husbandry and care of reptiles and other exotic animals in Canada for decades. Our work on dozens of local and provincial legislative campaigns, pushing for better enforcement practices, educating animal welfare professionals, policy-makers and others about reptile and exotic animal welfare and conducting numerous investigations has raised the bar for exotics, but there is still much to do. We’re very pleased that today more attention is being paid to reptiles but the broader suite of much-needed, long overdue changes that snakes and other reptiles deserve is only just beginning.

Folklore husbandry conditions are still common in the pet trade sector, exotic animal and reptile expos, mobile zoos and roadside zoos.  In fact, you can see them in most places where captive reptiles are found. Zoocheck will continue to do everything possible to achieve a new, humane exotic animal paradigm in Canada to improve the lives of these often forgotten animals.

Click here to read the paper Getting It Straight: Accommodating Rectilinear Behaviour in Captive Snakes – A Review of Recommendations and Their Evidence Base.