A swaying elephant. A feather-plucked parrot. A pacing tiger. For many exotic animals, the signs of poor welfare in captivity are easy to recognize. But what about reptiles? How can we tell when a snake is suffering? Can a snake suffer?
Reptiles have long been regarded as simple animals with little capacity for learning or emotion. “They’re basically seen as biological robots driven entirely by instinct,” says Meghann Cant, BC SPCA animal welfare educator. “It’s a common misconception.”
However, thanks to a growing interest in reptile cognition and behaviour, the view of reptiles as robots is slowly changing. “We’re discovering more and more about them all the time,” says Cant. Research now shows, for instance, that reptiles can navigate mazes and solve food puzzles. They can also hunt cooperatively and share parental duties. They can even communicate with each other before hatching and play games such as tug-of-war and keep-away.
Clearly, evidence is accumulating that reptiles are more mentally and emotionally complex than previously assumed. “It would seem that snakes can suffer, after all,” says Cant. “All this calls into question the way we’ve traditionally cared for reptiles in captivity.”
Unfortunately, many reptiles are marketed and sold at pet stores across the province as “easy-to-keep” pets for beginners. But no animal with complex – and, in many cases, poorly understood – needs is easy to care for, says Cant. She points to a number of other common but harmful myths about reptiles still being perpetuated:
Reptiles don’t need a lot of space. “There’s a perception that reptiles are sedentary animals,” says Cant. But home range studies of wild reptiles have frequently shown them to be highly active, travelling within local ranges of several hundred square metres or indefinite ranges measured in hundreds or thousands of square kilometres. “Yet snakes are often kept in tanks that don’t even allow them to stretch out in a straight line,” says Cant. “I’ve also seen companies market ‘compact desktop terrariums’ to keep geckos in spaces the size of a laptop!”
Reptiles don’t need a complex environment. “Because it’s presumed that reptiles don’t do a lot, it’s also believed that they can’t get bored,” says Cant. In the wild, however, reptiles have a wide range of activities to choose from – like basking, foraging for food, burrowing, climbing trees, patrolling territory and searching for mates. “Pet stores sell ‘starter kits’ for reptiles that contain few things for them to do beyond perching, hiding, eating and drinking,” says Cant. “Yet they advertise them as having ‘all of the elements you’ll need to make sure your pet thrives’!”
Reptiles don’t need very specialized environmental conditions. “Pet stores routinely tell customers that all reptiles need is a cool area and a warm area to help them regulate their body temperature, and perhaps a mist of water to maintain humidity levels,” says Cant. In contrast, reptiles in the wild are able to move between microhabitats with differing microclimates to meet their needs – not only during the day, but from season to season as well. “Captive environments just can’t replicate this,” says Cant.
Reptiles don’t need specialized nutrition. “Many reptiles in captivity are fed diets consisting entirely of frozen rodents like mice and rats or live insects like crickets and mealworms,” says Cant. Obviously, though, reptiles in the wild have a far more varied diet that provides different scents, tastes, textures and nutrition – not to mention foraging challenges. “Again, there’s a misconception that reptile diets are simple,” says Cant.
The bottom line? According to Cant, these myths about reptiles are not only harmful because of the suffering they can cause, they also stand in the way of us truly understanding these fascinating animals. “Sure, we can keep them alive in captivity, but we need to ask ourselves whether they’re thriving in our care,” she says.
For more information on the BC SPCA’s stance on exotic pets, visit spca.bc.ca/exotics.
The British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is a not-for-profit organization reliant on public donations. Our mission is to protect and enhance the quality of life for domestic, farm and wild animals in B.C.