WHY YOU SHOULDN’T HAVE A SNAKE AS A PET
This article is dedicated to deepen many of the issues related to snakes and their social and ecological importance. It is intended to be an appeal to social awareness and to the competent authorities, as part of an echo of an increasingly extensive public opinion.
So the topic will be treated with the seriousness, respect and attention it deserves.
Not all animals serve as pets. And I say “they serve”, because that seems to be the meaning we want to give to the lives of so many animals. Francis Bacon’s idea that science as a technique could give man dominion over nature, has been taken literally, man as a species feels superior in everything; on the other hand, that challenging claim to dominate the Earth is something that has always characterized man.
In fact it is so; We treat plants and animals as inferior to ourselves. They have no soul, some say. They have no intellect, they are guided by instinctive patterns. As if we didn’t.
The fact is, that the planet on which we have been forced to establish our existence as a species, is full of resources and, logically, we have wanted to use them to improve our lifestyle. This thought seems, as I say, reasonable and even understandable.
Why not improve our lifestyle? Greater comfort, longer life expectancy. Greater enjoyment. It’s related to the fact of wanting to improve, so as we say, it could be convenient and even legitimate. But only as long as the existence of the others do not cause harm. In this you will agree with me.
Neither wants to see favor, prosper or benefit others to the detriment and damage of their own well-being and that of their family. In this case the idea of “others” should be extended to all nature, including animals, which in this case must suffer for our trivial enjoyment.
And since we feel so superior, our thoughts, feelings and especially our actions should also be superior. In this sense, the great Fernando Savater said: “… unlike other beings, living or inanimate, we men can find new solutions and choose at least partially our way of life. We can choose what seems fair to us, and therefore convenient for us, and avoid what seems to do us wrong or that is not convenient for us. But since we can choose, we can also be wrong, something that does not happen to beavers, bees and termites. So it seems better to reflect well on what we do and seek to obtain a certain knowledge of living that allows us to choose well. This knowing how to live, or the art of living if you prefer, is what we call ethics.”
Perhaps this is what makes us different from animals and “superior”, the ability to “choose well. “
Therefore, also in this case, choosing a pet is very important. We must know how to “choose well” our pet. Not all are suitable and those that say they are, because they are legal, we must know how to choose them well, not only according to our tastes, whims and conditions, but also taking into account the characteristics of the animal and the genuine habitat where it comes from.
In this regard, there are many who believe that any animal can serve as a pet iftheconditions similar to those that would live in its natural habitat are simulated. It is enough to put them in their showcase with their firewood trunks, some stones, fake seedlings and even some infrared lamp so that they are warm. All very cool.
But it is cruel. Don’t you think we must not forget that they will be a companion in our lives, one more in the family and therefore we must be sure that we can offer them the appropriate conditions not only to survive, but also to make them happy. A glass showcase is very far from the idea of happiness. Would you do that with your mother or your child?
At this point, I know that many of you will say that animals have no feelings and therefore cannot feel happiness or sadness. But I rather than go against your beliefs I would like to propose another point of view, which like yours could also be valid.
I do not know if you have heard of Tommaso Campanella, perhaps in philosophy classes, he was one of the considered magician philosophers along with Giordano Bruno, to whom even an asteroid, 4653 Tommaso, has been dedicated. He said that all things, also animals and plants, were aware of themselves. That they were endowed with an innate knowledge and love for themselves. A kind of self-awareness.
In some way animals intuit themselves and feel themselves. Animals notice the changes bynoticing their environment, through their sensitivity. When they feel a hostile change around them, they adapt to conserve their own life, by the principle of survival, generally escaping.
Bruno also said that all things could have different degrees of sensitivity, a different spiritual dimension, he called it. Through which things communicate with each other. Since the “level of consciousness” is not exclusive only to man, but also belongs to beings considered inferior. In other words, animals can also have sensitivity. “Things,” said Bruno, ” do not change, because there is no change of being, but a change of the ‘way of being ‘.
Today the visionary and medieval thought of Bruno and Campanella, who in their time was considered heresy and for which they gave their lives, constitutes one of the most important arguments in the defense of the dignity of animals.
The sensitivity does not belong exclusively to man but extends to all animals and plants, which endowed it in different ways and levels, is a consciousness of themselves, giving them a dignity that can not be ignored.
TALKING ABOUT FEELINGS
A snake when it stares at you is not because it expresses a feeling towards you, that’s sure, they probably neither wants nor tries to interact with you. Moreover, even if they perceive you, surely you will scare them or at the best they will ignore you.
Chances are they are adjusting to the environment around and trying to survive. This does not mean that they don’t have a certain sensitivity, that ability to perceive sensations through the senses and therefore to feel, at least towards themselves and towards the stimuli that interest them for their survival, which obviously is very likely not be you, as much as you are nice or affectionate with them.
What I mean is that animals have different levels of sensitivity, as Bruno and Campanella said. Depending on the animal species to which they belong and the degree of sensitivity they have with their environment, their adaptability to captivity and domesticity will depend.
The dog is a good example, as you know it is a subspecies of the wolf (Canis lupus) a wild species that has adapted to the presence of man after a long time, comes from an ancestor of more than 30,000 years and has been domesticated evolving together with the man sharing habits, food and lifestyle. Yes, they have become familiar to human life and customs, but let us not forget that after many centuries of joint evolution.
This long life in common has allowed them to develop a certain degree of sensitivity towards us, which allows them to interact even with our human feelings.
The dog as well as other animals, can somehow capture our emotions (but it is a special case) and consequently interact with us; we could dare to say, with a certain “natural freedom and will”. That is why dogs seem to be at ease and show affinity with us humans.
But other animals, like snakes, do not have this affinity, let alone our life habits, imagine with our feelings.
Let us not delude ourselves with illusions, which only hide too irrational and unjustified whims. Snakes are not appropriate as pets. They do not serve as pets.
As you can see, I have used the word “serve” again, which certainly sounds fatal, because at the end this is the reason why we pay, in this case for a snake. We buy it to serve as a pet. Nothing is further from reality. The company that a snake can give you is only illusory, at the first opportunity they find, they will leave their fabulous glass cage and seek freedom, far from your presence. They will desperately try to adapt to the new environment and will probably succeed, causing great changes in the ecosystems of other species and therefore altering them, but it will also cause damage to man.
Although relatively rare, deaths by snakebite, should not be underestimated. We have a foolish habit of reducing the priority and importance of a problem based on the volume of its cover.
In this case I want to point out that although objectively it seems like a minor problem, since the cases of death from snake-pet bites in captivity are even more unusual, in reality this problem hides a whole social, economic and public health problem that the governments and in particular the Ministry of Justice cannot ignore it.
” The fact that accidents with exotic snakes occur in Europe is already an unquestionable reality, as reflected in the data that has been scientifically provided by various countries.” Report of the Health Technology Assessment Agency (AETS). Carlos III Health Institute. Madrid, 2012.
We can say that death from a snake-pet bite in captivity, even if only from one person, is an alert chime, signaling a much greater danger. The tip of an iceberg.
THE ISSUE BEHIND ILLEGAL AND LEGAL TRAFFIC OF SNAKES
Although it is indeed very difficult to determine the extent of the network through which extends this problem, we must consider that there are very few studies concerning s snakes in general, because in the beginning were an animal of low interest to science and frequently condemned in many cultures that feared it precisely because of their dangerousness, and even fewer are more accurate reports of the health consequences of both legal and illegal trafficking in snakes.
In practice, it is very difficult to determine whether a snakebite produced in a vegetation-related environment (be it a field or a city garden) comes from a pet snake escaped from their captivity. In general, the specimen is not found, making it difficult to identify the species in question. On the other hand, the fact that it occurs in the field does not necessarily determine that it was an autochthonous snake and not a “pet”. So the few confirmed cases (of snake-pet bite) are limited to events that occurred in the owners’ environment. But how many cases of bites in general will there be caused by snake-pets that cannot be determined?
What cannot be ignored is that having a pet-snake, legal or not, poisonous or not, is a risk of a potential danger to society and public health in general.
Many will say that if they are not poisonous, they are not dangerous. This thought apparently could have some logic, if it were not that it denies a fundamental right of every citizen, the right of custody of their health, both physical and emotional (because the initial shock and the anxiety and uncertainty that it may be poisonous and for so deadly is not to be underestimated); but it also puts citizen security at risk with an “accepted” but uncontrolled crime that denotes, in addition, an intolerable lack of responsibility in a society of law.
¿ Who determines that any snake-pet getaway is deprived of danger? Theowner? The health or government authorities?
In addition to the fright inherent in any encounter with a snake, it should be considered that it is one thing to encounter an indigenous snake that is part of the natural environment where we find ourselves (and therefore is a recognized, required and accepted risk); and another very different, is to find an unknown specimen, whose potential danger has not been calculated by the health authorities, since they have no records of its existence in that area and no less appropriate antidotes in the case it was poisonous.
Would it be fair, according to you, to expose the population to this potential risk taking into account that an undetermined part of these pet snakes come from illegal trafficking, so that their origin and their potential danger are totally unknown?
It is evident the responsibility that the government and the Ministry of Justice in particular have to put limits on this trade (both legal and illegal) of snakes. The motivations for which this urgent intervention is necessary at this point should be obvious, but below we will expose more widely how far it goes and what is the origin of this trade network that exposes the population of Spain in this case, but also of the world, to such an unnecessary and unjustified health risk.
THE ILLEGAL AND LEGAL TRADE IN SNAKES:
AN IMPULSE TO THE AUTHORITIES
Despite the evident difficulty in determining its extension, the binding correlation of this fact (deaths from snake-pet bites) and snake trafficking in general can be intuited with relative clarity.
It is not a mystery that some of the deaths, as well as serious health injuries (such as amputations, kidney and respiratory failure, and even permanent disabilities) have been caused by snakebites in general, potentially and presumably also by snakebites-pets, let’s not forget. So the snake trade is undoubtedly a public health priority as well.
The morbidity and mortality associated with snakebites is a public health problem in many regions of the world, particularly in rural areas where they lack adequate health services in general, even more so for this type of health emergency.
SNAKE BITE: A RISK TO AVOID
The number of deaths attributed to snakebites depends on the geographical area. Although sub-Saharan Africa, the Neotropics, equatorial and subtropical areas report the highest number of bites, also in Australia, North America and Europe, South and Southeast Asia are frequent.
Although the risk of a bite can be reduced with basic preventive measures such as the use of protective footwear and avoiding the places where these animals usually live, the fact is that every year tens of thousands of people die from snake bites and many others report serious health injuries.
Worldwide, an estimated 2.5 million bites occur from venomous snakes alone, causing some 125,000 deaths.
The actual number may be much higher as there are many gaps in the controls and data records. Snake bites can be deadly if not treated quickly. Due to their small size, children are at increased risk of death and serious complications from such bites.
Therefore, in the world there are around 5.4 million people a year bitten by snakes, of which between 1.8 and 2.7 million are caused by poisonous snakes.
Of the latter (venomous snakes), there are between 81,000 and 138,000 deaths a year and around three times that is, between 243,000 and 414,000 report serious health injuries, amputation, severe kidney and respiratory failure and permanent disability.
The data worldwide is chilling, you will say. And although the data evidently decrease dramatically at the national level, the intrinsic importance of the fact does not diminish, which is justified by itself and not by its scope in numbers.
The bites of venomous snakes can cause paralysis, respiratory arrest, bleeding disorders threatening, irreversible actual failure and tissue damage that may require amputation and cause other permanent disabilities.
According to the Report of the Agency for Health Technology Assessment (AETS). Carlos III Health Institute. Madrid, 2012.
Every year in Spain there are an average of about 130 snake bites that require hospitalization and medical treatment, although statistically only 1 in 100 causes death according to a study by the Carlos III Health Institute (ISCIII).
” In all cases, illegal possession is associated with a null provision of antivenom serum, which establishes a latent problem with unforeseeable consequences that clearly the health and administrative authorities must take into consideration.” Report of the Health Technology Assessment Agency (AETS). Carlos III Health Institute. Madrid, 2012.
At this point, given the seriousness of the fact, that at least in the case of poisonous snake-pets it can be avoided with adequate legislation, the authorities should proceed with determination according to their responsibility and competence and act accordingly before exposing this risk, even if only to a single citizen.
It’s not perhaps the duty of every government to guarantee a safe health insurance system? Especially when the potential risk is unnecessary and vain?;
How is it that the eccentricity or craving (some would say) of having a potentially dangerous for society snake-pet and the profit from a “non-transparent” trade behind it, is a priority to the right to guarantee a safe health system?
Also to consider, that this potential danger extends to the social-economic level, given that the trade that exists behind the legal and illegal trade in snakes, promotes illegal contraband actions and favors an undeclared shadow economy.
Quite a challenge for the authorities, you will say, given the lack of reliable data with which to contrast, the limited international collaboration and the difficulty in determining responsibilities and competencies, they are obstructed in acting at the legal level.
This don’t exempt them from their responsibility and the duty to protect citizens within their competence, at least at the national level, with legislation that guarantees greater protection from the danger posed also by the illegal and legal trade in snakes.
THE “ILLEGALITY” OF THE LEGAL TRADE IN SNAKES
Many of you will wonder why put the “legal” trade in this case of snakes under caution and greater control.
In this ” business” we could put many other inappropriate species to keep at home as pets, that is the so called domestic, both animals and plants, since the issue of illegal trafficking of animals and plants in general and their “parts” it does not remains here, as you can guess, this is just the tip of an iceberg, as we have said before, of enormous and infamous dimensions that every decent and honest government should dismantle, but we will talk about and expand on that in another occasion.
Returning to the previous question, the reason is very clear, it is obvious from the close relationship between legal and illegal trade. In fact, the legal trade in specimens is the “lawful door” for the illegal trade in specimens of both prohibited animals and commercial plants, legislatively speaking.
“ Currently there are very few authorized collections of foreign poisonous snakes existing in Spain. Although there are no precise data on private collectors in possession of clandestine specimens, their existence is evidenced through accidents that have occasionally occurred in our country, by similar experiences in other European countries and especially by a flourishing market of exotic fauna manifested in the different supply systems that today are within the reach of a great majority. ” Report of the Health Technology Assessment Agency (AETS). Carlos III Health Institute. Madrid, 2012.
Despite the aforementioned shortage of official data, their joint payroll cannot be denied in any way. It’s perceivable that the overall trade in non – traditional domestic specimens has become an exotic bazaar increasingly demanded by extravagant or special tastes but sometimes also anomalous ones.
Not always pets meet friendly owners that with very good intentions tries to take care of their best (these that are like this) and that is just curious and attracted by the strangeness and uniqueness that has to have one beast of those features living with them in their house; but they are also marketed for meat “guourmet” (monkeys, birds, snakes, etc ), use of their glands for perfumes or drugs (although synthetic drugs paradoxically are allowing the decrease of the use of these components), organ parts or fangs as a simple “suovenir”, amulet or restorative, etc. People’s fantasy sometimes proves infinite.
In the case of snakes, in addition to what has been said, they are also bought for a banal and superficial motivation: to joke around with friends. The typical behavior. There are numerous and well-known studies that show that more often people with low self-esteem look for small challenges in their daily lives to reaffirm themselves, that is, they seek to give themselves small gratifying accredit and assert to themselves and others, in this case exhibiting how brave and cool they are at challenging a potentially dangerous or at least enigmatic snake.
They use the snake to elevate their ego because a common puppy is too banal and not very exclusive to them. Curiously, this “courage” to show to be brave, is attached to the recklessness, so these are the moments when mostly snake-bites of pets occurs.
Returning to animal trafficking, the scarce, but existing “official” data on sporadic but increasingly frequent seizures attest to this. But it’s more than enough. Therefore it is a fact, it is useless to want to look elsewhere and deny the evidence. As we have said before, it is enough to see the tip of the iceberg to notice the rest that is hidden underneath.
The lack of data points to a problem in the institutions that must be solved, indicates a weak social and public health system.
Collecting reliable statistical data becomes an increasingly decisive need to be able to act with greater determination and justification in order to be able to control and limit this submerged market.
The transparency, consistency and specification at the legislative level is essential and necessary.
The laws must be clear and precise, without inaccuracies, gaps, conflicts or omissions, where the clandestine trade could divert their networks of interest.
A decisive legislation to protect abuses and death to all non – traditional pets, which should be included snakes “in general”. Let’s not forget that snakes are used for an unnecessary and banal activity, (since there are animals better adapted naturally and evolutionarily to become our pets and companions of man).
¿ Why infer further about the suffering caused by the death for their pelts or bodies, or by ill – treatment involving the poor conditions of transport and storage?; In short, for a futile unjustified and unnecessary desire that only some unreasonable or poor-informed people reap benefit, in a more capricious than reasonably healthy enjoyment?
It is important to know the real impact it is having this trade in hiding a whole criminal plot. And I say criminal, because it exposes a part of the world population to submerged crime by proposing illegal actions, such as the indiscriminate hunting of protected (and unprotected) animals.
Furthermore, isn’t it a criminal act to put people’s health and lives at risk, as well as risking the lives of many animals unnecessarily? Or is it that perhaps now, we do not want to see the importance and the scope that is insinuated under this trade?
According to the Report of the Agency for Health Technology Assessment (AETS). Carlos III Health Institute. Madrid, 2012, the risk is recognized:
“ In the opinion of the experts of the meeting, although it is a rare problem, it is serious; and therefore specific official mechanisms should be established for contingencies of this type. After learning about the situation regarding clandestine exotic snakes in Spain, described in his presentation by Dr. Méndez García, and the clear increase in the possession of these species in private homes with the consequent risk, it seems necessary a debate on the possibility that in Spain should be a protocolized way of proceeding and accessing serums of non-native snakes beyond the particular contact between the interested parties”.
The lack of data or when there is, contradictory, only shows a hidden reality that must come to light and of course it cannot be an excuse for not acting accordingly.
It is difficult to estimate the scope, but that does not silence the importance and the need to intervene at the legislative level before the problem spills over.
An effective measure as a legislative solution would be to protect all non-domestic animals naturally, paying special attention to the exceptions that should be consulted and selected by expert criteria on environmental issues and not simply for commercial or social economic interests.
However, theserestrictive solutions at the legislative level, the report of the Agency for Health Technology Assessment (AETS). Carlos III Health Institute. Madrid, 2012, do not think they are so effective:
” As far as we know, legislative restrictions on tenure, such as those that have already been established by certain Autonomous Communities, are not particularly useful in avoiding the possession of these dangerous species.”
That an action is inefficient and not valid enough given the difficulty of acting around it, does not mean that it should not be contemplated in the law and therefore allowed. Then, with the same criteria, the possession of weapons should be allowed (since it is impossible to avoid their possession in real life), in the same way it should also allow and not limit thefts, murders and all illegal activities, since in the social reality it’s still happening despite existing legal veto.
Shouldn’t we, instead, increase resources around the control over the observance of the law, originally made with common sense and convenient for the welfare of society?
Obviously, a detriment of some specific commercial interests in the sector and the occasional social lament are foreseen, which the government will have to face in favor of common sense and global environmental well-being with which this legislative initiative is proposed.
THE ILLEGAL TRADE IN ANIMALS
It all starts with the capture of a scared animal at their point of origin. That is, in their natural habitat. Can you imagine the despair? I will respectfully allow myself to remember Kunta Kinte, to guide us on an imaginary journey (that it’s not so imaginary after all), to allow us to better understand this situation, how cruel it is.
Because something similar happened to him, do you remember the famous series based on real events? Together with him, along with his dignity although human, similar also to that of animals, we can still relive his cruel, absurd and unjust history and that of his relatives, in so many animals that get into a strange and absurd journey similar to that he made, towards an unknown place, cruelly snatched from his home. A journey that for many will end their lives before reaching their destination. If we who call ourselves humans have been so cruel to our own similes, what can we expect them to do with animals considered inferior?
Precisely, the capture of these unfortunate animals begins in places where the poor living conditions leave much to be desired, which is why many people tempted by the lack of sufficiently remunerated work, the lack of citizen security and driven by the lack of their own resources see in this activity, an easy and comfortable earning opportunity (as well as sometimes necessary to survive). The typical and habitual workmanship where the base levels of common crime are generated.
On the journey, traffickers obviously try to keep alive the largest number of specimens, (each specimen represents an amount of money), even so, the loss of some specimens does not seem to mean large decreases in profits, so the conditions for their transfer isnot usually optimal, many animals die on the way due to excessive heat, cold, lack of oxygen, food or water, infections or from being crushed.
At the destination is the real problem, the demand. This activity generates legal but also illegal businesses, where large amounts of money are moved, but not only of living specimens, but also dead ones (due to their skins, fangs, meat, feathers, etc.)
Specifically, for snakes, their growing vogue on the market in recent years has increased their demand. Their particular flaky skin, with a great variety of colors and appearances, their particular morphology and exotic characteristics are attractive for clients looking for a “special” pet and for collectors or clients who see sophisticated ornaments or souvenirs on their skins using them to decorate objects such as boots, bags, wallets and even violins and cellos.
” As Professor Whitehead (1970) quoted to explain the “curiosity cabinets” that became fashionable in the thirteenth century for the sake of “… the veneration of the rare, the unusual, the wonderful and the miraculous…”, we find today terrariums inhabited by the most dangerous known snakes, for the most absurd and reckless reasons; sometimes close to a histrionic personality disorder. In all cases, these terrariums are maintained without the prior provision of antivenom serums. In any case, we do not know its whereabouts until the very moment the dreaded accident occurs and in many cases sadly show us that the scientific spirit that guided the passions and wills of man for centuries, have served these irresponsible people with little purpose. We return somehow to those reviled “menageries” and as if they were “fair monsters”, the marketing we are now attending offers us at the highest price aberrant mutations of species, strange chromatisms and strange hybridizations, without anything care for these fascinating creatures.” Report of the Health Technology Assessment Agency (AETS). Carlos III Health Institute. Madrid, 2012
Even for the protein in their meat theyare hunted and used in traditional medicine, so it is not as rare as one might think to find their meat for sale. Specifically, rattlesnake meat is highly prized for their supposed anti-cancer and anti-diabetes properties, despite research showing that their therapeutic properties are not due to their meat, but to the toxins of their venom, but that is something that ignorance (and the money obtained from its sale) is not interested.
As the Report of the Health Technology Assessment Agency (AETS) says. Carlos III Health Institute. Madrid, 2012.:
” The alarm created in this case is fully justified in relation to the clear increase in the possession of venomous snake species in private homes and the potential threat to their environment. The ease of acquiring any specimen is evident by browsing the Internet for a moment. Moreover, when we observe the growing organization of reptile fairs in which it is not difficult to acquire or get contacts for it. Currently, up to 121 similar events are held in Europe, distributed in the following countries: Austria (8), Belgium (3), Czech Republic (9), Denmark (4), France (9), Germany (42), Hungary (2), Italy (16), the Netherlands (7), Slovakia (1), Slovenia (1), Spain (3), Switzerland (10) and England (6).”
Spain, due to its strategic geographical location and its traditionally Latin ties, has become one of the gateways (together with the Czech Republic) for mafias in this sector to Europe.
Spain, therefore, is a link in the trade of Latin American and African species (since it also borders geographically with Africa), in addition, in recent years it has become a leading importer of exotic animals not only from these areas but also from Eastern Asia.
The business is estimated to move between 8,000 and 20,000 million euros a year in the world. A figure not to be underestimated.
Between 2006 and 2016, around 4.5 million specimens that were part of the list of species protected by the Cites International Convention were imported into Spain.
According to SEPRONA the illegal trafficking of animals is the “4th most lucrative illegal commerce at global level “
“The estimations of the Interpol report that the crime against the environment is the one that greater growth is experiencing internationally, primarily motivated by the great economic benefit the specialized criminal networks get by operating in this kind of dealing.”
” According to the reports of the United Nations and INTERPOL, the environmental crimes are found as the fourth most lucrative illegal shop in the world behind the trafficking of drugs, counterfeiting products and human trafficking. Their earnings are estimated between 91,000 and 258,000 million dollars annually, at a rate of growth of 5 to 7%, also this year. ” SEPRONA, Guardia Civil, (Ministery for the Ecological Transition and the Demographic Challenge.
As far as this legal or illegal traffic is concerned, it has become one of the main causes of loss of biodiversity throughout the world, of which Spain, as one of the main gateways to Europe, plays a crucial role and determinant, whose responsibility cannot be ignored.
Spain is one of the European and world countries with the highest demand for snake skin and reptile-pets.
” The most significant traffic is that of reptiles, mainly pelt. Spain is the country where the largest number of skins in the world is seized, accumulating almost a third of the total (11,600 skins between 2005 and 2012) ”. WWF / Adena Species trafficking.
TRAFFIC OF ANIMAL SPECIES IN SPAIN
According to the WWF report “Spain has imported 4.5 million CITES specimens, of which more than half correspond to reptiles (2,553,000 units ) -mainly skins-“
Between 2005 and 2012, more than 14,000 specimens have been seized (WWF source), not counting 19,744 specimens with an administrative file opened between 2013 and 2014. In the last decade, an average of 3,330 CITES specimens have been seized per year ( source WWF).
Percentages of specimens intervened between 2005 and 2012 in Spain: (source WWF report CITES: Analysis on Trade and Trafficking of Wild Species in 2016. Spain. ) :
48% reptiles of 19,412 specimens intervened
Reptiles make up most of the interventions, measured in units. A 48% between skin (60%) and live specimens (40%) emphasizes the mora turtle ( Testudo graeca ) with 3003 animals.
Fish 14% of the total between caviar and seahorses. Flora 13%, not counting 100,000 kg of Prumus africana. The mammals (ivory pieces, parts of elephants, primates, large cats, etc.) 7%. Birds 7%. Coral 3%.
In 2016 the special units of SEPRONA, ” found a total of 27,778 administrative infringements relating to animals” .
Spain is an important recipient country of exotic animals, it is an importer. Biological damage occurs not only in the place of origin of the animal, but also in the receiving country where the risk of flight or intentional release of the animal and their adaptability to the environment, endangers the balance of ecosystems already existing in the zone.
As for other factors related to snakes, there are no precise data on snakes-pets that from the captivity of a house or because their owners release them, escape and merge in the habitat of the area, but it is evident and presumed which are many more than those actually identified.
So the alteration in ecosystems also occurs in the recipient country and not only in the country of origin of the snake.
SNAKES AND THEIR LOVE-HATE RELATIONSHIP WITH HUMANS
The fear of reptiles has been always linked to a feeling of reverence, perhaps driven also by the danger that inculcated their potential bite, sometimes lethal.
It is known that in ancient times reptiles have been revered as symbols of duality between life and death, so decisive was their dreaded bite. Even in the ancient Mesoamerican culture they were considered guides to ascend the enigmatic cosmic planes.
In Egypt all serpents were sacred and protected by the pharaohs. They were believed to be the reincarnation of Apophis, who represented evil. A malefic forces that inhabited the Duat or underworld and the darkness. The exception was the cobra, called Uraeus, which represented the Sun and was the symbol of the resurrection.
In medieval Europe, snakebite executions became fashionable for a time, putting the condemned in a pit full of venomous snakes until their expiration. So it is not surprising that both the fear that these animals instilled and their adoration has been a stigma that has haunted them to this day.
Now around snakes, there is a diverse duality, more twisted and less sublime, that of repulsion-money. On the one hand they continue to be repudiated for their lethal bite and on the other they are “revered” for they ability to generate lucrative commercial income. And what is worse, it has emerged a new predator, man.
Snakes have become, perhaps due to their enigmatic appearance and dangerousness, an increasingly succulent bite for the great trade that hides in animal trafficking. But let’s get to know these fascinating animals better.
CURIOSITIES OF SNAKES
There are approximately 3,701 known snake species in the world. Snakes are truly strange animals, they do not have limbs but they move very quickly.
Another curious detail is that they cannot close their eyes, they always have them open.
They are also deaf, but can detect vibrations. They have a mobile tongue that is an extension of the olfactory system, so to speak, they “taste and smell” the air and the molecules it contains.
The speed of their tongue depends on the presence of prey around them, but also on the degree of anxiety they feel, being close to a strange or threatening object, which identifies it as a danger to their life, for example a human.
Although they seem very different from us, they share many characteristics with humans, they are amniotes, that is, their embryos have a protective membrane that surrounds them, their skin is dry, contrary to what myths say, covered with scales, that is. They also have a neck, although it is not so obvious, they also have a similar osmoregulation system.
Since many amniotes are carnivorous, none of them is herbivorous. There are many diversifications in the teeth, which use them to help ingest their prey better, that is, to “grip” better, since they lack limbs. Most have 6 rows of teeth, one row on each lower jaw and four rows (two lateral, near the lips and two on the palate) at the top of the mouth. But there are those that do not have teeth or very few.
In general, one or more teeth in the maxilla (upper jaw) are usually enlarged, forming the dreaded fangs, with or without the ability to inject venom.
Their diet is varied depending on the species, they can eat from eggs, pupae of ants or termites to birds and mammals. Others feed on small amphibians, lizards, fish, or other snakes. Some feed particularly on snails, earthworms, and arthropods such as spiders, centipedes, and insects.
In general, their diet changes during growth, when they are small it usually starts with frogs and lizards, and then, once adults, they eat exclusively mice.
Snakes can occupy most of the habitats, (hence their great adaptability), always below the cold zone of 3,500 meters of altitude, favoring temperate zones.
The most lay eggs (oviparous), but there also some that give birth(viviparous). Few show parental care, and those that do, are limited to providing heat for a certain time to maintain an adequate and constant temperature to improve development success.
Those that lay eggs usually abandon them. Others, specifically females, store their eggs in oviducts within their abdomen, where the eggs will later progress to hatching, giving birth to their young.
Snakes detect an object by the heat that its body emanates. A thermal receiver located on the face of the snake. The organ allows the snake to estimate the direction and distance of the object. The usefulness of this organ is obvious, since their preys are usually warm-blooded animals that produce heat, endothermic and therefore serve to locate prey.
THE SNAKE POISON
The risk posed by the defense maneuvers of some prey has led to the development of a highly sophisticated evolutionary mechanism in snakes, a poisoning device.
To obtain nourishment, snakes have developed specialized glands for the production of venom and modified fangs to be able to release it through a bite in the body of their prey.
The energy necessary to produce it is a lot and that is why they only use it to help them catch prey, for their nutrition, but they also obviously use it as a defense, in case of absolute necessity, if they encounter a threat, for example the encounter with a human, in this case it becomes a public health problem.
Snakes are more likely to bite when they feel threatened, scared, provoked, or when they have no way of escaping when cornered.
An encounter with a snake is always dangerous and it is recommended to stay still without showing nervousness and get away from it as soon as possible.
There is no practical way (at first glance) to identify with certainty if a snake can be potentially lethal or not, at least by an inexpert on the subject, who are the majority. So before a direct encounter it is better to remain still and immobile, waiting for them to flee, if not, it is best to move away slowly and with great caution.
The popular fear of snakes is irrational, only in the event of imminent danger can it be objective, like any other animal we react with fear by instinct, to preserve our lives. Since fear helps us activate mechanisms prioritizing our survival.
As we have seen the real danger, which has undoubtedly would be that 17% of poisonous snakes, compared to the 83% who are not dangerous, (although boa constrictor, for instance, can kill an adult by pressure, given their muscular strength, even more to a child). However, as we are seeing that potential natural risk, it can be reduced if there is legislation in society that prevents it.
All snakes are able to detect us by approaching them. Upon entering their reception area, the snake becomes nervous and may try to withdraw from the threat (us), moving out of that area, another place, called by scholars the defense zone. If we enter this defense zone accidentally or intentionally, an aggressive snake reaction can occur.
Although our first perception may be that the snake is our enemy, the real situation is that we are their enemies.
The mortality from snakebite, as we have seen, is between 1% to 3%. This low percentage indicates that snakes do not usually attack anyone without reason, they only do so when they are defending themselves from an unknown enemy, such as a human.
The owners of snake-pets have to be aware of the potential danger that determines to have a snake at home. A snake can cause more or less serious injuries and even death if it is poisonous or highly dangerous (remember the powerful muscles of the Boa constrictor) and an antidote is not used in time. Antidote that is not always available according to the Report of the Health Technology Assessment Agency (AETS). Carlos III Health Institute. Madrid, 2012 which indicates this serious concern:
“ One of the topics that aroused the most interest and concern was that of the exotic species existing in Spain. The health professionals attending the meeting expressed their concern about the availability in Spain of antivenoms for this type of snake as well as the existence of some registry of centers or points of provision of the same. In principle, in Spain, and in the opinion of experts, hospitals do not have them.”
The same report shows that the evident legislative lack contributes to the increased risk of fatal incidence:
“ There is a private agreement (Agreement for the provision of antidotes, on page 109) between the zoos of Madrid, Barcelona, Terra Natura and Adibo, by means of which, and as a requirement for safety at work, they maintain a provision of this type of serum. These zoos do not have legal capacity to commercialize the serums nor mechanisms to distribute them to the assistance center, unless it is a person who works in the zoo. On the other hand, when a direct supply is generated by one of these zoos to a health center, the economic remuneration of the cost of the antidoid serum is problematic as it proceeds outside the supply mechanisms of pharmaceutical distribution, both general and specific for “availability of medicines in special situations”. Thus, in the absence of a protocol or specific action procedure for this type of situation, the transfer of the drug would have to be carried out by means of a special agreement between the hospital and the zoo.”
So it is always necessary to act with great caution when handling a snake or adapting their showcase. Better not to have them at home as pets and we remove the risk and responsibility.
According to some surveys, it is estimated that more than 45% ofsnakebite victims are intentionally endangering themselves by trying to catch wild snakes or by carelessness and recklessness while handling their own pets. But also 40% of those people had alcohol values greater than 0.1%. As to leave such animals in the hands of such irresponsible people!
The snake bites are a public health problem neglected in many countries of the world. Globally per year, it is estimated that half of venomous snake bites, 50% cause poisoning and health injuries, luckily only 5% are fatal.
Being a fairly contained and low percentage, one tends to think that the fear and scandal around snakes in general is exaggerated and unjustified. In fact it may be so, the excessive fear of snakes fixed in traditional culture is often not objective.
But it is not about rationalizing a popular belief, it is about remedying a real and concrete social and public health problem, which, although scarce, exists and can be solved with relative ease, (at least as regards trafficking in animals).
In this way we will avoid exposing part of the population to a risk, albeit minimal, unnecessary. Since the few, but existing victims (not only due to death, but also due to health injuries) potential and real, surely they do not think the same. Especially in this case of victims of snake-pets, to which the potential risk they have been unnecessarily exposed due to the lack of adequate legislation and greater control by the competent authorities.
On the other hand, it cannot be ignored that the trade in snake business conceals a serious social situation.
Both fear of snakes as their exploitation stems from ignorance, so the solution is information through a social awareness and education more focused on the ambient and to the social situation and to the health.
According to some studies, it is estimated that adequate and greater information, social awareness, and educational measures focused on protecting the environment and health in the population, could reduce snakebite death by 10%. This is the power of information and education and why it is so important.
In addition to avoid absurd deaths, it would be more than 11 million more snakes available for the proper functioning of ecosystems. The government through its Ministries and competent authorities can participate in this solution, reviewing its own regulations and laws; redacting them to protect existing natural resources and public health.
THE IMPORTANCE OF MAINTAINING PUBLIC HEALTH, SOCIAL WELFARE AND PROTECTING ECOSYSTEMS:
A BALANCE OF VALUES AND INTERESTS
As we can see, education, social awareness and more information are necessary, not only to instill an adequate knowledge of its real danger in human health, and to inform about the social problems behind animal trafficking, but also for its importance in the environment. A balance of values that governments have to find legislatively.
That is why, in addition to evidencing their dangerousness in relation with the contact with man (death by bite or pressure), which is undoubtedly a real and mortal danger, we must as a society convince ourselves of the need to protect them in their natural environment given their great biological value in ecosystems and limit their introduction into human environments.
Because even though this “forced domesticity” may represent an improvement in the human welfare, giving satisfaction and pleasure in having a “special” pet, the greater the benefit snakes give to humanity in their habitat of origin.
To this we must add that we have an ethical obligation to promote and collaborate in the conservation of each of the species that exist on our planet. We must not forget that the removal of animal species from their natural habitat creates an imbalance in both the source and receiving ecosystems (in case they accidentally escape or are deliberately released), potentially reducing the natural evolutionary success of this species but also of the others, which as we have seen is closely related.
Since us as beings endowed with greater intelligence we have been able to understand the consequences and extent of this problem in relation to the alteration of ecosystems, it is logical and necessary to find a solution and act accordingly, especially when the man is the responsible for these threats.
All organisms contribute directly or indirectly to the normal functioning of ecosystems, humans also. And precisely on the normal functioning of ecosystems will depend the future of our planet and therefore also on the survival of our species, the human.
We can not ignore that we know of the mechanism with which nature is governed. This is why it is our duty to the extent that it is incumbent upon us, according to our position in society, to put our knowledge at the service of the conservation of our species and this also covers the conservation of the rest of the species, both animals and plants that form a necessary whole.
The snakes as we know, are essential in the food chain. Charles Elton, an English ecologist of the 20th century, as you will remember from the science classes, proposed the hypothesis that nature was organized in the form of a pyramid, by numbers of individuals and by all the biomass.
The biomass was, according to Elton, regulated by the energy flow of the system and the absolute efficiency of the transfer to other levels.
At the base of this pyramid are the primary producers (photosynthetic organisms), the second level is occupied by herbivores (producer predators) and at the third level we find carnivores. The snake is carnivorous.
According to Elton, the transfer efficiency from a lower level to a higher one was calculated in 10% of the energy (divided among all the individuals of a higher level).
Another degree is made up of organisms that decompose (processing the energy of the dead at any level). 10% is spent on the growth, maintenance and reproduction of all individuals of all species belonging to the same trophic level. The rest of the energy is lost.
This biological-economic image of Elton implies control over the sum of the individuals at each level. What the number of “members” in each level would be decisive for the normal functioning of the complex integer.
Later, Elton’s hypothesis was completed by other ecologists who considered that the upper level controls the lower level, but the sense is the same, the number of specimens is decisive for the overall functioning of the system.
If this conclusion is correct, the density and abundance of a species at a lower level is controlled by its predators (which include all species of snakes). So a drastic decrease or less number will contribute to the imbalance of the entire system.
Recognizing the important ecological function of these animals (snakes) is at this fundamental point. Being both predators and prey, we can understand the potential value of their role, a role that is critically threatened.
Returning to Elton’s idea, which is very significant, snakes represent a component of high importance in the regulation of their prey, (snails, earthworms, insects, amphibians, fish, birds, mammals, etc.). Without the presence of snakes, these prey can become pests, radically changing the biological community of the place.
Now, the problem always lies in the same idea. That the quantitative damage is small. A plagueis generally sporadic and punctual, so that the damages caused, in addition to being occasional, are usually recoverable over time, so it is not given the importance that it has as a basis, that is, it is an “alarm” of that something in the environment does not work well and that it can later lead to climate change and environmental damage that is also harmful to human survival (that is, if the damage to the planet is not enough, and it should be enough).
Returning to ecological theory, it is not convenient for a sensible predator to be excessively specialized, but rather to respond based on the abundance of its prey.
Such strategy allows the coexistence of many kinds of prey, none too present and this is an effective benefit for snakes, but also for us men.
It is obvious that the increase in the density of any animal can generate prejudices, damages and obstacles in the activity of man.
Let’s take an example, typical of rats: when the density of small mammals is high (rats, native mice and invasive rodents), the reaction by the snake community will be to “co-occupy” this rich space in nutritional resources.
Like any organism, a snake is only an energy consumer but with a very important role, that of regulating the density of each of its prey. At first glance we might think that snakes would increase in that place, however, there would be a numerical balance of both snakes and rats, because rodents and therefore the nutritional resources for them would also decrease. In general (without the intervention of man), nature tends to regulate itself.
It is possible that the abundance, greater or lesser, of some animal may be of disinterest to people, but we would not have the same idea if these animals in abundance were of crop-eating insects or infection-bearing rats (because each one has a role in health or human consumption).
The same case, on the other hand, quite common, occurred in India, in a community dedicated to the massive collection of snakes for the use of their skins, responding to the great demand in the market that existed at that time. The hunting action that promised so much abundant profit to the community, was contraindicated.
In a short time, the strategy to increase the quality of life of the community produced a plague of rodents that destroyed the crop throughout the year, and there were also cases of infectious diseases in the community, supposedly associated with the highly bothersome rodents. The solution was to bring snakes back to their natural habitat and protect them at the legislative level.
What may seem at one time a comfortable solution to respond to a commercial demand, can have a devastating effect on biodiversity, causing a radical and permanent change in the already weak balance of our planet. Let’s not risk so much for so little.
Confronting and evaluating the effective and potential damages that this lack of control can cause in society and ecosystems, it is necessary to carry out an in- depth revision of the regulations and a reorientation of the joint government forces, of the competent authorities that have the responsibility to take care of the country’s natural resources.
Education is an integral part of man. We as a species have in the hands the responsibility for implementing our knowledge for the conservation of the planet and ensure a prosperous future for the incoming generations.
As we have seen, protecting snake life in their natural habitat is, in addition to being important and decisive for conserving ecosystems, the best solution. That is why it is necessary to identify the threats that endanger the lives of snakes.
For this, it is crucial to recognize the factors that reduce the density and diversity of snakes.
5 ACTIONS OF MAN THAT THREATEN THE LIFE OF SNAKES
As we have seen, snakes are immersed in a perennial contradiction that comes from afar, from ancient times, that has led them, either due to their physical characteristics or the aversion they generate as a constant “target” for which they suffer many and greater threats.
These threats have the immediate effect of reducing the effective number of specimens in a fixed manner. Keep in mind that these threats have become permanent and not just an isolated threat, with the addition that they are constantly growing. These threats are also ofdisparate importance, motivations of different kinds and various purposes, so it must be taken into account when evaluating and prioritizing a decision.
5 CAUSES OF DEATH OF SNAKES:
( In this case in Colombia, according to the Journal of the Colombian Academy of Exact, Physical and Natural Sciences, so it is presumed that it may vary logically, both its incidence and the consequences of the social, economic and biological impact they cause, depending on the more or less rural environment in which the fact is found. It is logical that a cause will have different relevance depending on its context between a country and another, which does not mean that this analysis can give us an idea though general importance and the consequences of it.)
1 SLAUGHTER BY FARMERS
2 DESTRUCTION OF THEIR NATURAL HABITAT
3 DEATHS ON ROADS
4 ILLEGAL TRADE OF SNAKES
5 COLLECTION FOR SCIENTIFIC PURPOSES
Seeing thus, the main causes of death of these animals, it can be seen that they are all caused by the action of man, so we are directly responsible for the consequences derived from them. In other words, the alteration of ecosystems and the consequence of the planet’s environment.
Likewise, a question arises spontaneously: in which of these causes can we intervene (individually or as an institution) to improve the global situation and rectify (at least in part, according to our scope and competence) the mistake we are committing?
I believe that seeing the causes one by one, we all have ways and occasions to collaborate in the protection of snakes and conservation of natural way of life.
The most relevant, statistically speaking according to the studies, turn out to be the direct slaughter bypeasants and the destruction of the natural habitat as a consequence of urbanization and human invasion in the natural territory. The death of snakes on the roads is accepted as a necessary and inevitable cost due to the need for movement of the population.
In many countries of the world they lack regulations that modulate and control these threats, in countries that nevertheless exist, their effectiveness is as low as it is useless. The idea prevails that any attempt to protect wildlife is too costly and ineffective, so it is left alone.
The fifth threat is even better justified by its direct benefits to human health. In fact, the scientific collection of snakes makes possible a considerable improvement in the quality of human life.
In fact, it is common to use snakes (generally bred in captivity) to manufacture medications such as Protac®, Defibrasa®, Arvin®, Captopril® among others (Koh and Manjunatha, 2011. Rivas, 2014), all of them medications used to cure various ailments, such as antithrombosis that prevent the formation of clots in the arteries, coagulants, hypotensive drugs that decrease the pressure in the arteries, so on the other hand, the benefits that snakes offer to people are many, but it seems to not be enough for them to be protected at least in other areas.
The data in this regard is often more reliable and available, since the specimens are part of biological collections for public health, the creation of antidote serum and other research for the benefit of man.
But given the topic at hand today, let’s take a closer look at the 4th cause, the illegal trade in snakes.
THREAT No. 4: THE COMMERCIAL AND ILLEGAL TRAFFICKING OF SNAKES
Some information in this regard can be obtained from the records of the authorities dedicated to the seizure of illegal traffic. These data indicate the seizures rescued from the wildlife trafficking market.
In fact, seizures of the so-called güíos are more frequent, more commonly known as the boa constrictor (whose natural habitat is in Mexico, although their sale are allowed in some countries, sometimes the procedures for their introduction are not, and therefore they are requisitioned often) and other poisonous species.
SPECIES PERMITTED FOR LEGAL TRADE AND SOME OF THE MOST DEMANDED AS PETS:
1. Royal python, also called ball python. It is small and rolls up in a ball when they are afraid or cold. The breeders, (because they also breed it in captivity, after being separated from their natural habitat, also to be sold), have developed several different polymorphisms with various morphs or phases that change the patterns and alter the natural colors of the species, thus creating new colors and more attractive and new skin shapes on the market. Removing its original reason, which is protection, camouflage and warning.
2. Corn snake, also small and more docile compared to others, for added they are not poisonous (despite this factor that could be more consistent for their pet trade, that is not why people buy them), since the idea of a main attraction always prevails and lies in their general danger because they are snakes.
Since for the unfamiliar amateurs or beginners who only want to show themselves as brave and cool, the same thing works, since there will always be that spontaneous “doubt” among their profane friends as to whether or not it will be poisonous. For this reason, non-venomous snakes like these are also very profitable in this business. In fact they were the first species in captivity and continue to be the most common as pets.
3. King snake (also called constrictor, they are called “king” because they hunt other snakes). A subspecies very popular and known as milk snake, non – venomous version of the venomous and lethal authentic coral snake. They are calm and often escape if they are afraid.
4. Boa constrictor, they are not poisonous and their body is robust, they usually become calm when they get used to manipulation.
It must be taken into account that the export and therefore the availability of these snakes in the markets probably responds to a demand made by “legal” means for these species, while the presence, for example, of the rattlesnake (crotalus durrisus)
and others, not allowed for their trade, such as the so-called “tallas equis” (Bothrops asper), it is evident that it derives from illegal activities of the so-called in Latin America, “culebreros” that specialize in hunting species with precise colorations, races or with characteristics such as albinism or different pigmentation to supply the high demand on the market. To make matters worse, there is also demand in traditional folk medicine, commonly called artisanal.
On the other hand, many of the reptiles that are left out of this list of those “allowed for their commercialization” are neither less contemplated nor regulated by any competent entity, they suffer “absurd discrimination” that puts them directly on the illegal market, given their “forbidden” appeal. Here are the so-called “prohibited species” for trade, among which stand out: new unknown or rare species, specimens with albinism and other unusual characteristics, as well as those that are in danger of extinction, which as we say are always an appetizing bite ( for their expensive and increased price), even if it is illegal. All of them in effectiveness, unprotected and abandoned to their destiny.
Bear in mind that this illegal traffic is usually carried out through the legal process, given the means and methods provided by the “allowed” and the legal loopholes that derive. So the legal trafficking of species is closely related to the illegal of protected species (and not officially protected).
The illegal traffic isundoubtedly linked to the authorized one, becoming an optimal “accomplice” for the submerged trade in fauna and flora it generates.
Although falling into an incomprehensible contradiction, reality shows us that although the purchase of some specimens is allowed, a strong demand is also diverted towards “prohibited” species, this fact encourages illegal trade in the same way or more than allowed. As it is well known “the forbidden”, “the dangerous”, “the rare and exclusive” is something with great attraction for man. Especially if a financial profit comes from that.
In Europe the import of live reptiles has been increasing in the last decade supposedly caused by the increasing demand for exotic species (necessarily imported and not native). In the period from 2004 to 2014, official data in Europe reports an import of 20,788,747 live reptiles. Of which Spain specifically imported 2,912,171 specimens.
So many endemic species and populations have been detrimental to their points of origin, becoming international pets. This is inevitably associated with an indiscriminate demand for any of the snake species. Hence the importance of protecting all of them, limiting their trade in general.
So to give another example, only in Colombia, due to this illegal action, it is estimated that between 1,000 and 5,000 snakes are being eliminated per year, a figure that may be higher and increasing every year.
Another known and curiously indicative fact is that in some zoos it is customary to receive specimens donated by ordinary people, which indicates that snakes are usually removed from their natural habitat. Regarding this reference, we must remember that zoos can serve in educational terms but their main function is that of entertainment and for clearly commercial purposes.
Although the impact of this threat may seem trivial, compared to others, its importance should not be devalued and underestimated due to its global correlation in human activities, even more so because its resolution may be more viable than others and, of course, more justified.
Far from being alarmists, this article aims to be an informative help on this complex debate, offering an obvious exposition that allows us to better understand the scope of our actions.
Special thanks to the Journal of the Colombian Academy of Sciences Exact, Physical and Natural, Carlos III Health Institute. Madrid, 2012 for their valuable contribution as reference for this article, as well as to the WWF report CITES: Analysis on Trade and Trafficking of Wild Species in Spain. 2016 and the Report of the Agency for the Evaluation of Health Technologies (AETS) and the many other invaluable opinions and considerations of competent individuals on the subject who have participated in the preparation of this article.
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