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In the year of the snake, shed your skins

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By Paula Moore

As people around the world prepare to ring in the Year of the Snake, here’s a simple way to honor these mysterious, misunderstood animals: Keep them out of your wardrobe. Snakes and other reptiles should not have to suffer and die just for our cold-blooded vanity.

According to a recent International Trade Centre (ITC) report, the global trade in python skins—which is poorly regulated and often illegal—is threatening these animals’ survival. Half a million python skins are exported each year from Southeast Asia to be turned into designer handbags, boots and other accessories, and the extent of the illegal trade is thought to be on a par with the legal trade. Many snakes are illegally caught in the wild—and killed before they are able to reproduce—because it takes so long for farmed snakes to grow large enough for their skin to be usable.

Of course, for the snakes, who are beaten to death, decapitated or suffocated, it hardly matters whether the trade in their skins is “legal” or not. In either case, it is unethical. In Vietnam, for example, snakes are commonly killed by being inflated with air compressors. This “is functionally the equivalent of suffocating them … they inflate and suffocate and it kills them,” says Olivier Caillabet, coauthor of the ITC report.

Other snakes have hoses inserted into their mouths, and they are pumped full of water, which causes them to swell up like balloons, loosening their skin. Workers then impale the snakes on meat hooks, rip their skin off and toss the animals’ peeled bodies onto a pile. After hours—or days—of unimaginable suffering, the snakes finally succumb to dehydration or shock.

“Snakes are never killed in a good way,” says Dr. Clifford Warwick, a specialist in reptile biology and welfare. Neither are the other animals who are killed for the exotic-skins trade. Farmed alligators are bludgeoned to death or have a chisel smashed through their spinal cord with a hammer. Lizards writhe in agony as they are skinned alive. Crocodiles poached in the wild are caught with huge hooks and wires then reeled in by hunters when they become weakened from blood loss.

These animals are not unfeeling automatons. Snakes can feel pain, and they are keenly aware of their environment, thanks to their ability to sense chemical stimuli with their super-sensitive tongues and to feel vibrations. They may also have richer social lives than we ever imagined. Female snakes separated at birth can recognize relatives when they are reintroduced years later. One study found that female timber rattlesnakes, who often cluster together in groups of six or more in rookeries, prefer to associate with relatives than with strangers. Rulon Clark, a behavioral ecologist at San Diego State University, says that snakes are “so cryptic and secretive that, for many species, we really only have brief glimpses of their lives.”

We are also discovering more about the other reptiles who are cruelly killed for their skins. Researchers from Vanderbilt University in Tennessee found points along the jaws of alligators and crocodiles that are more sensitive to touch than human fingertips. This makes sense because mother alligators use their jaws as we might use our hands—to gently crack open their eggs and carry their babies. Alligators communicate with one another through hisses, yelps, coughs and other sounds, and crocodiles can recognize their own names, as a pair of dwarf crocodiles at a facility in England have demonstrated.

Reptiles might not win any popularity contests in the animal kingdom, but no sentient being deserves to be killed for something as frivolous as fashion. In the Year of the Snake and beyond, please help save animals’ skins: Don’t wear them.

Paula Moore is a senior writer for the PETA Foundation, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.PETA.org.

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Written by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

February 13, 2013 at 4:43 pm

No ‘crocodile tears’ for tanking skins trade

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By Paula Moore

According to a recent USA Today article, the global economic downturn has taken a bite out of America’s alligator industry. With the sharp slump in sales of so-called “luxury” goods such as alligator bags and belts, fashion houses worldwide are placing fewer orders for exotic skins—and some American alligator farms are in danger of going belly-up as a result.

Let me be the first to say, “Good riddance.”

Alligators are bludgeoned with hammers and steel bars so that their skins can be turned into overpriced accessories. Snakes and lizards are skinned alive and left to die in agony. The routine cruelty in the exotic skins trade should make any caring consumer’s skin crawl, and the sooner this industry dies off, the better.

When PETA went undercover at an alligator farm in Florida, our investigator documented workers smashing alligators over the head with aluminum bats in a crude attempt to kill them. Many animals continued to writhe and move after they had supposedly been killed.

On other farms, according to Dr. Clifford Warwick, a specialist in reptile biology and welfare, alligators are shot or axed to death—or have a chisel smashed through their spinal cord with a hammer.

Many alligator and crocodile farms are “supplemented” with “animals who have been taken from the wild and put into conditions that are very unhygienic, very cramped, very crowded,” says Warwick. “It’s quite a sad, stressful life.”

Other reptiles fare no better. Lizards are decapitated and skinned. But because of their slow metabolism, they can stay alive for up to an hour after their heads are cut off—meaning that they are skinned alive.

Pythons are stunned—but not killed—with a blow to the head. Then hoses are inserted into their mouths and they are pumped full of water, which causes the snakes to swell up like balloons. This loosens the skin.

Workers then impale each snake’s head on a meat hook, rip the skin off and toss the animals’ peeled bodies onto a pile of other skinned snakes. After hours—or days—of unimaginable suffering, the snakes die from dehydration or shock.

“Snakes are never killed in a good way,” Dr. Warwick says.

More than a fifth of the world’s reptiles are now at risk for extinction—and the exotic skins trade is not helping. Most snakes are caught in the wild because it takes so long for farmed snakes to grow large enough for their skin to be usable. Dr. Mark Auliya, a scientific officer for TRAFFIC, an organization that helps monitor the international trade in wild animals, says that in Southeast Asia, some “large [snake] specimens are getting rarer and rarer.” The animals, he says, simply “cannot cope in the long term with the high out-take by the commercial skin trade.”

What’s more, for every reptile who goes through the system legally, it is estimated that another one will be smuggled. According to Dr. Warwick, virtually every store that sells exotic skins has some hand in this illicit trade, whether they are aware of it or not.

With so many choices available to us today, there’s no reason for designers to continue using real skins—and there’s no reason for consumers to buy them. Alligators, snakes and other animals should not have to suffer and die just for our coldblooded vanity.

Paula Moore is a research specialist for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; http://www.PETA.org

Written by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

December 4, 2009 at 8:33 pm