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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

Cherokee’s Trail of Tears continues

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By Dan Paden

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina has a long history of suffering and hardship, and adversity on their territory has not yet come to an end. The sovereign land is home to three decrepit roadside zoos, in which animals are deprived of everything that is natural and important to them. One zoo, Chief Saunooke Bear Park, was exposed recently after a PETA undercover investigation documented desperate bears incessantly turning in circles in cement pits, so stressed by the grotesquely inhumane conditions that some have broken their teeth while biting the metal bars of their cages in frustration.

It’s puzzling that this situation is allowed to continue, particularly since non-natives own and operate the zoos—all located on tribal land—even though the conditions clearly appear to violate tribal law. The Tribal Council has done nothing to intervene, much less put a stop to the cruelty. It’s time for these zoos to be closed.

Surrounded by four solid walls, the bears at Chief Saunooke Bear Park cannot see anything beyond their allotted space—a pitiful fraction of what bears actually need. In their natural habitat, bears are curious and energetic animals who spend their time exploring diverse terrain, foraging for a wide variety of foods and digging in soft earth, brush and leaves. The zoo’s concrete pits have no grass or dirt. They are simply holes in which bears are forced to beg for food and wait for visitors to throw it to them. One bear was shot in the head 20 times before dying, and a zookeeper admitted to eating at least one bear.

But this roadside zoo is just one of hundreds in which animals suffer and die. All over the country, animal collectors market their tawdry outfits as roadside Americana or, worse, as “rescue” facilities that give animals in trouble a safe haven. The vast majority are frauds, making money off the misery of animals and the kind hearts of people who want to help them.

Animals in roadside zoos typically are confined to chain-link or chicken-wire cages with nothing but concrete to walk, sleep and eat on. Some owners toss out an old tire or a ball to give visitors the impression that animals can use them to pass the interminable hours, but most of them have no enrichment whatsoever, not even a patch of grass.

Animals who may not get along are jammed into the same pen. Predators are housed in close proximity to prey. Babies are traumatically removed from their mothers immediately after birth to be used as photo props. The lives of these animals are turned upside down. Many pace incessantly, rock back and forth or even hurt themselves by chewing on their fingers, plucking out their feathers or grooming themselves raw.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture licenses animal exhibitors, but the laws protecting captive animals don’t go far enough and the standards that do exist are not properly enforced. Animals must be given food, water and shelter, but cages only need to be “large” enough for an animal to be able to move around a little bit. There is no requirement for grass, shrubbery or other natural vegetation.

Since there are no restrictions on breeding animals, owners churn out babies, knowing that they’ll bring in customers. But babies grow up quickly, leaving a surplus of adult animals with less and less space and fewer resources to meet their complex needs. Exotic animals often go without veterinary care, and zoo operators would often rather depend on free roadkill or donated rotten meat than spend money on wholesome, quality food.

If you’re on a road trip and see a zoo billboard trying to entice you to pull over or if a traveling exhibitor is selling photo ops with tiger cubs at your local mall, please think about the suffering that you’ll be supporting before buying a ticket.

Dan Paden is a senior research associate with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.PETA.org.

Written by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

January 28, 2013 at 7:04 pm

Federal snake ban lacks bite

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By Jennifer O’Connor

Recently, a powerful lobby spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to defeat a bill that would have enhanced public safety, safeguarded the environment and curtailed cruelty to animals. Who is this giant wielding such influence? BP? The NRA? Halliburton? Nope, it’s none other than the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers, which fought a bill that would have made some species of dangerous snakes illegal to import and sell. The group griped and hyped for three years until the list was gutted by more than half—four species have been banned rather than nine.

The ban will stop imports and interstate commerce in Burmese pythons (who, as a new study shows, are eating their way through Florida’s Everglades), yellow anacondas and northern and southern African pythons. Yet anyone can still go out and buy, breed, sell and trade in boa constrictors, reticulated pythons and three other species of anaconda.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar—whose job it is to protect our natural resources, not animal dealers—unabashedly defended the watered-down version of the bill, assuring Americans that the compromise wouldn’t “suffocate” commerce.

It’s a strange lot that insists that pythons, rattlers, constrictors, vipers and other reptile species make good pets. Snakes shun contact with people and for good reason: They are wild animals who only suffer at the hands of humans. Reptiles do not want to be your friend. They want to be left alone.

Those who breed and sell reptiles make money. But how to understand those who buy and keep the animals? In Jennie Erin Smith’s remarkable book, Stolen World, which documents the scope and scale of this ruthless industry, one dealer puts it this way: “A venomous animal gives someone a sense of power and a sense of adventure in an otherwise mundane life.”

But for the animals who are shipped around the world crammed inside toilet paper tubes, plastic margarine tubs and shipping crates labeled “automotive parts,” a buyer’s need to be different is often a death sentence. Mortality is high. Dealers hope that some of what they call “inventory” will survive shipment, knowing full well that the box will arrive filled mostly with decomposing bodies.

Reptiles have specialized husbandry needs, including spectrum lighting, heat sources and dietary requirements, which are expensive, tedious and technical. Very few buyers have the knowledge or inclination to commit to the lifelong responsibility of the animals they acquire on a whim. Snakes usually end up living in small aquariums where they can’t even stretch out the full length of their bodies, much less move around or climb.

Because they can’t vocalize pain or discomfort, it’s easy for owners who feel inconvenienced and bored by their new chore to ignore a starving, dehydrated or sick snake. Snakes are relegated to eating whatever someone remembers to dump into their tanks. They are hauled out for shock value, but roughly handling even large snakes can cause serious internal injuries.

Rather than exploring lush jungles and swamps and experiencing all the sensory pleasures that they are so keenly attuned to, their lives become an interminable limbo. For the vast majority of snakes who aren’t abandoned in an area like the Everglades, where they stand a chance of surviving, death will be slow and painful. Those who manage to acclimate wreak havoc on natural ecosystems—as the new study found, invasive pythons and anacondas have all but wiped out bobcats, raccoons, rabbits and other animals in the Everglades—and cost taxpayers millions of dollars to combat.

Why should the interests of a small group trump cruelty to animals, public safety, taxpayers’ money and environmental devastation? Why did it take three years for the government to sign this weak bill into law? Who “needs” a pet anaconda, boa constrictor or python? These are all questions with no reasonable answer.

Jennifer O’Connor is a staff writer for the PETA Foundation, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; http://www.PETA.org.