Animal charities threaten legal action against government over snake welfare standards

A group of animal protection organisations warned the government that legal action may be taken if snake welfare standards are not improved.

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) along with several other charities sent this warning in a letter to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) last month.

Snakes are the only animal permitted by DEFRA regulations to be kept in enclosures which they cannot fully stretch out in, said PETA Senior Campaigns Manager Kate Werner.

Noting that this leads to increased stress, physiological symptoms and higher mortality rates among snakes, the letter sent to DEFRA states that its regulations allow pet traders to disregard snakes’ welfare and hence may be in breach of the Animal Welfare Act 2006.

“It would be the same as if you or I was kept in a really small space without room to move around or stretch out,” Werner said.

“You would feel completely stressed out. It would cause physical issues, too.

“If you imagine how you would suffer in that situation, well, it’s the same for a snake.” 

PETA staged a protest outside the DEFRA building in Westminster earlier this month, urging it to introduce regulations which require enclosures to be at least as large as the snake’s body when fully stretch out.

Woman dressed in colourful snake suit in a small rectangular glass tank outside the DEFRA building, with bystanders photographing her on their cell phones and cameras.
GIVE SNAKES SPACE: A PETA supporter dressed as a snake entered a small tank, under which a sign read ‘Thérèse Coffey: Give Snakes Space!’ – an appeal to DEFRA’s former Secretary of State prior to her resignation last week.

Werner said that by allowing snakes to be kept in small enclosures, DEFRA is yielding to the interests of exotic pet traders who would incur significant costs were they to replace all small enclosures with larger ones.

Agreeing with Werner, consultant biologist and medical scientist Dr Clifford Warwick said: “It is absolutely bizarre, pseudoscientific and probably unlawful of the government to impose those kinds of conditions purely at the behest of a handful of pet traders that don’t know the science and want to accommodate snakes very poorly because it’s convenient to keep snakes in a smaller area in a pet shop.”

According to Warwick, clinical symptoms such osteoporosis and arthritis, as well as behavioural symptoms such as aggression and desperation to escape, are linked to smaller enclosures.

“When they’re in larger enclosures that allow them to perform behaviours they need to perform, you see almost all clinical and behavioural signs reduce or become absent.

“If the animal cannot move around, cannot fully stretch, then all these problems become highly exacerbated.”

A report published by the Animal Welfare Committee (AWC) – DEFRA’s expert advisory body on animal welfare – found that enclosures allowing snakes to fully stretch out are necessary for their welfare.

“Normally, the government will do whatever the Animal Welfare Committee recommends,” said Senior Lecturer in BioScience at London South Bank University Rachel Grant, who contributed to the AWC’s report.

“So when this report came out, we were celebrating because we thought that it would become law very soon.

“We couldn’t believe it when we found out that they have completely ignored that report and have not done anything about it.”

Addressing the claim that its regulations may be in breach of the Animal Welfare Act, ignore recommendations of the AWC and favour the interests of pet traders, a DEFRA spokesperson said: “We are carefully considering the recommendations in the Animal Welfare Committee’s Opinion paper on the housing of snakes.

“The wide diversity of snakes in the pet trade is associated with a range of natural behaviours and welfare needs, which creates a complex picture when defining snake selling requirements.

“We are considering our next steps.”

Ongoing campaigns for larger snake enclosures aim to amend the Animal Welfare (Licensing of Activities Involving Animals) (England) Regulations 2018, which currently permit enclosures that are smaller than the snake’s body when fully stretched out.

Related Articles