As people around the world prepare to ring in the Year of the Snake, here's a simple way to honour 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 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, co-author 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 behavioural 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 that 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.
--McClatchy Tribune Services