The complexity of captivity, and exploring ethical responsibility as a keeper of snakes.

March 16, 2019

Last night I stumbled into watching the documentary film Blackfish, which examines the ethical shortcomings of keeping orcas in captivity. It was a stirring experience to say the least, and at times deeply disturbing, to consider the notion of keeping such godlike animals in drastically confined spaces, disrupting their profoundly nuanced social structures, and subjecting them to degrading and confounding expectations of behavior. Despite the myriad ways in which such circumstances are morally reconciled by people and organizations claiming that they raise awareness and educate people about marine mammals, it is difficult to deny that the extreme limitations of captivity for such animals makes it downright wrong - and I couldn't help but consider the potential implications for captivity as it relates to snakes. 

To be forthcoming, in writing this I have no intention of arguing the perspective that keeping snakes in captivity is inherently unacceptable or morally reprehensible. I don't personally believe that to be true, though I certainly have reservations about the standards by which many snakes are kept (and strongly advocate for higher baseline standards of attention and care). Instead, my intention is to explore the complexity of the subject and open it to a kind of scrutiny that might inform better care and understanding for both the keepers and the kept. It seems consistently true in my experience that any perspective which is willfully uninformed or untested is certain to cause harm somewhere down the line. 

 

The word captivity itself is one place to begin. It's etymological origins paint an unsavory portrait - 'taken captive, enslaved, made prisoner'. Knowing this, I often feel in myself a hesitation to use the word in conversation about the relationship I have to the animals in my care. I oscillate between a feeling of outright refusal to employ the word, and a kind of ownership in using it that feels somehow an attempt to be accountable in the complexity of working with animals. After all, captivity is a stressful experience for many species, and that must be acknowledged as something that matters. Even so, reptiles seem to fare far better in such environments than many other wild animals, and I don't perceive the snakes in my care to behave as though they are imprisoned. It is of course possible my perception is clouded, but I observe the animals in my care to express a broad array of behaviors typical of snakes in their natural environments. They readily feed, breed, and otherwise express wellness through a variety of other indicators. 

 

So what then is the moral difference between keeping orcas and keeping snakes in captive conditions? There are many clear distinctions in my mind. For one, orcas are mammals possessed of limbic brain structures and nervous systems, with emotional capacities which extend well beyond human comprehension and understanding. Whereas, reptiles exhibit different, some would say more primitive, brain structures which are not so closely associated with emotional capacities (though certainly still well beyond human comprehension in their own ways). This is further expressed in the general lack of social bonding and rearing behavior in reptiles, though herpetologists are identifying more and more exceptions to that general trend. Perhaps most importantly in this application, these physiological differences translate to very different experiences of trauma - here defined by an often chronic and prolonged response to a deeply distressing event(s). Many would say that reptiles do not experience trauma by this definition, and most would agree that they don't express the typical neuroses or anxieties expressed by mammals and birds in captive settings. To summarize broadly, this suggests that when reptiles do express stress in a captive setting, it is usually related to an immediate need (nutrition, space, security, etc.) not being met, rather than related to a prolonged or chronic stress stemming from a distressing event in their past. That said, it is still fair to say that reptiles are often exposed to a higher baseline of stress in captivity than they are in their natural environments, but even this certainly varies between differing individual animals and circumstances.

 

It is also worth noting that snakes have relatively small home ranges, especially in comparison to mammalian predators. This is even more so the case when snakes have ready access to abundant food, water, and security - all factors which can be easily managed to achieve in a captive setting. People who have experience finding and observing snakes in the wild will often attest to seeing individual snakes in a small vicinity, multiple times, days or even months apart - some can even reliably seek out individual snakes by simply lifting a particular rock. I have personally experienced this with rattlesnakes, observing the same individual specimens within a ten foot radius, in all seasons of the year, for consecutive years in a row. Spilotes are certainly much more wide-ranging and less habitual by comparison, given their way of hunting and foraging, but I suspect they still live much more localized lives than one might expect. 

 

In all these considerations, I often place myself in a hypothetical scenario in which I would be given the opportunity to erase the notion of captivity for animals altogether - would I proceed and do so, or would I rather let it be as it is now? And in all honesty, despite the many gifts I receive from keeping snakes, I think I would choose the former option. I can't help but feel that in an ideal world, animals are not meant to live in captivity under any circumstances. But I don't live in a such a world as I see it, and given that I live in a worldview that readily justifies and embraces the practice of keeping animals in captivity, I feel a certain responsibility to reconcile that complexity by seeking to participate with as much sensitivity, dignity, and respect as I can muster. I choose to believe there are ways in which the imperfect nature of the Western worldview, with all its hubris and potential for destruction, can be subverted or transmuted from within. 

So, I will continue to keep snakes, while acknowledging the inherent limitations of that arrangement, and I will seek as much as I'm able to provide the best attention possible for the animals in my care. I know that they are not truly mine, they are their own, but as their steward it is my privilege to care for them in a way that aspires to give them some modest return of what I feel they have given me. And perhaps a time will come, when it is again inconceivable to keep animals in cages, and if I am alive on that day, I trust it will be less an acquiescence and more a revelation for me to greet it. 

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