“Oh! I understand you very well,” said the little prince. “But why do you always speak in riddles?”
“I solve them all,” said the snake.
And they were both silent.
~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Le Petit Prince
Snakes have value. Whether you fear them, love them or simply respect them, they never fail to inspire, or awe. Snakes are animals of medical significance to human beings and their physiology holds many important clues to the world of medicine. They are an integral part of multiple ecosystems and they have held enormous roles in culture and religion throughout human history. Snakes are significant in literature. Arguably the most important animal in The Bible, snakes have figured prominently in children’s classics such as The Little Prince to best-sellers and blockbuster movies such as Harry Potter.
In fact, the serpent is one of the oldest and most widespread mythological symbols. Snakes have appeared in art at least since the enraged uraeus snake in Egyptian pharaonic imagery (as can be seen in the mask of King Tutankhamun, c. 1327 BCE). This has not precluded them from pop culture and modern art. Richard Avedon’s portrait of Nastassja Kinski and the Serpent remains a pop icon from the 1980s. Snakes are important to humans and we need them.
Photo © 2012 Erika N. Chen-Walsh
Some of the earliest recorded medicinal uses for snakes originated in China during the 1st century AD when the Chinese began using snake skin for treating hemorrhoids, eye infections, and sore throats. In the 1940s, snake venom was used as a key ingredient to treat the symptoms of post-polio syndrome. By the 1950s, Americans were successfully using cobra venom for treating post-polio syndrome.
About the same time, Lou Gehrig was diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a disease with similarities to post-polio syndrome. Dr. Murray Sanders began studying the use of cobra venom in the US and its successful effect on ALS patients. He was later nominated for the Nobel Prize in medicine.
Today, independent laboratories are investigating the use of snake venom to treat not only ALS patients, but also patients with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), and Adrenomyeloneuropathy (AMN), in addition to multiple other neurological and autoimmune disorders.
Snake venom has also been found to stop excessive bleeding during surgery or after major trauma. Components of Malayan Pit Viper venom has shown potential for breaking blood clots and treating stroke victims. Enzymes from cobra venom may be instrumental to finding cures for Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. An enzyme derived from copperhead venom is being researched as a potential treatment for breast cancer. Snake venom is sometimes even used in a commercial wrinkle cream!
In England, snakes are being used in hospital environments as therapy animals to treat depression and they have been used as therapy animals in the United States as well. Research has shown that when choosing between a puppy, a rabbit and a snake, a statistically significant number of at risk children responded most favorably to the snake.
But snakes are in a world of danger. In a world of diminishing habitats, they suffer from the same effects of environmental degradation as other animals, but with the added burden of being targets for persecution and antipathy. Endangered species of snakes and other reptiles are often overlooked when it comes to conservation efforts. They do not engender the same level of human sympathy as mammals.
Healthy ecosystems depend on these animals. Reptiles and amphibians are often the barometers of habitat health. The survival of mammals, then, too is affected by maintaining healthy wild populations of reptiles and amphibians.
Spoliation of habitat is a fact of the modern world. U.N. specialists estimate that 60 acres of tropical forest are felled every minute. Clearing habitats for agriculture is the principal cause of habitat destruction. Other important causes of habitat destruction include mining, logging, trawling and urban sprawl. Habitat destruction is currently ranked as the primary cause of species extinction worldwide. The irresponsible raiding of natural populations of reptiles and amphibians for the pet trade is also a form of spoliation.
Captive breeding has become integral as a conservation tool for animal species of the world. On the horizon looms a future where much of the world’s wildlife will depend on private citizens to maintain it for perpetuity. This vast project is far too immense for zoos and government agencies.
Herepeteculture is the captive breeding of reptiles and amphibians. The herpetoculture community has already laid a solid foundation for the captive breeding, and therefore, conservation of multiple species of reptiles and amphibians. Herpetoculturists have spent 30 years learning how to maintain and propagate reptiles and amphibians in captivity, quietly accomplishing one of the greatest conservation projects ever attempted, and all privately funded. A significant percentage of scientific research that has been published about reptiles has been based on captive populations of snakes and lizards. The continued success of herpeteculture is necessary to ensure species survival. Failure equals extinction.
Legislation based on emotion, opinion, philosophy, and junk science is having a potentially catastrophic effect on biodiversity. Extremist animal rights agendas seek “total animal liberation” and nearly all animal rights organizations seek to end keeping all reptiles as pets. This campaign is based on lies and fear.
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) claims that in 2009, there were 13 million reptiles living as pets in the U.S., with 2 million reptiles imported each year and 9 million exported each year. Although HSUS is fond of saying that Boa constrictor and pythons are second only to large cats in terms of human death in this country, even their own statistics show only 17 human deaths from constrictor snakes since 1978. The risk from constrictor snakes is therefore something less than one one thousandth of a percent. That is less than the risk of being killed by a vending machine in this country. (According to the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission, between 1978 and 1995, vending machines caused 37 deaths and 113 injuries.)
HSUS claims that there are 74,000 cases of salmonella each year allegedly from reptiles and amphibians. According to the CDC, there are 1.4 million cases of salmonella each year, which means that 95% of salmonella cases come from other sources, mostly in our food supply. For example, there are 142,000 cases of salmonella each year from egg consumption alone. Reptiles are safer than eggs.
If captive populations of reptiles and amphibians are outlawed and disassembled, many species of reptiles and amphibians will be forever lost, lost in captivity, lost in the wild, lost for all future generations.
Snakes have value. They have value to humanity and they have value globally. Don’t allow extremists to take snakes out of private ownership based on junk science and inflammatory rhetoric. Snakes are medicinally, therapeutically and ecologically significant. They are a key part of human history and culture and they offer far more to humanity than we are willing to credit them. Help protect reptiles and amphibians for your future.
For information on how to impact reptile legislation in your community, please visit the