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Reptile Sentience And Why It Matters

There is scientific evidence that some reptiles are capable of having emotions, preferences, and individual personalities, just like other 'higher-order' animals.

OWEN ROGERS: One class of animal is largely overlooked by the modern animal advocacy movement and by animal welfare legislation in the western world is reptiles. Though not used frequently for food, some are used for their skins or kept as pets or in zoos. Very little research has been done on the mental faculties of reptiles, who are commonly thought of as less sentient than birds or mammals – the animals generally protected under animal welfare laws…

Many people, including reptile breeders and keepers, believe reptiles to be little more than biological machines, incapable of positive experiences like affection and friendship. This belief has led to many people and institutions, from pet owners to zoos, keeping reptiles in habitats that simply have the bare minimum for survival: water, heat, sloughing aids, food, and burrowing material.

However, there is some evidence that some reptiles are capable of having emotions and individual personalities. Emydid turtles have demonstrated play behavior, and eastern box turtles, delicate skinks, and Namib rock agamas have all demonstrated various individual levels of boldness, as measured by time spent basking in the open.

Three species of tortoises have also demonstrated color preferences, likely based on the colors’ associations with flowering fruit in their native habitat. Experiments with giant tortoises have also found individual preferences in enrichment activities within the population – some prefer shell rubs, others prefer neck rubs, and others prefer food or toys.

Clearly, at least some reptiles are capable of having preferences and personalities like other, “higher-order” animals. The question, then, is how many species have this capability, and to what extent?… Preliminary evidence suggests that we are vastly underestimating these animals, and perhaps our welfare guidelines should treat them with more respect. SOURCE…

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