A ream of paper, a photograph, a young child and a tanned snake skin …this is the sum total of all arguments provided by advocates of a ban on pythons. In a purely technical sense they are wholly and completely inadequate. But the adequacy of arguments is not a prerequisite for buy-in from the misinformed masses. Sound bites and sensationalized overstatements are more than sufficient to convict in the mind of a Congressman or Senator. It is, of course, true (in a purely legal sense) that you are not guilty until convicted. As is often the case, things that exist on paper and in principal struggle to manifest themselves in reality. The practical result of our legal process is not ‘innocent until proven guilty’. It is actually this: You are guilty because you are charged. The verdict is irrelevant in the long-term. If you don’t believe me ask anyone who was ever legitimately acquitted on charges of rape, murder or child pornography; they never get their lives back. An innocent man set free after mistakenly being accused of doing something horrible to a child is never, ever, going to have a job in a daycare center. Why? Because truth and reality do not matter in the long-term. “Perception, ” as I was told in my younger years, “is reality.” The subtle irony of using a sound-bite to reinforce my perspective on sound-bites does not elude me. History is remembered by most people as snapshots, impressions and feelings. The stronger the feeling, the stronger the memory is; the longer it remains. Whether the feelings were created by information with a basis in truth is less important than the emotions they elicit. The horror we all felt to hear that a child was killed by a python left a scorch in the minds of most Americans. None of the facts in the case are going to distract people from the initial shock of the claim. All the media had to do was say it and it was forever true in the hearts and minds of our neighbors.
A photo of an alligator exploding out of the belly of a Burmese python…
The militant congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Shultz epitomized the overuse of this fantastical photo during her rude questioning of USARK’s Andrew Wyatt at a Congressional hearing on H.R. 2811. In Congress it is generally frowned upon to say things like, “Talk to the hand. I ain’t tryin’ to hear it.” Her position as a congresswoman is supposed to constrain her outbursts so the best she could do was to repeatedly hold up the infamous picture to punctuate her close-minded tirade. As a representative of the rational people of her district in Florida she is completely invalid; a danger to anybody who endeavors to participate in a careful contemplation of facts.
A tanned snake skin unfurled by Senator Bill Nelson during a session in the Senate…
In July of 2009 Senator Bill Nelson unrolled the skin of a 16ft Burmese python to a round of oooh’s, aaah’s and gasps from those in attendance. The Senator did not precede his dramatic presentation by saying, “This skin is almost twice as long as the animal that used to own it. Tanned skins are always significantly longer than the original animal.” Why would he need to say such things? Everybody know this, right? For him to diminish the dramatic effect of such a gesture would have been presumptuous about the intellect of his audience. Leave people to draw their own conclusions; it’s better that way. Now is a good time for me to point out that I am often being facetious when I write.
A child killed by a Burmese python…
The logistics of this tragedy have experienced Burmese python keepers around the country scratching their heads. People who keep large snakes are well aware of how they behave and the description of the wounds and the manner of the attack are so incredibly contrary to the actual behavior of these animals that every Burmese python keeper I know is saying, “It just dosen’t make sense. Burms don’t do that.” Maybe it’s wishful thinking on behalf of snake owners (myself included); we don’t want it to be true. But the confusion remains; the way this snakes is alleged to have killed this child is as unusual as the event itself. But guess what? None of my pondering matters. The Burmese python has been tried and convicted in the court of public opinion. Facts are not relevant. It won’t matter if the police come out tomorrow and say that the boyfriend accidentally killed the child and then staged the scene to make it look like the snake did it. The child is dead and the python has been assigned blame. The result is simple: large constrictors are now in the category of things that are a “threat to human safety”.
A ream of paper in the form of a report from the USGS…
Several men of science have come out in opposition of this piece of literature and it appears that they are being written off as reptile-loving quacks. This particular writing of mine is not the forum for me to offer a contradiction to the USGS’ slanted report. You know what matters about this report? It is thick. Very thick. 300 pages, give or take. I am confident it has been printed and placed in a 3-ring binder by many congressional staffers. How many have actually read it? Very few, I’m sure. How many have read it and then sought professional advice as to the validity of its content? Fewer still. It’s 300 pages, after all, and there are more pressing matters in the country. Heck, I haven’t even read every word of it. This is the reason for the so-called Executive Summary. Distill this content into something small, please. Twenty pages? No, still too big. Senators and Congressmen are busy people. Let’s get this down to something smaller. A few sound bites would be nice. Perhaps a picture or two. It’s odd, …I just read a similar distillation of Sleeping Beauty to my daughter tonight as she went to bed. In ten lavishly illustrated pages the entire story of Aurora was told and at no point was an admission made that many relevant facts were being omitted. I am left to wonder if members of the House and Senate are aware that they are being read bedtime stories …stories re-written by special interest groups (HSUS and Nature Conservancy) that are full of canned and baseless drama. But the best stories are the ones that have a villian and an innocent child, are they not? Fairy tales. But the python is not a beautiful princess. No prince is riding to its aid. This time Maleficent may actually win…
In the mid-90’s I bred Burmese pythons. They were some of the most gentle and tolerant snakes I have ever kept and working with them was one of the most rewarding experiences I have had as a reptile breeder. Some life changes necessitated that I stop breeding them and space issues keep me from beginning again. But I miss them. I want to put another big group of Burmese pythons together and start breeding them again. Four things give me pause:
- Food: Finding a consistent local supply of affordable food has been problematic in the past. This is the least of my concerns and can be overcome, I’m sure.
- Space & Caging: Do I need to elaborate on the logistics of housing 30-50 large constrictors? While do-able, it’s not trivial.
- City ordinance: The city I live in requires all reptiles over 8 feet to have a permit. I don’t mind paying the permit fee but I do mind being on the radar of local officials. I feel like it makes me a target. “Hey, this guy has 40 Burmese pythons. He needs a visit.”
I should avoid complaining on this point, though. At least the city I live in hasn’t banned them completely.
- The current national political climate hell-bent on banning large constrictors: If I put together a large breeding group now will I find them banned and worthless some time in the next few years?
At the risk of becoming a pariah I suggest that the writing is on the wall for the so-called Big 5 Constrictors. I fear they will be banned some time in the next few years. I also fear it will be our (e.g. the reptile community) own fault when it happens. As a quick review for those who don’t already know, the Big Five include:
- Reticulated Pythons
- Burmese Pythons
- African Rock Pythons
- Australian Scrub Pythons
We have a chance to stop the ban but the reptile community is currently broken into two distinct groups. While both groups have the same general objective of allowing for continued ownership of large constrictors (and other reptiles) they differ quite on a bit on their approach. I suggest you can call the two groups Team USARK and Team PIJAC. I know I am going to be accused of perpetuating the divide by laying it out this way but this is how I see it. It is my perception (and you now what they say about the link between perception and reality).
Everything I have seen, read and heard seems to indicate that PIJAC supports the responsible implementation of regulatory controls that will allow continued ownership of large constrictors while USARK does not support any controls, in any form. As individuals we align with the side that best fits our own personal desires. That division has and will drive the efforts of both groups in two different directions that ultimately do not complement each other. That separation may lead to neither group achieving its objective and the third, less desirable result, a complete ban, may prevail in their stead.
The non-big-5-owning portion of the reptile community (ball python breeders, in particular) is often accused of being willing to throw the 5 under the bus to quiet the voices of people wishing to ban snake ownership. And large constrictors are such an easy target, are they not? Burmese pythons garner most of the public spotlight because of the Florida Everglades situation and I can’t conjure a story of someone being seriously injured or killed by a ball python or any of the other smaller python species. It’s always one the five (usually a burm or a retic) that makes the news. And they are the one’s profiled on the Discovery Channel, History Channel and other so-called ‘knowledge’ channels. As a ball python breeder (and former Burmese python breeder) let me be extremely clear on this point: a federal ban on the Big 5 will not stop the people who want to put your right to own snakes and other reptiles to an end. Sure, a ban on the Five may quiet them down for a bit but I promise you they will be back, emboldened by their success, to finish the job and ban the rest of the python species. Their goal is not to ban large constrictors; they want to ban all reptiles. So if you are a ball python, carpet python or any other kind of python breeder, stop thinking that a ban on the Five will end the political opposition to reptile ownership. It won’t. It will strengthen it! All you need to do is look at Senate bill S.373 for evidence of this. Regardless of size of python being bred, we need to be united and consistent in our opposition to legislation. This includes a united approach for the future of reptile ownership.
Having said that I fear that rigid and uncompromising opposition to any legislation will result in long-term failure and the Five will be banned at a federal level. Not long after the Big 5 get banned, many if not all, of the other python species will follow. Supporters of these bills are sneaky and vigilant. They use misinformation and fear to further their objectives and given enough time they are likely to be successful in convincing others who don’t care to take the time to find the truth. Please understand that people do not intentionally form opinions they know to be wrong. Many rely on seemingly valid sources of information, like the USGS and the University of Florida, to help them form their opinions. Each person believes what they do for a reason and they often define themselves by what they believe. In order to maintain their opinions they have to find evidence that supports them. This fact lets us understand that people who want to prove their opinion will conjur results necessary to validate their perspective. Consider this publication on the invasion of Burmese Pythons from the Univerity of Florida. When quoted by the media, academic publications are often presented as lore to the general public. If you read the article referenced above you will find that it is not short on bias against the large constrictors (and pet owners). Rather than being an objective academic analysis of the status of the Burmese Python in the Florida Everglades it is a position piece cleverly set up to be ammunition for future citations and political rhetoric. It is designed to support an opinion and it is seeded with some facts to bolster its credibility. Who is going to argue with Congressman so-and-so when he is quoting ‘facts’ published as part of a study conducted by the University of Florida? I hope you see the power in this type of misinformation. The public will never question these sources, much less read them.
Rigid resistance to any and all legislation may result in complete legislation. Our best chance for success is to find middle ground. We need to quell the voices of opposition while maintaining our rights to own and breed snakes of our choosing. To do this I suggest that the Big Five owners and breeders should not be thrown under the bus …but they may have to get their toes run over by it. I’m not saying this because they deserve it. It’s a simple truth that these constrictors get the lions share of attention from people on the outside looking in. Starting anywhere other than with the Five will likely be viewed as a token offering.
But what do I mean by ‘getting their toes run over’? Simple, really. Owners and breeders of large constrictors will have to forego some of the freedoms enjoyed by breeders of smaller snakes. To avoid sugar-coating it, breeding and ownership of large constrictors will be regulated. The question is not ‘if they will be regulated’, it is ‘to what extend will they be regulated’. There are two central issues that legislation will attempt to address: invasive species and public health and safety. The ability for large constrictors to invade other regions of the country is hotly debated.
Nobody seems to dispute the presence of Burmese pythons in the Florida Everglades. A few sensational (and very over-used) pictures (1) (2) have been released and more than one article/TV show has tried to portray an epic battle taking place for top-of-the-food-chain status between the American alligator and the Burmese python. It makes for great TV but that’s about it. The Burmese pythons, along with many, many other plants and animals have made their way into the Florida Everglades and found conditions conducive to their survival. Over the past decade about 1,000 pythons have been captured in the southern-most portions of the Everglades. Despite wild reports suggesting otherwise, there is no evidence to prove that they are moving north. Burmese pythons do not have the ability to survive long-term in the colder parts of the United States, including northern Florida.
Education is our best defense against people who use fear of python invasion as justification for a ban. We need to educate the people about the reality of python survivability in temperate regions. Once people who vote on our behalf understand that invasion beyond the Florida Everglades is all but impossible we will have done serious damage to this argument.
Public Health & Safety
The spread of non-native ticks (addressed by the National Reptile Improvement Plan, NRIP) and the ability for large constrictors to severely injure or even kill humans are points of concern (the former is a concern for all imported reptiles). Death of humans because of large constrictors is incredibly rare. My research indicates that 11 people have been killed by large constrictors in the past 29 years. But when it happens it is sensational. The news and other media outlets seize upon it and milk the stories for all they are worth. The damage to the image of herpetoculturists is disproportionate and long-lasting. I’m willing to bet that more than 11 people have died from choking on pen tops in the past 29 years but pen tops, which exist in every home, do not have a lobby against them because of their danger to public safety. To say that large constrictors pose an imminent risk to humans is just plain silly but when you watch TV they make it seem like there is a python in your back yard, stalking you. The truth does not stir people, nor does it sell ad space. The media lies to make the facts more interesting.
Sizable portions of our population are afraid of all snakes (I know a woman who paid $350 to have a 6″ ringneck snake removed from her back yard). That fear is amplified when the snakes are large. That fears transcends into hysteria when the snake is one of the Big 5. Hysteria and fear are not mindsets that allow for rational discussion. As irrational as the fear is to members of the reptile community, it is real to the people who experience it and they are not likely to be swayed by us telling them everything is all right.
So how do you fight against a largely baseless agrument that is supported by fear, sensational media coverage, irresponsible academics and abusive extrapolations by supposedly legitimate scientific organizations? Education is the most important tool but it is a long term approach. Let’s compare the fear of snakes to something like racism. Racism, like fear of snakes, is a learned behavior. It takes time to eliminate it and education is one of the key tools. Eliminating fear of reptiles has to start early in life. My two year old daughter is not afraid of snakes. How could she be? But the other day she told me she was scared the snake was going to bite her. I later learned she got the idea from another child at school whose parents are deathly afraid of snakes. How to address it? Well, I started with my daughter. Being afraid of snakes in this family isn’t going to work out so she and I spent some time with the snakes so she knows they won’t hurt her. Next in line is my daughter’s school. My wife is in the process of arranging a ‘show and tell’ day where I will take some snakes (and other reptiles) in and teach the kids that, while worthy of respect, they are not dangerous. Every person in the reptile community needs to be a reptile evangelist, working to dispel fear and misunderstanding whenever and wherever we can. But grassroots efforts (which have been going on for years) will not suffice. There needs to be a national campaign, supported by entire reptile community, to begin to eradicate fear of snakes.
Education is a strategic aim. We need a more tactical approach to deal with our immediate problem; a proposed ban on pythons. Education won’t do us much good if we lose our right to own reptiles in the next few years. It is likely that legislation in some form is a foregone conclusion. We will do ourselves a favor to come to the table with something other than blanket opposition. Here is what I propose:
- Implement a national permit system for large constrictor ownership. Permits will be per individual/business, not per animal. There will be an annual fee. These fees must be realistic and not serve to exclude the average person from ownership (because of high prices). For example, 200,000 large constrictor owners paying $15/year will generate $3 million in annual revenue.
- Require owners of large constrictors to attend an 8-hour certification class that teaches basic husbandry techniques, safe handling, escape-resistant caging, basic medical response (e.g. what to do if you get bit), etc. Successful completion of the course is required for permit approval. Enrollment in the course will be fee-based with a portion of the fees used to provide reptile education around the country.
- This course could be offered as a single Saturday event (9-5) or two hours/night for four weeks.
- Large constrictor owners could also be required to renew their certification every 5 years by attending a 1/2 day refresher course. This will provide an opportunity to make sure all owners of large constrictors are up-to-date on any new developments in husbandry as well as the status of any regulations. This also provides another revenue stream, complementing the annual permit fee.
- Reptile owners, not reptile sellers /breeders, are responsible for obtaining a permit and certification prior to the animal reaching 8 feet in length. The breeder/seller of the reptile is required to notify the buyer of the requirement for a permit and certifiation but is not required to maintain records on who the animals were sold to and and what their permit status is. This requirement falls to the reptile owner and the national reptile permit system administrators.
- This may be a sticking point. I think it’s important to avoid burdening reptile breeders/resellers with extra tracking and paperwork. But large constrictors disappearing into the community with no trail to show where they have gone is likely going to cause a lot of buyers to simply not get a permit or attend the course. The recourse to this is that there has to be a stiff penalty for failure to register and take the required certification class. This may take the form of a fine, seizure of the animal(s) and a suspension period, during which time the offender is prohibited from owning a large constrictor.
- I am not an advocate of microchipping. Pet owners being labeled as the cause of the problem in the Florida Everglades is an unfounded accusation. Natural disasters such as Hurrican Andrew are more likely suspects for the unintentional release of reptiles into the wild. Escaped constrictors are not a problem outside the Florida Everlgades so the only thing mandatory microchipping will do is increase the total cost of ownership (TCO) and the money spent on building, administering and maintaining a tracking database will outweigh any potential benefits. Microchipping also inhibits the free trade of reptiles. Ownership of many animals changes frequently and quickly. I can cite many instances where an animal changed ownership four (4) times in a single day. Keeping up with microchip registrations will be burdensome without benefit.
- Stiff penalties must be put in place for anyone caught intentionally releasing a non-native species into the wild. Most states already have something like this but the consequences need to be undesireable enough to cause people to want to find a different solution for getting rid of their animals.
I want a world where reptile ownership is unrestricted and unregulated. I don’t want any national permit system nor do I want to have to pay an annual fee or take a course for the right to own a reptile of my choosing. But that is increasingly not the reality. I would much rather endure a little bit of paperwork, pay a small fee and attend a class every few years than have my rights taken away completely. I fear that an unwillingness to budge by the reptile community will cause the total loss of our rights. It’s not fair and the fears of others are not based on reality but they don’t have to be in order for a law to get passed. It’s time we took the initiative and put processes into place that ensure our right to own large constrictors. And as soon as we do that I will start building my group of Burmese again, safe that I can breed them and be able to legally sell the animals.
The reptiles in your collection may very well be the last you ever own. The state of Florida is once again endeavoring to eliminate the reptile business. But not just for Florida, for the entire United States. On January 26th, 2009 a group of representatives from Florida introduced a bill into the U.S. House of Representatives that may very well end the open trade of many popular reptile species in the United States. Florida has a nonnative species problem. Of this there is no doubt. But rather than dealing with their problems at home they are taking it to the federal level (to get federal funds no doubt) and bringing us all down with them. This impacts you if any of the following are true:
- You want to be able to buy a reptile of a certain species at any point in the future.
- You want to be able to sell or trade a reptile of a certain species at any point in the future.
- You want to be able to breed a reptile of a certain species at any point in the future.
- You want to be able to transport a reptile across any state line at any point in the future.
As a community the reptile industry is terribly unorganized. We have no central body to represent us on a large scale and as a community we are now poised to have our hobby, our pastime, our businesses and, for many, our livelihood, eliminated by federal law. I’m not trying to be dramatic. This is real. If, as a group of citizens who share a common interest, we don’t get motivated about preserving our rights we will lose them. It is highly likely that those who represent us in the House and the Senate will gladly vote to make this bill into law because on the surface it seems to be a good idea. It aims to protect the United States from the damaging effects of nonnative animal species. And while we cannot doubt that there is a need for some protections for our native habitats we are in danger of having large chunks of the reptile business swept away in the process. We cannot let this happen.
As a community we need to protect our interests. This means we need to become organized. The exact mechanism by which we do this needs to become a point of immediate discussion followed by swift action. The formation of a trade association with the ability to lobby on our behalf specifically as it relates to this proposed law appears to be a mandate. I suspect that the lack of such action will lead to the worst of all possible outcomes for the reptile industry.
The formation of a trade association is one thing. Joining and supporting (yes, financially) that association is another. If you like keeping/breeding/selling reptiles you will need to particiapte. This is true even if you only have a single animal that serves as the household pet. Trade associations that lobby for their cause require the financial resources to do so. Are you willing to spend money to support a trade association that endeavors to protect your right to own the reptile of your choosing? I hope so. Because if you’re not, you may lose the right to own one in the future.
Let me explain how this proposed law, currently called the ‘Nonnative Wildlife Invasion Prevention Act’, will affect you. Once in effect there will be two lists; a list of approved species and a list of banned species. These lists will control whether or not a certain species may be imported into the United States. Those who only want the reptile business propagated by captive breeding may initially welcome a long list of banned species. This Act, however, goes much deeper than controlling the importation of animals. In no part is the intent of this Act to preserve and protect reptiles in their native habitat. This Act intends produce a single long-term result: the elimination certain reptiles from existence anywhere in the United States.
If approved this Act will make the following a reality:
- You may no longer posess, sell or offer to sell, purchase, trade or offer for trade any animal on the banned list.
- Result: Large chunks of the reptile business: bye-bye. All of the people who have jobs today in part because of the reptile business: bye-bye.
- You may no longer transport any animal on the banned list across any state line by any means.
- Result: Shipping a reptile to someone across state lines will be a crime. Taking your reptile to a trade show will be a crime.
- You may no longer own any animal that is on the banned list. If you owned the animals PRIOR to this Act becoming law you may continue to lawfully own the animal.
- Result: There is a hidden catch to this. If you legally own one of these animals today you will have to reveal that ownership to the authorities tomorrow. And there will be fees for the ownership, I’m sure. I suspect you will also be subject to inspections from authorities and will have to notify the authorities of any action you are taking with your animal. This is already true in some communities today. This Act will make it a federal matter that applies to all of us.
- You may NOT breed any animal that is on the banned list and you may NOT provide an animal to any other person for the purpose of breeding.
- Result: This effectively end the reptile breeding trade for any banned species.
What kind of crime are you committing if you get caught doing one of these things? Well, it’s a Lacey Act violation. If the animal you are caught with is worth more than $350 it is a felony. You could be sent to prison for several years (including life) and fined up to $250,000. If you are a business that gets caught the fine doubles to $500,000. If the animal you are caught with is less than $350 in value you are guilty of a misdemeanor. Misdemeanor charges include jail time up to 1 year and fines up to $100,000 for individuals and $200K for businesses.
How do we fight such a proposal? Section 4(c)(B) requires that an animal on the Approved List can only get there if the evaluating authorities are provided “sufficient scientific and commercial information to allow the Secretary to evaluate whether the proposed nonnative wildlife species is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to other animal species’ or human health.” The elimination of the ability to buy/sell/trade/own or breed certain reptiles and/or transport them across state lines will cause grave financial harm to the reptile business. And it won’t just be the breeders who suffer. The retailers of reptile caging supplies, rodent breeders, and veterinarians will suffer financially as well. Freight carriers such as Delta and FedEx will lose millions of dollars per year in revenue. The trickle down effect will be widespread. This illustrates the importance of a trade association that has lawyers and lobbyists that can make these points and argue for our rights.
Section 4(b)(1)(B) provides for animals that are potentially destructive to be on the Allowed List that “may be harmful to the United States’ economy, the environment, or other animal species’ or human health, but already are so widespread in the United States that it is clear to the Secretary that any import prohibitions or restrictions would have no practical utility for the United States.” What a great opportunity this is. I’m not a lawyer and I can easily conjure up ideas on how this can be leveraged.
Where do we go from here? I’m not 100% sure but we need to get serious about it. There may be others in the industry who are way ahead of me. If you are, please speak up. If there is nobody out there who has already taken the lead on this then we need people within the community who have the skills to step up. Me? In addition to breeding reptile professionally I’m a computer network security guy. I know how to make computers go but I don’t really know how to start a trade association or set up a lobby with legal support. Do you?