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…
The reptile community has been suckered. We are falling for a very clever ruse and it is happening at this very moment.
What trick, you say? S373 and HR2811, of course. The clever nature of the trickery behind these bills has caused the reptile community to lose its perspective and react in a most unexpected way. We are now working for the other side. We are unintentionally supporting a ban. Allow me to explain.
Both S373 and HR2811 propose to add the entire genus PYTHON to the injurious species list of the current Lacey Act. If passed this will ban the importation of AND interstate transport of all pythons. This will effectively end the trade in every species of python there is. This is, of course, a horrifying proposition to python lovers everywhere. At first I laughed at the silliness of it and shook my head at how uneducated the people were who penned such legislation. But as I continued to think about it I came to realise that it may actually be brilliant wording on their part. It’s brilliance lies their anticipation of our reaction. As a community we have played directly into the hands of those who wish ban the ownership of exotic animals. And leading the packed on being tricked is one of our most active voices, the United States Association of Reptile Keepers, USARK.
In my opinion USARK has officially thrown the Burmese Python under the proverbial bus. I have long feared it would one day happen but did not expect it to come so soon. On July 25th, 2009 USARK actively solicited the reptile community to contact members of the House Judiciary Committee to amend the wording of HR2811 to specifically address Burmese pythons rather than the entire python genera. In doing so they have become unintentional participants in the initiative to ban large constrictors in the United States. And I suggest that this is partially what the authors of S373 and HR2811 wanted to happen. I believe these bills are INTENTIONALLY vague (by using only the term ‘python’) in order to get us to say, “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Don’t ban all pythons! Just ban Burmse pythons! “ Wait. Did we, the reptile community, really just say that? Yeah, we did.
The last I heard USARK’s position was that they did not support legislation that was not based on a legitimate scientific analysis of the ability of the Burmese python to expand beyond the Florida Everglades. Has such evidence surfaced? No, it has not. But their position appears to have changed. USARK wants to be the voice of the reptile community and they appear to be suggesting that we offer up the Burmese python as a sacrifice to protect all the other pythons.
Please don’t take my words to think that I am coming down on USARK as a whole. I do not intend to do so. I firmly believe that USARK has, at its foundations, nothing but the absolute best intentions for the reptile community. They are a group of people who have stood up to fill a void; a voice to represent reptile owners throughout the United States. But I do not agree with their reaction to this particular issue. And part of me thinks that they, like the rest of us, have been tricked into a position that supports the desired result of those who wish to ban the ownership of exotic animals. We have played into their hands. Just a few short months ago we were all screaming, “No. You may not ban pythons without scientific evidence to support their ability to be invasive beyond the Florida Everglades.” Now, in a tiny amount of time, we seem to have changed our voice to say, “Please, please, please! Just ban Burmese pythons.” The only way we could have changed our tune so quickly is if we were tricked into doing so. And tricked we have been.
If you are going to make a call on Monday to a member of the House Judiciary Committee regarding the wording of HR2811 (as the USARK suggests) you need to make a choice about what you are going to say. Are you going to advocate a change in the wording that says it’s OK to ban the Burmese python or are you going to tell them that the Lacey Act should not be amended until proof can be found that pythons are a national problem rather than just an isolated problem in the south of Florida?
And by the way, there is already a bill floating around that will fund efforts to hunt Burmese pythons in the Everglades (as well as multiple dozens of other non-native creatures that get no publicity). If Burmese pythons cannot expand beyond the Everglades and we are going to hunt them down and remove them, why do we need a law banning them throughout the entire United States? In short, we don’t.
Once the exotic animal banning gates are open we cannot close them. More and more reptiles and other exotics will find themselves legally unavailable for ownership.
P.S. – Where are the big shipping companies? Delta (via Delta Dash), FedEx and UPS all stand to lose a considerable amount of money if these bans are actually put into effect. They should want to lobby on behalf of the responsible reptile owning community and ensure the future of a large revenue stream.
Final note: It is not lost on me that USARK’s position may be one of minimization. They may be taking a precautionary stance by seeking to amend the wording to minimize damage if the unthinkable should happen. But even if that is true it doesn’t change the fact that there has been a shift in tone toward a willingness to let Burmese python ownership become a thing of the past.