Later this year someone is going to break into your house while you are sleeping. They are there to take things that do not belong to them; things you worked for, things you earned. Awakened by the noise they are making you confront them and are stunned to find that the thief is someone you had thought to be a friend. You toss him a loaded gun and scream, “Please don’t shoot me!” A few minutes later, as you lie bleeding on the floor, your precious possessions gone, you cry out, “I was always so nice to him. I can’t believe he shot me.” For reasons unknown it never computes that you put the gun in the thief’s hand. It was you that armed him with the weapon he used to wound you. Who did you vote for in the last congressional election? How about the last presidential election?
I recently read my daughter a bedtime story (for the 987th time) which centered on a young dragon taken in by Princess Aurora (of Sleeping Beauty fame). Starting with her husband, Prince Phillip, and continuing with each encounter with the story’s other characters Aurora is met with storybook disdain for her new pet. The universal reason: dragons are dangerous. The dragon, in an effort to fit in, tries to emulate other animals who do not suffer the same unearned contempt. But dragons are what dragons are and each attempt to be something he is not leads to moments of chaos involving, as you might guess, fire. It’s not until the end of the story that the dragon comes to terms with what he is and finds a place in the life of the story.
None of the characters in the story offered anecdotal evidence as to why dragons are dangerous; they just knew them to be so.
As an American I am chronically aware that many of my fellow citizens don’t pay much attention to what is going on in other countries. By no means is that an across-the-board statement; it’s just something I have made note of in my interactions with others as I travel about the country. It’s not unusual for Americans to be so unabashedly and ignorantly ethnocentric that they don’t have the slightest idea of what is going in the rest of the world. Who am I kidding? Many don’t even know what is going on in this country. Jay Leno is good at pointing this out from time-to-time in his late night talk show antics (and here). Most Americans know that something is going in in Iraq but many don’t realize that Iran is different than Iraq and they certainly don’t know why Israel is so despised by them. Most of us know that Princess Diana died a while back
I am not too unlike you, I suspect. I have received the emails, read the blogs, followed the forum threads and participated in the related chatter. Been there. Done that. And yes, I even got a t-shirt.
Like many of you I have repeatedly railed against the unrelenting stream of assaults on reptile ownership. My passion for my position has, to my knowledge, not swayed a single opponent or politician. As is so often the case parties on opposite sides of a debate are uninterested in truly listening to and understanding the differing view. But that makes sense, doesn’t it?
Back in high school I sat through more than one government class. In my freshman year of college I went through the motions during a year-long course on the history of the United States. While sitting in those classrooms I wasn’t really investing in the information, I was enduring it. I memorized facts, names and dates that would need to later be regurgitated on an exam. Despite the quality of my schooling I must admit that I failed to process the information as anything other than raw data. True internalization of the information didn’t really happen for me. Part of the reason I missed so much was (honestly) a general lack of interest. For no good reason I found the history of places like Persia and Greece to be much more intriguing than that of my own country. History is often presented by academia as a string of names, dates, documents and military conflicts, each of which is summed up in a few paraphrased and often opinionated paragraphs. The impacts and long-term meanings of the events are not often taught in a way that encourages students to understand the information as it relates to their own lives. The end result is that many of us fail to fully connect the dots on how the events that occurred before our birth actually impact our existence. Teaching is an art form and most educators who have the ability to regurgitate facts lack the talent to make it relevant and interesting. As a result many students frequently purge the information after its usefulness on a test is complete. I do not fault my teachers for this. I take responsibility for my own actions, including the concerned attention I did not pay to my own nation’s history. During my earlier years I never fully took the opportunity to explore how the decisions of the founding fathers were supposed to impact the life I am living more than two hundred years later. The past several years, however, have changed all of that in a way I never expected. If someone had told me many years ago that it would be pythons and boas that suddenly caused the processes of government to be immensely relevant I would have rolled my eyes and wandered off.
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.
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?