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?
I recently received a letter from the office of my representative in the US House of Representatives. The letter reiterates what one of his staffers told me during a face-to-face meeting when I went to his office in Washington DC. While I characterize Mr. Forbes as a delegate who is “on the side” of responsible pet owners I think his opportunity for opposition has been limited. This is, of course, unfortunate. What is more unfortunate is that the limitation stems from one of S373 and HR2811’s biggest sources of resistance: USARK.
In Mr. Forbes letter he points out that which we already know: an agreement has been reached between USARK and the HSUS to limit the scope of HR2811 to Burmese and African Rock pythons. That agreement unanimously passed the House Judiciary Committee on 7/29/09. I was at that hearing, I watched it happen. USARK, in what they believed was an effort to save all pythons, offered Burms and Afrocks in the spirit of “we’ve got to give them something.” In reality USARK’s compromise didn’t give supporters of the bill nearly as much as it took away from its opponents. On July 28th Mr. Forbes was opposed to HR2811. By the time the afternoon of the 29th rolled around he had little choice but to support it. Why? How can he oppose a bill that has been agreed upon by both sides of the issue? He can’t. It would be politically silly and a waste of time to do so. This was the exact sentiment shared with me by one of his staffers during our meeting. USARK’s decision to agree to a limited scope for HR2811 effectively ensures its passage when sent to the House floor for a vote. I can see delegates saying, “HSUS likes it and the snake people like it, too? All right then! Let’s vote on this thing and go grab a burger.” What is there to debate? It appears that everybody is happy. Except me. I’m not happy.
If S373 passes the impending full Senate vote and HR2811 passes a House vote the absolute best we can hope for when the two bills are reconciled is the elimination of Burmese and African Rock pythons. It won’t be any time soon that I forgive anybody who is responsible for that.
It’s a horrifying proposition but plausible to think that one of the best things that could happen at this point is that the HSUS gets one of their Democrat House delegates to introduce a new amendment to HR2811 that makes it mirror the current verbiage of S373 (e.g. all 9 animals in the USGS report). At least that way the venomoid-rendered opposition in the House can have a renewed reason to oppose the bill. How else are they supposed to argue against it? That’s not really the kind of gamble I’d like to take but…
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.
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.