By Emily D. Irvine: 3-27-12
The burmese python. Recently referred to as “the slithering scourge of the Everglades” by the Miami Herald, this southeast asian serpent has the been the subject of endless controversy among environmental protection agencies and reptile hobbyists in the last decade. Officially declared an injurious species in March of 2012, the burmese python, along with yellow anacondas and african rock pythons, was added to the Lacey Act, making their importation and transportation across state lines a felony. This new legislation, fought hard for by the South Florida Water Management District and U.S Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is meant to lessen the impact of the invasive burmese pythons which have established a thriving population in the fragile Everglades, a infestation believed to have been caused by escaped or intentionally released pet snakes. Yes, the Florida infestation exists, it is a huge threat to a precious and fragile ecosystem and it absolutely needs to be addressed and dealt with. In Florida. Restricting the sale of these animals across the country is just one more example of asinine government overreach coupled with an extraordinary ability to waste taxpayer time and money. Because Florida has a problem, a problem specific to Florida only, the whole country is being regulated and countless members of the reptile keeping community who depend on interstate sale and transport of their animals for income are being swept away without a second glance because of one state’s problems. There is appallingly faulty logic in this legislation, and it goes unnoticed because even though the reptile hobby is growing rapidly, snake keepers are a minority among pet-keeping Americans. Therefore, by attacking us, those behind this legislation can preach their heroism, their deep care and concern for the environment through protecting the country from the big scary snakes that are loose in Florida due to the carelessness of all those weird people who keep snakes as pets.
So what exactly are burmese pythons, and why are they a problem? Burms, as they are affectionately called by reptile hobbyists, are one of the most popular large constrictor in the pet trade. Though there are dozens of python species in the the world ranging in size from 3ft to 30ft, burms are perhaps what most people think of when they think of a python: big, squeezing snake. Burms are at the large end of the python spectrum, with 20ft specimens not uncommon. Though they are a large snake and not a pet for the inexperienced, their docile nature and relative ease of care (as large snakes go) makes them an enticing pet, so they are a staple in the collections of many reptile breeders across the country. However, their availability has had a tragic downside in the state of Florida. There are people out there who see an adult burm and think it would make them look fantastically impressive if they pulled it out to show their friends at keg parties. There are individuals who have an extremely inflated sense of their own abilities and feel that an adult burmese python would be no trouble to wrangle on their own, a great tool for impressing anyone and everyone. So they buy a 2ft hatchling, put in a box, and watch it grow. As their phallus-enhancing pet approaches 10ft, then 12….15…17ft, many people may come to the conclusion that they made a mistake. If the snake is housed improperly or handled like it is part of a circus side-show, it will likely become stressed, and a stressed snake becomes an aggressive snake. Either out of frustration or fear, many people, at this point, will drive their snake away from their house and drop it off in the nearest swamp, forest, even dumpster. These snakes, unwanted because of the failures of their keepers, are sure to die. Unless they happen to be dumped in Florida.
Why Florida? Because burmese pythons are native to tropical Southeast Asia, a region with a nearly identical climate to the Florida Everglades, at least close enough for these apex predators to survive. The problem is, the Everglades already have a reptilian top predator: the American alligator. In their new home, burms compete with alligators for the same food sources, throwing the whole ecosystem out of balance. In fact, burms get so large they are able to kill and eat small gators themselves, though they are feeding most readily on several endangered species of birds and wood rats. It is an ecological nightmare. But though the snakes will ultimately be the ones who suffer, they are not the ones at fault. People are at fault, people who are ruled by their need for machismo, not their common sense, and who completely fail to value the wellbeing of the animal they adopted out of ignorance.
So if I fully acknowledge that the invasive python problem in the Everglades is indeed a huge cause for concern, then why do I so vehemently oppose the addition of burms to the Lacey Act? Because the Lacey Act is national, and the problem is not. The Lacy Act is an ever growing list of non-native species, both plants and animals, that are banned from importation into the United States, intended to stop foreign species that could have a devastating impact on ecosystems across the country from every entering it. I oppose the addition of burmese pythons to that list because these are animals that have been in this country as pets for decades with no adverse effects outside of Florida. Those who support the ban say burms are hardy creatures that can survive as far north as Washington D.C. and are beginning to grow in such numbers that they will soon begin to migrate. This is the most asinine statement I have heard in this argument. Firstly, I ask you to ponder this notion: Do you really believe that ONLY the state of Florida is filled with ignorant people who release their unwanted giant constrictors into the wild when they become too big to deal with? Of course not. I can guarantee you someone who should have never have had a burm in the first place has released them in every state in this country. In Florida, they survive. Everywhere else, they would either not last the night, or at the very best, not last a season. Why? Snakes are reptiles and reptiles are ectothermic, and Burmese pythons are reptiles from the tropics where the temperature rarely falls below 80 degrees. Snakes from tropical and equatorial regions where there is not an extreme seasonal temperature differentiation do not and cannot hibernate, unlike North American snakes which are active from late spring to early fall and absent in winter months. A burmese python cannot survive the first chill of fall in 99% of the country. Only in Florida can they thrive.
Because so many burms are already here, the new ban has not banned them outright, but its stipulations certainly will lead to the slow demise of the species in private collections. The new law says anyone who currently has a burm may keep it, but if they move to a different state, they may not bring their beloved pet with them, for transporting the animal across state lines is now a violation of the Lacy Act. This means any breeders of burms may now only sell to buyers in their own state or out of the country, provided the flight the snake is on makes no stops in other states. This significantly damages the market for these animals. The reptile hobby is spread far across the country. We do business with each other from afar and breeders count on business from all states. I personally live in California and purchased my snake from a breeder in Michigan. This is common, and essential for buyers and sellers alike to have access to rare animals to add to their collections. We can say goodbye to all of the beautiful color morphs burms come in. There just wont be a big enough market in any one state for more expensive varieties of these snakes to keep breeders in business.
The Everglades problem is the result of people who should have never had possession of a Burmese python getting their hands on one and then seeking to get rid of it quickly. This indeed makes the problem lay with the accessibility of these animals, not the animals themselves. While I absolutely despise the majority of government regulations, I feel in the case of large constrictors, a keeper should be required to prove they can meet the care and handling requirements of the animal, as well as be briefed on safety. In the hobby, we go by a general rule that any snake under 10ft in length can be safely handled by one average sized adult. After 10ft, an additional handler is required for every 1 meter of snake. This means an adult Burmese python could easily require 3-4 adults to be safely handled. If you cannot have 3 extra adults around at any given time, you should not own a burmese python. Snakes need to be kept in an enclosure that is at least 2/3 the length of their body. If you do not have the space or the budget to maintain a 15ft home for your snake, you should not own a burmese python. This is an impractical animal for most people. However, there are true reptile hobbyist who can meet these requirements and then some, and they should be allowed to have their animals and take them where they wish. Logically, this situation requires a permit system. The permit should not be so hard to obtain that true hobbyists cannot have access to it, but enough of a deterrent to keep away those who do not need these animals. A modest fee, required class on animal husbandry and safety, followed by a permit test would suffice. If a keeper possesses the proper permit, they should be allowed to take their snake with them to any state that legally allows them. If Florida would like to regulate themselves and ban future ownership of Burmese pythons in their borders, they’re voters are entitled to do so. This is a state issue, not a national one.
Remember that just because the passage of a law does not effect your personal lifestyle, someday, a new law might, and if you do not speak out, someday there will be no one left to speak out for you. What if pit bulls are deemed too dangerous and banned because irresponsible owners fail to control their pets? What if there is an increase in the number of people injured by horses because they ride them with no experience and the government decides to ban them for the safety of us all? What about feral cats plaguing every neighborhood in the country and the environmental devastation they cause? Should we ban them too? Your government might if you don’t speak out. Find your voice and speak up for your rights. But most importantly, don’t be part of problem. Be a responsible pet owner. This means doing all the needed research before adopting an exotic animal, and vaccinating and spay/neutering domestic ones. This means having a back up plan if you find you can no longer meet the care requirements of your pet, and allowing the proper amount in your budget to meet their monthly needs. And remember, those of us who have snakes love them just as much as you love your dog, and we would be eternally grateful if you didn’t let our voices be silenced. Stand by us and we will gladly stand by you when your rights are threatened.