Herps and the Law

Pet specialty retailers in the herp arena need to know and live by the law, while also staying on top of pending legislation that threatens the hobby.


The evolution of legislation governing the sale and ownership of wildlife in San Francisco begins with an urban legend. There is scant documentation of the incident, but knowing the parties concerned, it seems plausible, and the politician at the heart of the story has not confirmed or denied the story when asked. It is a story I have heard widely repeated from a number of sources who were active in the herp community at the time.

snakeMany years ago, a local San Francisco city politician who has since gone on to national political prominence was at a rally. As she was emerging from her limo, someone threw a boa constrictor onto her car seat. She soon thereafter marched into City Hall and drafted legislation banning private ownership of all kinds of wildlife, including, of course, boas. The law is odd in a few respects. One of those respects is that there is a boa native to San Francisco, the rubber boa (Charina bottae). Have these small, harmless and shy snakes now been put in legal limbo simply for residing here?

I am being capricious, of course, but my point is that laws—especially those at a local level—can often be poorly written, unreasonable and exasperating. That does not lessen the degree of their legality or the unintended consequences of their effects. For instance, my store is located across the bay, where such a draconian law is not in effect. While it would be natural for me to have a presence in the area’s major metropolis, that law—which also bans any snake over six feet and large lizards—keeps me from opening within those city limits or adding to the city’s tax base.

It is important for everyone in the pet business who decides to work with herps to be conversant with, and adherent to the law, including city, county, state and federal legislation. It is equally important to keep yourself appraised of proposed changes in the laws that could have important consequences on what you can and cannot sell, and the standards of care you must meet.

Frankly, many of these laws are perfectly sound and actually work to protect us and more importantly, the animals. For instance, California bans the private sale, purchase and ownership of almost all front-fanged venomous snakes, with local albinos being the exception. I am happy for this law—the last thing our industry needs is a juicy headline about injury or death at the hands of a privately owned cobra or boomslang. My store has even opted not to carry the excepted rattlers, as I don’t think their addition to my inventory comes close to being worth the risk.

However, aside from knowing and abiding by the laws, retailers should actively participate in their evolution. Your voice and the voices of your customers, can and should be an important consideration in the work of your lawmakers. To that end, I strongly recommend that you join and support the National Reptile and Amphibian Advisory Council (nraac.org), a national organization dedicated to the responsible regulation of the hobby.

It is also important to be familiar with your state offices for fish and game, and agriculture, as well as local health agencies. If possible, call up your officials in all these capacities, introduce yourself, and offer to work with them so that you can fully understand the law and comply. It also doesn’t hurt to have working relationships with your local animal shelters and animal-welfare organizations. If you run a clean facility and are on good terms with all these people, you will rest easy that any potential issues will probably be easily resolved.

Here’s a for instance: Some years ago, a wholesaler offered us some rather hot venomous scorpions. We had not carried these before, and they were impressively attractive animals being offered at a reasonable price. We checked through the laws as best we could, and after determining that they were indeed legal, we got them in, and displayed them in a double-locked and safe container. All was well until a week later, when two agents of the County Vector Control Unit—read: health officers; they do like the fancy names—came by. They explained that, while it was true that there were no specific laws regarding the scorpions, they would be a lot more comfortable if we did not sell them. I am convinced that, had I not been the professional with a good reputation who they had come to know, we would have had a big problem. There might have been a confiscation, or worse. As it was, I told them I would be sending the scorpions back to the wholesaler. They accepted my offer with a smile, and no more was said.

In my early years in this business, I was visited with regularity by fish and game officers. They would walk around, ask the employees a few questions and leave. Even though they almost never identified themselves and were out of uniform, I got to be very good at recognizing them—so much so that I would sometimes approach them and say, “As long as you’re here, could you answer a question?” or “How are things in the capitol?”

Twice in those years, I was approached by undercover agents offering to sell me illegal snakes and asking me to sell them python products that were, under an obscure law, illegal. Refusing the former offer and responding that I would have to check on the legality of the latter were the right moves, and ever since, I have enjoyed nothing but a pleasant relationship with all those agencies. Meanwhile, I have seen massive busts of hobbyists and dealers go on all around me. My point is that it pays to keep your nose clean.

The big legal issue of the past few years has, of course, been the move to ban large snakes. To our detriment, this move has achieved some success, despite being a national response to a local problem that is specific to South Florida. And it is a problem that was hyped by the media into near hysteria. There is a ban on interstate transport of a number of species, but don’t think for a moment that the forces behind this are satisfied or finished. The ultimate goal for many promoting these laws is the illegalization of all “exotic” pets. It behooves all of us to stay on top of this, because it is both our livelihoods and our rights at stake. You will be better able to fight the good fight if, in fact, you have a reputation for legality and animal welfare.

Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 30 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.

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