The Future of Giant Snakes

A specialty retailer’s perspective on legislative impingements on selling big snakes and its impact on the pet trade.


I can’t imagine it has escaped the notice of anyone in our industry that there is a concerted, targeted, and premeditated war in progress on our rights to buy, sell, or even own large snakes. While the efforts of the United States Association of Reptile Keepers (USARK) and others have done well to fend off these incursions, I have to believe that we are, in the end, just forestalling the inevitable. 

The stated goal of some of the most powerful animal welfare organizations—and the one I am mostly thinking of functions more as a political lobbying group that anything else—is the elimination of all exotic animals from the purview of private ownership. All of them. Think about that for a moment. Had such a goal been met only 80 years ago, hamsters would today be illegal as pets. Hamsters. 

Of course, if you have such a goal, the best approach to achieving it is an incremental one. And the best place to start is with the animals that are the most imbued with fear by the general public—giant snakes. 

The establishment of a breeding population of Burmese pythons in the Everglades has added much fuel to the fire. I grew up on the edge of the Everglades, and even in my childhood in the early 1960s, the advent of alien animals into the landscape was nothing new. I lived through a flurry of invasion scares—walking catfish, green iguana, marine toad, spectacled caiman—all by the time I was seven years old. South Florida is rife with alien species, and it has been since the introduction of that most dangerous and intrusive of all animals, modern man, itself an introduced species. Nothing new there. 

But the scare over pythons on the Everglades brought some new twists to the old tale; federal officials warned that, given global warming, the pythons could spread as far as San Francisco within 50 years. Officials claimed that humans themselves might start to be prey items for the beasts. Officials claimed that Burmese pythons would upset the delicate balance of wildlife in the Everglades forever. 

Such claims were, of course, hyperbolic at best. Could humans be prey to the pythons? Well, of course, it would be possible. But ask yourself: how many times has that happened? 
Would pythons change the balance in the ‘Glades? Absolutely. But to what extent as opposed to, say, the sugar industry, which, complicit with the Florida government, is destroying the area acre by acre wholesale. 

Could pythons migrate out of Florida, across the Southwest deserts, over the Rocky Mountains, and in to the San Francisco Bay? Believe me, if global climate change gets that severe, pythons will be the least of our worries. 

Nonetheless, the federal government reacted to what was a local problem in Florida by drafting legislation that affects us all on a national level. We now live in an environment in which Burmese pythons, African rock pythons, Indian pythons and yellow anacondas may not cross state lines. Green anacondas, reticulated pythons and even boa constrictors are also under review, having been left out of the original legislation. This means, for instance, that if you want to own a Burmese python, it must have been produced within your state.
To be honest, the popularity of such truly enormous snakes has been on the decline for decades. Whereas, in the 1990s, I might expect to retail a hundred babies in a season, by the mid 2000s, I could barely find buyers for two dozen of them. Like many of the bigger animals across the board (iguanas, tortoises, and monitors as well), the public’s fetishization of size reached its limits. In my store, I always make sure to have large examples of baby animals on hand so that people know what’s in store. This is often an instant deterrent. 

But does this mean that such animals should be effectively illegal for everybody, including responsible hobbyists, for the most capricious of reasons? I don’t believe so, and responsible pet retailers should be appalled at these laws. But what can we do? 

Well, in the first place, we need to support the organizations that support us, the most obvious and important being USARK. I would also suggest working in conjunction with other retailers in your state to establish strong breeding groups of some of these animals for which there is a market and which are threatened by legal strangleholds. Breeding loans and cooperative programs might do a lot to keep thriving captive populations going. You might also explore the possibilities of such projects within the population of your own customer base. 

As someone who has been in this field for nearly four decades, I have seen the legal status of exotic pets evolve, and in only one direction: more laws, covering more species, and less choice for pet owners and hobbyists. 

To be fair, many of these laws have been reasonable, and even wise. Should private parties be allowed to keep demonstrably lethal animals with no registration or restriction? I don’t think so. I am glad, even thrilled, that in my state no one in the public sector is allowed to keep cobras. I am happy whenever demonstrably environmentally injurious animals are legislated out of public hands. If our state wildlife agency came to me seeking to outlaw red-eared sliders and bullfrogs, I would back them 100 percent. In fact, they haven’t done that, and I know why. It’s because they would be stepping on the toes of politically powerful special interests who have commercial and cultural interests in those two species, despite the damage they do. Those interests are not the pet industry. 

I am also happy to see any laws, especially international ones that reasonably protect the welfare and status of wild populations, even if those laws impact my business negatively. Should wild populations of threatened animals be protected from over harvesting, smuggling and cruel exploitation? I didn’t get into this business because I hate animals—quite the opposite. 

These giant snake laws do nothing to protect wild populations of snakes. They do nothing to protect the environment to which, Everglades excepted, they pose no threat. They do nothing to protect public safety. 

I don’t think these laws will change; in fact, I only expect them to get worse. So, we within the industry must do our best work together, and work around them.

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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