Recently, a powerful lobby spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to defeat a bill that would have enhanced public safety, safeguarded the environment and curtailed cruelty to animals. Who is this giant wielding such influence? BP? The NRA? Halliburton? Nope, it’s none other than the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers, which fought a bill that would have made some species of dangerous snakes illegal to import and sell. The group griped and hyped for three years until the list was gutted by more than half—four species have been banned rather than nine.
The ban will stop imports and interstate commerce in Burmese pythons (who, as a new study shows, are eating their way through Florida’s Everglades), yellow anacondas and northern and southern African pythons. Yet anyone can still go out and buy, breed, sell and trade in boa constrictors, reticulated pythons and three other species of anaconda.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar—whose job it is to protect our natural resources, not animal dealers—unabashedly defended the watered-down version of the bill, assuring Americans that the compromise wouldn’t “suffocate” commerce.
It’s a strange lot that insists that pythons, rattlers, constrictors, vipers and other reptile species make good pets. Snakes shun contact with people and for good reason: They are wild animals who only suffer at the hands of humans. Reptiles do not want to be your friend. They want to be left alone.
Those who breed and sell reptiles make money. But how to understand those who buy and keep the animals? In Jennie Erin Smith’s remarkable book, Stolen World, which documents the scope and scale of this ruthless industry, one dealer puts it this way: “A venomous animal gives someone a sense of power and a sense of adventure in an otherwise mundane life.”
But for the animals who are shipped around the world crammed inside toilet paper tubes, plastic margarine tubs and shipping crates labeled “automotive parts,” a buyer’s need to be different is often a death sentence. Mortality is high. Dealers hope that some of what they call “inventory” will survive shipment, knowing full well that the box will arrive filled mostly with decomposing bodies.
Reptiles have specialized husbandry needs, including spectrum lighting, heat sources and dietary requirements, which are expensive, tedious and technical. Very few buyers have the knowledge or inclination to commit to the lifelong responsibility of the animals they acquire on a whim. Snakes usually end up living in small aquariums where they can’t even stretch out the full length of their bodies, much less move around or climb.
Because they can’t vocalize pain or discomfort, it’s easy for owners who feel inconvenienced and bored by their new chore to ignore a starving, dehydrated or sick snake. Snakes are relegated to eating whatever someone remembers to dump into their tanks. They are hauled out for shock value, but roughly handling even large snakes can cause serious internal injuries.
Rather than exploring lush jungles and swamps and experiencing all the sensory pleasures that they are so keenly attuned to, their lives become an interminable limbo. For the vast majority of snakes who aren’t abandoned in an area like the Everglades, where they stand a chance of surviving, death will be slow and painful. Those who manage to acclimate wreak havoc on natural ecosystems—as the new study found, invasive pythons and anacondas have all but wiped out bobcats, raccoons, rabbits and other animals in the Everglades—and cost taxpayers millions of dollars to combat.
Why should the interests of a small group trump cruelty to animals, public safety, taxpayers’ money and environmental devastation? Why did it take three years for the government to sign this weak bill into law? Who “needs” a pet anaconda, boa constrictor or python? These are all questions with no reasonable answer.