Although snakes have had a poor reputation and have been loathed and detested throughout the entirety of western history, largely due to biblical references to the animals, in recent months there have been proposed bans on interstate commerce of all boas and pythons from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). This paper primarily aims to provide a background to the problems that the USFWS intends to solve with the pending legislation, including introductory information on the reptile industry which the ban would devastate, and explain why a ban on the transportation, or ownership, of these animals will, in fact, fail to accomplish any targets that the USFWS anticipates, while destroying a flourishing industry in the process.
Constrictors are a group of snake species that lack venom and kill their prey through constriction, which ultimately causes blood pressure in the food to raise so high as to cause immediate cardiac arrest. Taxonomically, constrictors include all species of boas (family Boidae) and pythons (family Pythonidae). Various species range from only a foot or so long to the reticulated python (Python reticulatus) of Southeast Asia and the green anaconda (Eunectes murinus), a boa from South America, which have each been reported to grow to over thirty feet. Most species of constrictors are widely kept in captivity, with exponential growth in popularity over the last twenty years. Some smaller species, such as ball pythons (Python regius) and rosy boas (Lichanura trivirgata) are easily kept as children’s pets, while other, larger and potentially aggressive varieties are kept primarily by experienced handlers and breeders.
The constrictor industry is one of the largest factions of the reptile industry. Originally, the trade was dominated by importers who would travel to Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia to capture and sell boa constrictors (Boa constrictor imperator and Boa constrictor constrictor), ball pythons (Python regius), Burmese pythons (Python molurus bivittatus), and other such snakes that thrived in captivity. As husbandry techniques progressed, however, keepers were able to successfully breed these species, creating a new market for captive bred animals, which were quickly determined to be superior pets to those snakes that were wild caught, as they generally had better health and their temperaments were more conducive to being handled.
In 1981, a male amelanistic (albino) Burmese python, lacking all black pigment, was caught and imported into the United States by Tom Crutchfield, and was sold in January 1983 to Bob Clark, who then bred this animal to several females, and, over the next ten years, produced hundreds more albino pythons, which quickly became a common animal to see in the zoo, as well as a relatively customary household pet for reptile enthusiasts. This marked a shift in the industry, where boas and pythons with genetic mutations, or color “morphs” as they are called in the trade’s vernacular, were highly desired, and collectors were known to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to acquire some of the rarest, with hopes of breeding them to propagate the genetics and make a profit, despite the definite decline in market prices due to increased supply. As more and more of these color morphs were discovered and brought into the pet trade, the reptile industry expanded exponentially and quickly became a viable component of the national pet exchange.
Now, the constrictor industry is thriving, with many full time breeders that make their entire living off of selling boas and pythons, smaller breeders and hobbyists that breed to supplement another source of income, and importers that bring in wild caught snakes to keep blood lines fresh and prevent interbreeding of related animals. The industry depends on online sales, through independent breeders’ websites and a classified site called Kingsnake.com, which serves as the hub for all of the reptile trade. There are hundreds of trade shows throughout the country each year, with each one involving the sales of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of snakes in a single weekend. There are also supplementary industries that rely on people keeping constrictors as pets to do business. These satellite companies sell caging, food (live and/or frozen rodents), and accessories; major pet supply companies such as ZooMed, ExoTerra, Animal Plastics, Rodent Pro, and T-Rex are all large firms that exist primarily as vendors to the reptile community. According to statistics taken by Kingsnake.com, the sale of constrictors is increasing at an exceedingly rapid rate in the United States; the annual sale of boas and pythons nearly doubled in the last three years. On Kingsnake.com Classifieds, alone, a little over one hundred thousand constrictors were sold in 2004, but by the end of 2007, over two hundred and ten thousand (Kingsnake.com reports, comparatively, that through their classified ads, 270,000 total reptiles were sold and 420,000 were sold in 2007, a hundred and fifty five percent increase versus the one hundred and eighty seven percent increase in sale of constrictors).
Currently, it is perfectly legal as per federal regulations to own any species of constrictor. Thirty five out of fifty states also have no ruling directives on the ownership of boas and pythons. While four states, New York, Hawaii, Iowa, and Illinois, prohibit constrictors of various species to be kept by individuals, only eleven states have regulations to restrict private ownership of the taxonomical family. Trade of the creatures is currently allowed, and they may be carried over state borders without penalty. The animals can also be shipped overnight, via either FedEx or Delta Airlines, for a fee (generally about forty to sixty dollars per package), and thousands of reptiles are transported in this method every day.
Burmese pythons (Python molurus bivittatus) can grow up to twenty feet long and their docile natures and inexpensive prices they have become one of the most popular pet snakes. There are currently about two hundred thousand Burmese pythons in captivity in the United States. Unfortunately, many people purchase these animals as two foot hatchlings, not realizing that they can easily reach fifteen feet in length in two years, weighing up to one hundred and fifty pounds and requiring a cage with a minimum six feet by two feet of floor space. At this size they tend to be expensive to maintain and feed, and are often hard to handle for smaller people and inexperienced keepers. Due to these factors, dozens of people have released their unwanted large pythons in the Everglades in southern Florida. The climate of this region is similar to that of their natural habitat, and there are few predators that are have the ability to kill and eat a snake more than a few feet long. According to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, these snakes have created a sustainable population in the Everglades and are a threat to the various native species of rodent and bird that inhabit the southernmost part of Florida. The USFWS also worries about the danger of rogue Burmese pythons (or “burms” as they are commonly called) attacking and consuming residents’ dogs and cats, and even small children. To date, there have been no studies done to prove whether or not the snakes do or do not breed once they have been released. While federal agencies report that there are more than thirty thousand of these feral snakes currently living in Florida, there have never been any studies to determine that there is any significant self-sustaining population, and all experts on the species agree that there is no possible way that the small region supports anywhere close to that number of snakes.
These worries of various boa and python species taking root in regions of the United States, upsetting natural flora and fauna and posing a threat to human safety and agriculture are the basis on which the United States Fish and Wildlife Service founds its interest in creating a ban of interstate commerce of pythons and boas. According to the USFWS’s summary of their notice to the reptile community, “The importation and introduction of constrictor snakes into the natural ecosystems of the United States may pose a threat to the interests of agriculture, horticulture, forestry; to the health and welfare of human beings; and to the welfare and survival of wildlife and wildlife resources in the United States. An injurious wildlife listing would prohibit the importation into, or between, States, the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and any territory or possession of the United States by any means, without a permit.” While the ban may sound reasonable to those looking to preserve natural wildlife, Bob Clark, one of the premier breeders of many species, including Burmese pythons, states, “This is junk science and it will whip the public into a frenzy… it sounds perfectly reasonable to most people that we should ban animals that could establish themselves in our neighborhoods, eat our children, and have our dog for dessert.” What the government fails to note, however, is that there is no evidence to support their allegations, and that the ban would, in fact, not solve any existing problem, nor would it serve to prevent any future problems involving constrictors.
Some proponents of the ban are less focused on the conservation of indigenous species and more worried about human safety. In fact, only a small handful of the ninety species of Boidae and Pythonidae are even capable of killing a human being. On the other hand, any medium or large sized dog is easily capable of attacking and killing an adult human. According to Brian Sharp, expert breeder of boas, “a compilation of data from hospital emergency departments of all animal bites that required treatment shows that 98% are from dogs and cats. The remaining 1 to 2% of bites are from all animals other than dogs or cats. This means that bites from non-venomous snakes represents only a fraction of a percent, and are not even worthy of being mentioned as a separate category.” Those, then, who oppose the keeping and trade of constrictors, must realize that humans are, statistically, far more likely to be seriously injured by a pet canine or feline than a boa or python. Similarly, there are estimated to be more than sixty million feral cats in the United States, all which are more capable of destroying ecological systems and causing “more persistent, widespread damage” than any snake.
The ban will be a national ban, based on the idea that the supposedly thriving, self sufficient population of Burmese pythons could potentially replicate itself in another region, with that or another species of boa or python, and jeopardize human lives and natural species. On February 20, 2008, the United States Geological Survey released an article, along with a map, of the areas that Burmese pythons, and, by extension, all other constrictors, could colonize. According to their data they claim, “Burmese pythons… could find comfortable climatic conditions in roughly a third of the United State”. They also assert that “Burmese pythons and other giant constrictor snakes have shown themselves to be highly adaptable to new environments”, which would allow them to spread above the southern third of the United States as time progressed. In actuality, United States Geological Survey’s report is entirely faulty and is based on no studies of any constrictor’s natural habitat or their physical capabilities. In all regions of the United States, except for southern Florida, temperatures drop too low to be able to support any species of boa or python (except for the rosy boa and rubber boa, both of which are native to the southwest United States) year round. Therefore, at most, a snake released by unprepared owners would only be able to survive for about a year before dying due to inadequate temperatures or insufficient humidity. Jeff Ronne, owner of Boaphile Enterprises, one of the largest producers of boa constrictors in the country, states, in response to the claim of adaptability, that “it would require millennia of change and adaptation before these tropical serpents would adapt to the wide range that is shown on the map done by the USGS.” It takes thousands of years for any species of any creature to evolve, via Charles Darwin’s theories of ‘survival of the fittest’ and genetic variation. As cold blooded animals, any nonnative constrictor exposed to temperatures below fifty or sixty degrees for more than a few hours will have the capability to survive. In all regions of the country besides the southernmost tip of Florida, nighttime winter temperatures drop significantly below fifty degrees, and often into sub-freezing ranges, where no nonnative, tropical species would be able to survive the night. Therefore, no state but Florida needs to have restriction of any constrictor species based on the grounds that native flora and fauna must be preserved and an introduced snake would disrupt the natural balance of the ecosystem currently in place.
Were a ban to pass on interstate commerce, the reptile industry would be devastated, which would have a huge impact on the economy as a whole. FedEx and Delta Airlines would lose a significant amount of profit. Large pet store chains such as Petsmart and PetCo would miss out on sales of constrictors, which they commonly sell across the nation. Thousands of breeders and owners of reptile store companies would lose their jobs due to a sudden decrease in market size. Large pet supply companies, such as those who manufacture and market terrariums and other reptile related accessories, would lose huge percentages of their total revenue. Though the reptile industry is generally all but hidden from general knowledge, the effect of the proposed ban on the nation’s economy would be devastating.
In addition to being caustic to the economy, a ban on interstate commerce would be virtually futile. While individual animals could no longer be transported across state borders, they could still be bought, sold, kept, and bred within any given state that they still exist. Since there is a well established captive population of constrictors in almost every state already, the potential legislation, if passed, would be ineffective in keeping people from dumping their pets into the wild. Additionally, making it illegal to transport constrictors between states would not stop people from doing so. Instead, it would create a black market, similar to that which occurs with most banned goods and services. Because of the inability to bring new snakes into the state, the individual species in each state would be compromised, as it would limit the genetic pool that could breed to create new offspring; this would quickly lead to inbreeding, which would cause animals to have shorter lives, have a higher mortality rate, be prone to more genetic disorders, and be, on the whole, less healthy, which would damage the reptile industry further.
Since the southern part of Florida is the only place that potentially has a problem with released constrictors, Florida is the only state that needs to impose regulation. As of January 2008, the state has created a system of accountability, in which all large constrictors must be registered with the state of Florida. Furthermore, each of these large species must have a small microchip inserted just below the skin. These microchips, common practice in modern veterinary medicine in not only snakes, but dogs, cats, livestock, and birds, can be scanned if an animal is found, and traced back to the owner. This not only helps owners find their lost pets, but will hold any person who releases a large boa or python into the Everglades responsible for their actions, as there is a large fine for anybody found dumping a snake into the Florida ecosystem. This new system has, so far, been very successful, as it places an incentive on keeping or selling an unwanted snake because of a high risk of being caught and fined.
Overall, the proposed ban is unnecessary in all regards and should be abandoned entirely. As Florida, the only place at risk for the feared situation, has already taken action against the environmental threat, the federal government need not intervene. In the future, if there is a need to solve any other problems that may arise when people keep, breed, sell, and transport large constrictors, it would be more effective for the reptile community to form an official, privatized organization to regulate trade and breeding, versus having the government impose restrictions. As the experts in the field are the people involved in the trade, it does not make sense for the government authorities to step in ahead of experienced professionals and dictate which laws and rules must be adhered to by a private industry that is, in fact, a significant component of the national economy.
Barringer, Jeffery R. “USFWS Boa and Python Response”. Kingsnake.com. . Accessed May 14, 2008.
“Injurious Wildlife Species; Review of Information Concerning Constrictor Snakes From Python, Boa, and Eunectes genera”. United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Federal Register, January 31, 2008. (Vol 73, Num. 21). . Accessed May 14, 2008.
“Panel Discussion: Federal proposal banning pythons and boas.” Kingsnake.com. February 29, 2008. . Accessed May 14, 2008.
Rodda, Gordon. “USGS Maps Show Potential Non-Native Python Habitat Along Three U.S. Coasts”. United States Geological Survey. February 20, 2008. . Accessed May 14, 208.