The Naples Daily News recently published a statistic that surprised (and scared) even me. In a five year period between 2000 and 2005 over 1,000 puff adder snakes were imported into the United States through ports in Florida. These are big, 4-5 foot long, venomous snakes. They get their name from their habit of sucking in air to expand their body size accompanied by a hiss that sounds like you punctured a car tire with a bowie knife. They bite, and kill, more people in Africa than any other reptile. They aren’t a particularly aggressive snake but they like to lay still and rely on their camouflage for concealment. Most victims simply step on them.
I suppose we can consider ourselves lucky to have a python problem, not a puff adder problem, here in south Florida. Puff adders can produce anywhere from 20-50 young with a record of over 100. That’d be a real problem even when considering the typical survival rate for reptiles is only 10%. Our python issue is tame by comparison. Yes, pythons can produce as many baby snakes but pythons aren’t killing thousands annually overseas. Puff adders are.
But our puff adder import issue begs the larger question: Should there be hundreds of these potentially deadly snakes in backrooms and basements across America? In a recent search of the record keeping system shared by all zoos in North America I found only nine puff adders in five institutions. Those snakes have a purpose. One of the many legitimate reasons for zoos is to be a window to the natural world, to show us what is out there. A zoo offers opportunities to discover and appreciate all species of life near and far. Do I expect the average zoo visitor to run home and cut a check to save puff adders? No, but remember when you protect habitat for one species, you protect all species. Save wild places for African lions and you save rhinos, giraffe, and yes, even puff adders.
So why do we need hundreds, if not thousands, of puff adders and many other dangerous snakes in the private sector? The simple answer is we
don’t. I am not advocating that the sale of corn snakes or geckos comes to a grinding halt. With good research there are many species of reptiles that the average and responsible person can learn to care for. And I do believe there is a place for qualified venomous snake keepers outside of the zoo system. Many have advanced knowledge of the husbandry and breeding of dangerous snakes. Some keep snakes to produce lifesaving antivenins. I have learned much from such individuals. However, there are still many outlets where inexperienced handlers can acquire venomous snakes to keep in their homes for all the wrong reasons. This is a practice that must stop.
I am all about less government intervention in our lives but this whole issue of exotic pets is well past ripe for change. The international trade in live and dead animals is only exceeded by the illegal drug trade. Nearly all the live animal trade goes into the private sector. Only 1% of zoo animals come from native countries. At least here in Florida venomous snake owners must be licensed by the state. My personal license hangs by my desk. The license alone does not make me an expert; I learn new things about reptiles every day. But it does validate I have the time and experience to know the basic care and handling of dangerous reptiles. If more states would institute similar baseline programs and the Federal government would tighten up loose import restrictions, both people and animals would benefit.