MICHAEL MARKARIAN: Guest Commentary ... Florida toddler death shows that U.S. needs to regulate dangerous snake pet trade

A jury has convicted a Florida couple for failing to protect 2-year-old Shaianna Hare, who was asphyxiated in her crib by a dangerous family pet — an 8-foot-6-inch, 13-pound albino Burmese python.

The tragedy occurred in Central Florida in 2009, and as it was relived during the trial, you saw the anguished faces of the people who lost the toddler because they bought a constrictor python at a flea market and kept it in a poorly secured cage.

While the details of this case are hard to hear, one fact rang loud and clear: giant constrictor snakes should not be allowed as pets. Current anemic regulations on private possession of dangerous wild animals let people keep deadly predators in their basements, backyards and living rooms. There’s no good reason for individuals to keep these animals, and the outcome is inevitably disastrous — for the people who are put at risk, and for the wild animals who are kept in unnatural settings that fail to meet their complex needs.

Sadly, incidents involving large constrictor snakes are widespread. The Humane Society of the United States has tracked more than 200 constrictor snake incidents throughout the country, including 16 deaths and dozens injured.

In 2008, a Virginia woman was strangled while attempting to medicate her 13-foot reticulated python. A 3-year-old Nevada boy was constricted to the point of unconsciousness by an 18-foot reticulated python in 2009. As the boy began turning blue, his mother stabbed the snake with a kitchen knife to free the child.

In 2008, a teenager woke from a nap with her father’s Burmese python biting and coiling around her. Her father cut off the snake’s head to free her and rushed her to the hospital.

The Obama administration can prevent tragedies like these by immediately finalizing a rule proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list nine species of large constrictor snakes as "injurious" under the Lacey Act, which regulates trade in wildlife. The proposed regulations will prohibit importation and interstate movement of nine species of large snakes posing the greatest risks to public health and safety, animal welfare, and the environment.

These species of snakes can quickly grow very large, and their enclosures become too small and inadequate to prevent escape. A reticulated python can grow to be more than 30 feet long and weigh 250 pounds. A Burmese python can grow to be 20-feet long.

People often purchase wild animals, like snakes, when they are young and manageable, but there are very few options for placement when the animals grow too dangerous to handle and are no longer wanted. If the animals escape or are turned loose, they can threaten local habitats. Burmese pythons have colonized Everglades National Park — with an original group of snakes set loose by pet owners or escapees during a hurricane. These exotic predators are now wreaking havoc in this storied American national park, fighting with alligators and killing untold numbers of native animals for food.

The U.S. Geological Survey recently released a report documenting potential environmental harm from the trade in large constrictor snakes. The 300-page study should erase any doubt about whether these giant creatures belong in the pet trade. All nine species of large pythons, anacondas, and boa constrictors studied pose either medium or high risk to our natural resources. Three of the species are already reproducing in Florida, where "a very large number of imperiled species are at risk from giant constrictors."

It can cost millions of dollars to eradicate invasive species and protect endangered species, and sometimes even that won’t put the cork back in the bottle. It’s much more humane and fiscally responsible to deal with the problem on the front end through prevention. When you add in the threat to humans, and the suffering that the snakes themselves endure in the trade, then the case for a trade ban for all of these snakes is overwhelming.

In 2010, Florida wisely passed a law, sponsored by Sen. Eleanor Sobel (D-Hollywood) and Rep. Trudi Williams (R-Ft. Myers), making it illegal to breed, sell or keep most large constrictor snakes as pets. The federal government should act without delay and follow suit. It’s time to implement a national policy to prevent even more tragedy.

Markarian is also president of The Fund for Animals and The Humane Society Legislative Fund.

© 2011 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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