Guest column: Obama administration should close loophole that allows dangerous exotic snakes

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By Michael Markarian

Washington

President, U.S. Humane Society Legislative Fund

It’s been big news that non-native boa constrictors, Burmese pythons and African rock pythons are living and breeding in the wild and subsequently wreaking havoc on the ecosystem, frightening citizens and killing pets in residential neighborhoods. The question isn’t if these dangerous predators are going to colonize other areas, but when and where they are going to become established. Scientists confirmed last year that non-native boa constrictors are now breeding in Puerto Rico and spreading across the island.

Boa constrictors have established more invasive populations than any other species of constrictor snake. In addition to parts of Florida and Puerto Rico, boas are also established in Cozumel and Aruba where they consume an estimated 17,000 birds annually. Earlier this year, two boa constrictors were found loose on public property in Hawaii, another state where the snakes can survive.

These boa constrictor invasions may have been triggered when owners who could no longer care for their pet snakes dumped them into the wild. Too often people purchase pet snakes when the animals are young and manageable, but there are very few options for placement once they grow too dangerous to handle. In South Florida, the non-native snake invasion caused by irresponsible pet owners may have been exacerbated when a hurricane destroyed a reptile dealer’s facility, setting captive snakes loose where they now prey on native wildlife, including endangered species.

“Once non-native snakes become established across a large area, especially in densely forested areas, they become much more difficult to find and almost impossible to eradicate,” U.S. Geological Survey scientist Bob Reed told CBS News for its story about the Puerto Rican boa constrictor invasion. In fact, not a single invasive reptile species has ever been eradicated through management efforts and taxpayers will continue to spend millions of dollars to try and control the snakes already thriving in Florida’s environment.

With clutch sizes of up to 124 eggs, these snakes reproduce rapidly. The release or escape of a single pregnant python in a hospitable habitat could result in colonization in a new area. The more humane and fiscally responsible approach is to prevent the problem in the first place. In 2010, Florida passed a law making it illegal to breed, sell or keep most large constrictor snakes as pets.

It’s overdue for the Obama administration to follow suit on a national scale. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had a proposal under consideration to ban the trade of nine exotic snake species that the U.S. Geological Survey identified as posing a significant risk to the environment.

But after pressure from reptile dealers, the administration moved ahead with a trade ban for just four of the nine species: the Indian python (including Burmese python), Northern and Southern African pythons and yellow anacondas. The White House’s rule addresses just 30 percent of the problem and leaves the remaining 70 percent unchecked — including reticulated pythons and boa constrictors, which represent more than two-thirds of large constrictor snakes in the U.S. trade.

This important rule was weakened by the very industry that peddles high-maintenance dangerous predators to unqualified people at flea markets, swap meets, and over the Internet. Constrictor snakes have killed 15 people in the United States, including seven children.

Just last summer, two boys, ages five and seven, sleeping in an apartment over a Canadian pet store were tragically killed by a 100-pound African rock python that had escaped from its enclosure and slithered through the ventilation system. In 2009, a two-year-old Florida girl was killed in her crib by the family’s albino Burmese python, which had grown to more than eight feet long.

When you consider the danger to humans, the damage to the environment and the suffering that the snakes themselves endure in the trade, the case for a trade ban for all of these snakes is clear-cut.

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