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October 16, 2009

Boas and Hisses

This summer a 2-year-old girl in Florida was strangled and killed by an 8-foot long Burmese python who escaped from an enclosure in a private home. This was just the latest tragedy in a series of lethal incidents involving large constricting snakes kept as pets.

Python_alligator 
USGS
An encounter between a Burmese Python and an Alligator
in Southern Florida.

It also came to light recently that tens of thousands of 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.

In response to this madness, legislation to halt the trade in constricting snakes that had been introduced in the U.S. Congress earlier in the year by Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), finally got Congress's attention, and policy makers acknowledged that something had to be done. The reptile industry, however, has been hard at work trying to narrow the focus of the bill to restrict only imports of Burmese and African rock pythons, but to keep the trade going with anacondas, reticulated pythons, and other enormous, dangerous constricting snakes.

Species studied by USGS

Indian or Burmese Python (Python molurus)

Northern African Python (Python sebae)

Southern African Python (Python natalensis)

Reticulated Python (Broghammerus reticulatus)

Boa Constrictor (Boa constrictor)

Green Anaconda (Eunectes
murinus
)

Yellow Anaconda (Eunectes notaeus)

DeSchauensee’s Anaconda (Eunectes deschauenseei)

Beni Anaconda (Eunectes beniensis)

This week, our effort to secure a comprehensive ban got a boost when the U.S. Geological Survey 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." 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.

The USGS study also provides impetus for action by the Interior Department to list these species as injurious, which would ban imports and interstate commerce for the pet trade. But that outcome is not assured, and the soonest it could happen is 2011—five years after the South Florida Water Management District proposed that the Interior Department list the Burmese python.

We cannot afford to wait that long, and we need swift action by Congress. The bill by Senator Nelson, and a companion bill by Rep. Kendrick Meek, (D-Fla.), need to be amended to include a trade ban on all large constricting snakes. As the USGS says, "restrictions on certain taxa are also likely to result in taxonomic loopholes that could be exploited by importers, breeders, and retailers." Translation: if only some species are restricted, the trade could shift to other large constrictors, and the problem will be moved rather than solved.

If Congress just handles Burmese pythons, and does not ban anacondas and other similarly dangerous snakes in the pet trade, it will have done nothing foresighted. You can write to your lawmakers and urge them to support S. 373 and H.R. 2811, but only if they provide a comprehensive ban on the trade in large constricting snakes.

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