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February 28, 2012

A Positive Step to Address the Trade in Large Constrictor Snakes

Is it an animal protection issue when countless animals are swallowed up in their native habitats by invasive species? I think it is, and that’s just one reason why The HSUS has been demanding that the federal government ban imports of large, powerful exotic species used for the pet trade. The substantial dangers posed by constricting snakes to native species, to people, and to the snakes themselves have come into much sharper focus during the last several years, especially with a jarring National Academy of Sciences report released last month that shows the near-annihilation of small and medium-sized mammals by Burmese pythons in a portion of Everglades National Park. We are now seeing some federal policy action to deal with this problem.

Burmese python - William Warby via Flickr
William Warby via Flickr

Today, the House Judiciary Committee―led by Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas; Ranking Member John Conyers, D-Mich.; Subcommittee Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.; and Ranking Member Bobby Scott, D-Va.―approved H.R. 511 to ban the trade in nine species of large, constricting snakes, a bill strongly backed by The HSUS. The Committee took up the bill, introduced by Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., just weeks after the Interior Department approved a much more limited and inadequate rule restricting the trade in snakes. 

H.R. 511 would ban the import or interstate trade for use as pets of nine species identified by the U.S. Geological Survey as posing “high” or “medium” risk of becoming established in the wild as an invasive species. In March 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a rule to ban nine species of pythons, boa constrictors, and anacondas identified in the USGS report as posing significant risk to the environment. But the Obama administration backtracked from both the science and the original proposal, announcing in January 2012 that it would adopt a final rule restricting trade in just four of the nine species—a helpful step, but one covering just 30 percent of imports of the nine species at issue.

Today the Judiciary Committee got the issue back on track. While the committee approved one adverse amendment―allowing for trade to licensed USDA “exhibitors”―the bill largely remained intact. An amendment from Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, to exclude boa constrictors from the bill–even though boas represent more than half of all trade and they have already become established in Florida and Puerto Rico―was defeated. 

Some people get these snakes as pets and then realize they cannot properly care for them; some misguided individuals have resorted to releasing the snakes and then the animals survive and reproduce in our native habitats. The ecological havoc wrought by invasive snakes is worse than anyone anticipated. A January 2012 report by researchers with the National Academy of Sciences found that Burmese pythons, in a little more than a decade of colonizing the Everglades, have wiped out 99 percent of raccoons, opossums, and other small and medium-sized mammals, and 87 percent of bobcats. A great American ecosystem has been put at grave risk because of this invasive species. Such disastrous impacts will inevitably harm the ability of Florida panthers, one of the most endangered animals in our nation, to survive. We must act now in order to prevent other large constricting snakes from colonizing other ecosystems and having such a devastating impact on them, too.

Constrictor snakes have killed 15 people in the United States, including seven children, with reticulated pythons accounting for the largest share of attacks. The tragic death of a Florida toddler in 2009 put a fine point on why the private ownership of these animals is just not worth the risk of children or adults being killed by them.

We are especially grateful to Rep. Rooney, and to Reps. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif.; Howard Berman, D-Calif.; and Ted Deutch, D-Fla., who carried the debate today in committee and pushed for passage of the legislation. We hope the House takes up the bill and passes it soon. We’ll also be working with the Senate to push ahead this legislation and to get it sent to President Obama for his signature.

Léalo en español (Read this blog entry in Spanish).

P.S. Today is World Spay Day! By our count, there are more than 630 registered US events and 67 international events, which I’ll report on in the days ahead. Don't forget to enter your pet's photo in our World Spay Day Online Pet Photo Contest―a great opportunity to celebrate pets, raise funds for spaying and neutering, and have the chance to win prizes. Enter the contest by tomorrow, Feb. 29 at 5 p.m. Eastern.

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