Tuesday, March 18, 2008

SSSpecial Petssssss

Owners of pet snakes don't expect a lot of sympathy from outsiders.

So when headlines like "Feds move to ban pythons and boas" started to show up on message boards and blogs, the hobbyist community caught fire. Hundreds rushed to post messages decrying the possibility of adding pythons and boas to the list of species that it's illegal to import or transport between states.

Snakes are more popular pets than you might believe. An estimated 4.8 million American households own one or more pet reptiles, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association.

Although some special expertise is needed, the care of snakes is not time consuming, and for many who are fascinated by them, it's hard to stop at just one. Some species are even bred for special colors and patterns, like more familiar pets.

The Fish and Wildlife Service says it is just gathering information about which species might be of environmental concern at the moment, and what the economic impacts might be. No new rules have been proposed. The agency is accepting public comments until April 30, and if any new species end up being proposed to add to the regulated list, there will be another comment period at that point.

The inquiry began after Florida began coping with a growing number of released Burmese pythons.

Snake expert David Barker of Texas says that these snakes, which can grow to six meters long and more than 90 kilograms, are valuable when they're small and when very large. But in between, at about 2.5 to three meters in length, owners often find that they've become a handful, and are unable to sell them.

"They get irritable - they're teenagers," he says. "You can't get rid of one; you can't give it away."

This can lead irresponsible owners to release their pet into the wild.

Linda Friar of Everglades and Dry Tortugas National Park says the problem there has been increasing: in 1993, they found only about 27 of these snakes, but in 2007 the number was 250, and the educated guess is that "for every one we find, there are 10 more."

Officials are concerned about possible effects of these snakes on native species.

Snake enthusiasts like Barker, author of two books and numerous scientific articles, don't discount environmental issues. In fact, he says he chose to focus on ball pythons back in the 1970s because he expected that they'd eventually need protection by captive breeding.

But it's somewhat understandable that snake owners react strongly to the threat of legislation, given the confusing patchwork of widely varying local and state laws that affect them. For example, conservation regulations in some states ban the keeping of native species-even individuals bred in captivity-to protect them from being collected from the wild. This worthy goal means it can be illegal to own, for example, a corn snake, which is a good first pet snake for children.

Reptiles may also fall under laws regulating dangerous animals, wildlife or exotic pets, which may ban or require permits for certain species. The logic behind the laws doesn't always make sense to snake enthusiasts.

For example, the city of Baltimore bans any snake longer than 1.5 meters. But there are 1.5-meter-long snakes that are not much thicker than your thumb, and are unlikely to endanger anything bigger than a mouse. And Delaware currently requires a permit for any non-native species of reptile, no matter how small and inoffensive.

Regulating snakes as "wildlife" also raises the question of how long an animal must be bred in captivity before it is no longer considered wild. Barker argues that his ball pythons now essentially are domesticated: "They're selected for their ease of feeding, their temperaments. They've been bred in captivity for 10 generations."

Of course, domestication doesn't mean no regulation - after all, in most places you have to license and vaccinate your dogs. Barker points approvingly to Florida's approach: new laws require the giant species of snakes to be microchipped so that, if released, the owner can be identified and penalized.

Florida legislation also treats captive-bred varieties differently in one case: regulations on red-eared slider turtles have an exception for those that have been bred in special colours.

But hobbyists are passionate in their defence of the rewards of keeping snakes - and the freedom for responsible owners to make their own choice about which animals share their lives. As one poster to the government website put it, "Not everyone is a puppy, kitten sort of person."

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