I read recently that one of my countrymen, a British citizen, was sentenced to five years in prison for smuggling snakes from Kenya. A double tragedy personally as Born Free has such a long and important history of trying to save Kenya's wildlife.
The good news is that instead of receiving a simple fine -- the cost of doing business - and going free, prison was imposed. It's about time judicial systems globally got serious about wildlife crime, including the very dangerous trade in snakes, many of which are poisonous or in other ways deadly.
The issues are profound. A 10-foot long rock python strangled and killed a 60-pound family dog in Miami-Dade County, Florida. This attack comes on the heels of the now-infamous report from a few weeks earlier, when a 15-foot long African rock python escaped its enclosure and suffocated two young Canadian boys in their sleep.
In 2009, a two-year-old girl near Orlando, Florida was strangled to death by her family's 12-foot Burmese python. And, in 2012, a 70-year-old Virginia man was killed by his own pet poisonous snakes.
Sadly, this is just a sampling of tragic incidents involving snake attacks. It should be glaringly obvious by now; snakes can be dangerous, and they make bad pets.
The tragedy involving the Miami-Dade County dog was the 58th snake incident tracked by Born Free USA so far this year. In the time it has taken me to compose my thoughts for this article over the past few weeks, Born Free USA has tracked another dozen snake incidents around the U.S.. We maintain an exotic animal incidents database that has tracked 471 dangerous incidents involving snakes since 1995. In this time, at least 19 humans have died terrible-and preventable-deaths.
Born Free USA has noted a steady increase in snake ownership, especially among deadly pythons and boa constrictors. Predictably, there has also been a sharp rise in incidents involving "pet" snakes escaping and endangering communities and the environment, and injuring or killing humans. The upward trajectory in snake-related incidents is jarring. In 2009, we tracked 20 incidents involving snakes; in 2010, we tracked 9; in 2011, the number of incidents had risen to 82; and, in 2012, we tracked a record 106 incidents.
This year is on track to potentially be another record-breaker. In the summer of 2013 alone, deadly pet snakes were on the loose in Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, Oregon, and Wisconsin after escaping from their owners.
The statistics speak for themselves. When will the public listen?
Our Born Free USA Executive Vice President, Adam Roberts, explains, "Clearly, this is a national problem and we can only assume that the actual numbers, when factoring in unreported events, are much higher. We are seriously concerned about the epidemic of owning deadly snakes. Large snake ownership remains unregulated or poorly regulated across the country. While there are 40 states with some regulation pertaining to private ownership of snakes, some have fairly strict laws (Hawaii, Alaska, and California) while others are quite vague and lenient (Georgia and Idaho). And, in most states, the restrictions are only for venomous snakes."
Roberts adds, "Snakes are wild animals who cannot be trained and, at any time, can display their normal wild behavior, which may include a poisonous bite or strangulation."
Not only do snakes harm humans and pets, but they also damage the ecosystem by threatening indigenous and endangered species, resulting in major economic losses and expenditures. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, millions of dollars have been spent to thwart the ecological impact of nonnative invasive snakes. Pet snakes tend to be introduced to the ecosystem when owners grow tired or frustrated with them and release them into the wild. This is a particularly acute problem in Florida, where snakes, who had most likely been pets, are destroying the local ecosystem and posing a threat to humans, to wildlife, and to pets.
Compounding the problem is the lucrative nature of the exotic pet trade. Police officers discovered 850 snakes jammed into a man's Suffolk County, New York garage, awaiting sale to online buyers through his internet business, Snakeman's Exotics. The snakes were worth an estimated half-million dollars.
It's a shame that people are willing to ignore the extreme risks of snake ownership, merely to make some money or to live with an exotic pet. And, despite the obvious safety and environmental concerns, legal restrictions have been inadequate-and hardly deterrent.
Roberts declares, "It is simply too easy in most states for unprepared individuals to purchase potentially dangerous snakes. They are being imported from Asia, Australia, Africa, and Central America; they are kept in inappropriate caging; they escape; they kill; and they pose a threat to the natural ecosystem. What will it take for legislators to put an end to this unjustifiable animal ownership?"
What will it take? Born Free USA will continue to push legislators to make the compassionate choice for snakes, for other pets and wildlife, for humans, and for the environment: to ban ownership of these wild animals who truly belong in the wild.