What a Bunch of Snakes

The reptile lobby uses the tactics and rhetoric of the gun lobby.

North African python
A Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission technician holds a North African python at a press conference in the Everglades about the non-native species in Jan. 29, 2015. Officials think people dump unwanted pet snakes there when they get too big.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

You can buy a black mamba online for about $350. Or, in case your shopping list doesn’t include a snake whose venom can shut down your respiratory system, you could opt for a reticulated python, the world’s longest snake, which squeezes its prey to death and can swallow an entire deer. 

The wide availability of dangerous, non-native snakes in the United States comes courtesy of the reptile lobby, a group of snake dealers, hobbyists, and trade groups that has fought for years against government efforts to restrict the trade in Burmese pythons, spitting cobras, and other scary snakes.

The Everglades, near where I live as a reporter for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, has been infested with Burmese pythons since the 1990s, a gift of the exotic snake business. State and federal officials think people dumped unwanted snakes there when their pets got too big. The reptile industry blames Hurricane Andrew, which damaged a nearby breeding facility. Either way, a drive through Everglades National Park once allowed you to see raccoons, marsh rabbits, opossums, and if you were lucky, a bobcat. Now, thanks to the pythons’ prowess as predators in their new home, forget it.

More than 1.2 million Burmese pythons, boas, ball pythons, and other constrictors were imported into the United States from 2004 to 2013, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Today the emphasis has shifted toward domestic production, with many breeders trying to produce the unusually patterned snakes called “morphs” that command the highest prices.

At reptile shows at motels, fairgrounds, and banquet halls, companies with names like Morph Jungle, Family Reptiles, and Slithermania display plastic containers with live ball pythons, reticulated pythons, and boa constrictors. At the Repticon show at Firefighter Hall in Jacksonville, Florida, I spoke with Bob King, a friendly, knowledgeable dealer, who earlier this year sold a rare “Super Gravel” ball python color morph for $10,000. “Ball pythons are the most popular,” he said. “They don’t get too big, maybe 4 feet. They’re easily maintained. They’re great beginning animals.”

Snakes sold online can cost as much as a new car. At New England Reptile Distributors, which ships via FedEx, top-shelf products include an incandescent yellow “Beast” ball python for $17,500 and a ghostly white reticulated python called a “Golden Child Cow” for $25,000. At reptile shows, I’ve heard stories of people mortgaging their homes to buy “investor snakes,” rare color morphs for $50,000 or more.

Like the gun lobby, which the reptile industry resembles in its rhetoric, the snake dealers quickly learned to play the Washington game.

The fight began when the South Florida Water Management District, which manages much of the Everglades, petitioned the federal government in 2006 to ban imports of Burmese pythons. After four years of study, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed banning nine big constrictors that had either established breeding populations in the United States or had the potential to do so, including the Burmese python, green anaconda, and Northern African python.

The United States Association of Reptile Keepers, whose board includes breeders, dealers, and vendors of supplies such as heat lamps and frozen rats, hired the international law firm Kelley Drye & Warren to fight the restrictions. The firm’s consulting arm, Georgetown Economic Services, produced a study claiming that banning the nine snakes would cost the industry $428 million to $1.4 billion over 10 years—figures that the industry’s opponents found laughable. “It was very phony and exaggerated,” Peter Jenkins, president of the Center for Invasive Species Prevention, told me. “But it made it look like this was an important industry to be preserved. They shopped that around to the [White House] Office of Management and Budget and Congress. They had a lot of political allies, including in Congress, who were giving the agency a hard time.”

Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican best known for using his committee chairmanship to investigate the Obama administration, took up the cause. His committee’s report on job-killing federal regulation quoted the Georgetown study of the impact on the snake business. (Anyone concerned about the trade deficit will be glad to know that according to Issa’s report “the U.S. is a global leader in the reptile industry.”)

Under pressure from the lobby and its political allies, the Fish and Wildlife Service dithered for years. Meanwhile, the snake industry helped kill a bill in Congress to ban Burmese pythons. Finally, in 2012, six years after the original petition, the wildlife service banned the import and interstate movement of Burmese pythons and three other snakes. USARK filed suit to overturn the ban.

“This was a powerful day for the Reptile Nation, as we fight to protect your rights to pursue your passion and defend your businesses against unwarranted and unnecessary government intrusion,” USARK said of the lawsuit, on a flier decorated with its red-white-and-blue logo.

In March of this year, the wildlife service banned four more constrictor species, including the reticulated python. Although this came too late to stop the Burmese python, it may prevent the three other species from establishing themselves in the United States.

But in a victory for the snake dealers, the service dropped plans to ban one crucial species: the boa constrictor.

Boas, native to Central and South America, have established breeding populations in Florida and Puerto Rico. The government says they’re capable of surviving in parts of Georgia, Hawaii, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas. A 9-foot boa strangled its owner in 2010 in suburban Omaha, Nebraska. But of all the snakes proposed for restrictions, boas are the biggest part of the reptile business. Letters from dealers begged the service to keep the boa off the list. Petco, the 1,400-store retail giant, warned of “severe economic loss” if this “docile” species were banned.

The wildlife service caved, saying it looked forward to the pet industry cooperating “voluntarily” to help prevent the boa constrictor from becoming a problem in the wild.

Meanwhile, the industry on which the government counted for voluntary assistance went back to court again and in May won an injunction against enforcement of the ban on two snakes, the reticulated python and green anaconda. The lawsuit on all eight snakes is pending.

“We fight not only for ourselves, but for all responsible pet owners,” USARK says on its website “We hold the truth and legitimate science. We will prevail over disgraceful sensationalism and nefarious propaganda.”

USARK brags on its site that it has defeated anti-reptile legislation in more than two-dozen states. Some states ban ownership of venomous snakes and big constrictors; others allow anyone to own them; others require permits. When West Virginia proposed to ban species designated dangerous wild animals, USARK claims to have “authored” the amendment exempting venomous snakes, such as eyelash vipers and spitting cobras.

“We’ve tried to get large constricting snakes banned at the state level, along with other dangerous wild animals, like tigers, and bears,” said Debbie Leahy, captive wildlife specialist for the Humane Society of the United States. “They basically mobilize their members to harass legislators, and the legislators don’t want to fight them.”

There are no official statistics on injuries or deaths from snakes in the United States. But a commonly accepted figure states that 12 people have been killed by constricting snakes since 1990—most of them snake owners or their children. The Humane Society says the number of snake incidents—injuries, attempted constrictions—has soared in the past 10 years, with more than 60 in 2012.

In October, Terry Wilkins, owner of a reptile store near Cincinnati, had to be rescued from a 20-foot reticulated python. “Please, the snake is wrapped around his neck,” said a woman who called 911, according to CNN. “He’s got blood all over him. Oh my God, please.”

Wilkins, who claims the media exaggerated the incident, had been a plaintiff in an unsuccessful 2012 lawsuit challenging Ohio’s recently adopted restrictions on ownership of dangerous animals. During the earlier legislative debate, he was quoted saying the bill “has no merit as a human safety issue, health issue, or animal welfare issue” and is “unconstitutional, unethical, and a reflection of the warped personalities that constructed and proposed it.”

Owners of venomous snakes clearly face a special risk. Many keep dozens of them. I visited one collector who had 30 monocled cobras, Gaboon vipers, and other venomous snakes in aquarium-like enclosures lining the walls of a converted bedroom.

“Eventually, they all get bitten,” Jeffrey Bernstein, medical director of Miami poison control, told me. “We’ve had some pretty sick patients, hypotensive, with weakness and paralysis, and have brought them back with antivenin.”

The business can cause great hardship for the snakes themselves, and for the millions of rodents raised to be their food. A 2009 raid on a Texas importer called U.S. Global Exotics found thousands of exotic snakes, iguanas, and other creatures deprived of food or water for weeks and packed into filthy cages and plastic bottles, many dead or dying as they fought one another for space. A 2012 raid on a California company called Global Captive Breeders found hundreds of snakes and thousands of rodents in hellish conditions, where rodents were frozen alive, drowned, or slammed against hard surfaces. Snakes were so hungry their ribs showed.

At breeding facilities, snakes live in containers about the size of a dresser drawer, specially made in stacked tiers to maximize storage space. “These cheap, barren, clinical environments demonstrate no effort by the breeders to mimic the natural environments snakes experience in the wild,” stated a letter from the Humane Society of the United States in support of the federal constrictor ban.

I called up Phil Goss, the Indiana reptile dealer who serves as president of USARK. Articulate, soft-spoken, and deeply interested in reptiles, he talks with none of the red-meat rhetoric of the organization’s Web pages.

“I was fascinated with these animals when I was a child,” he told me. “If we can’t keep these animals as pets, I honestly fear what’s going to happen with the conservation of these animals. I guarantee you there’s not a true biologist or conservationist that didn’t interact with animals as a child.”

I asked him whether importing and breeding millions of snakes from Asia, Africa, and South America was really in the interests of the United States. Given the harm that non-native species have caused—from zebra mussels in the Great Lakes to Africanized honeybees in the South—weren’t they conducting a giant experiment on North America?

He did not address this directly. But he said the federal bans on constrictors impose national rules on a regional problem. He said these snakes can only survive in a few parts of the extreme southern United States, a point disputed by scientists.

No doubt many snake owners love their animals. I met one venomous-snake collector who kept a snake hook in his car to help rattlesnakes on roads avoid being run over. They hate the media coverage of their pets. More people are killed by dogs than snakes, they point out. Cats take a fearful toll on wildlife, snatching birds, mice, and rabbits across a vastly wider area than the Florida territory menaced by Burmese pythons. On the other hand, dogs and cats have been bred over millennia to be our friends. Pythons have not, as several surprised snake owners realized in their final moments. Dogs need us. Pythons don’t.