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Growing pains

The reptile industry finds that popularity is a double-edged sword

Photo: Jeff Gore, License: N/A, Created: 2011:01:16 15:25:48

Jeff Gore

Snake in a Box: At Repticon, breeders of large snakes displayed the animals they had for sale in plastic containers

Alice Cobb is a petite woman, probably in her mid 50s, with close-cropped red hair. She doesn't look like someone who would be into snakes, but she's sitting at a table at the Central Florida Fairgrounds with an array of pythons for sale around her.

Seven years ago, Cobb was on the other side of the counter, a mom who begrudgingly agreed to attend Orlando's very first Repticon – a convention where collectors of exotic reptiles gather to buy, sell and trade animals – with her daughter, Lindsey. After witnessing baby pythons hatching from their eggs and holding a few adult specimens herself, however, Cobb was just as captivated as her daughter. One pet python for Lindsey eventually became 195 "breeder" pythons for a small family business. "You would think that the only people interested in snakes are those who ride motorcycles, wear leather and have tattoos," she says. "But it's changed. It's a different world than it was 10 years ago."

The Cobb family was one of 75 vendors at the most recent Repticon, which drew about 2,500 people to the Central Florida Fairgrounds over the Jan. 15 weekend, a five-fold increase in attendance from the Repticon the Cobbs attended in 2003. It's but one reminder of the explosive growth of the reptile trade since it began back in the 1970s. Then, it was a niche business for eccentric hobbyists; now, it's a $1.4 billion industry. Though the majority of the trade consists of relatively small animals, like leopard geckos, ball pythons and pond turtles, it also includes some very large, powerful snakes such as the boa constrictor, the green anaconda and the Burmese python. The latter, which can grow to more than 15 feet long and weigh up to 200 pounds, has appeared not only in homes, but in the Florida wilderness with increasing frequency during the past decade, both in the waters of the Everglades and the woods of Central Florida.

After a 2-year-old girl was strangled by her mother's boyfriend's pet python in Sumter County in July 2009, what was once a minor headache for the reptile industry – the unintended consequences of selling the world's biggest snakes to the average Joe – became a major issue. The Humane Society of the United States suggested a boycott of the entire reptile trade in September of that year, the state of Florida banned possession of the Burmese python and six other large snakes the following summer, and now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is set to propose a sweeping import and transport ban on the Burmese python and eight other species of the largest non-native snakes. To those in the reptile business, the laws seem like undeserved punishment, and they're fighting back with what little political muscle they have.

"Obviously it's getting worse [for us], because the regulations are getting worse," says Joe Fauci, a Tampa-based importer who one colleague calls "the godfather" of the reptile industry. "They're taking away our rights."

As a high schooler in the early '70s, Fauci volunteered with an exotic animal importer in Tampa, Ray Singleton, who occasionally gave Fauci reptiles and other tropical animals as compensation for his help. At the age of 15, Fauci had converted half of his mother's beauty shop into a "reptile room" and built a giant outdoor cage for his collection of capuchin monkeys. But, he says, "It didn't take long to know that you couldn't keep many monkeys living in the city."

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