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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

The idea of massive pythons terrorizing the Everglades was ripe fodder for an entertainment industry that produced movies like Anaconda and Snakes on a Plane, and for a culture obsessed with photos of engorged snakes (one photo widely circulated over the Internet and featured on www.snopes.com as a "real photo" features a snake that has burst after trying to ingest an entire alligator).

In February 2010, the National Geographic channel ran an hour-long special called Python Wars that detailed scientists' planned "counteroffensive" against the Burmese python. In July, the channel unveiled an entire series called Python Hunters, focusing on the workers who purge the Everglades of the invasive snake.

This draws Reed to the one point that he and reptile enthusiasts can agree on: "Most of the TV coverage has been overly sensationalistic," he says. "It's stressed aspects of the issue that are either unlikely or not all that important."

But his study also had a more serious effect: It spurred the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to indicate it would ask the Department of the Interior to list the nine snakes defined in the study as "injurious wildlife species" in the Federal Register, which would make importing or transporting the snakes between states illegal. Because an estimated one million Americans own large constrictor snakes in this country, the listing would be the first time since the implementation of the Lacey Act in 1900 that an animal widely held by the American public would be federally listed as "injurious." Being listed in the Federal Register would not prohibit ownership of the snakes, nor breeding them, but it's likely that other states could enact laws similar to the one in Florida, which was enacted last summer and bans personal possession of the seven large python species and the green anaconda. (People who owned the snakes before the ban was put into place can keep their animals but may not obtain more.)

Joe Fauci thinks that the federal bill, if passed, will eventually kill not only the trade of large snakes, but the snakes themselves. "Once they cut out the commercial value, people will stop raising them, and soon, these things will vanish," he says.

Breeder Chad Snellgrove of Plant City, who brought a selection of his ball pythons to Repticon, agrees. He says that if the value of a live snake is taken away, then poor people in exporting countries will return to killing the snakes for profit. "Instead of selling these [snakes] as pets," he says, "they'd be making boots out of 'em." Snellgrove also says that the trade of captive snakes ensures that rare species of snakes live on, even if their habitats do not. "Even if they go extinct in the wild, we would still have them in captivity and could release them back into the wild if we had to," he says.

In the early days of the reptile trade, more animals were being imported than exported, but today, the situation has been reversed. Many exotic snakes are now easier to find at reptile conventions than in their native habitats. As deforestation and pollution increasingly threaten more habitats, many snake breeders have begun to view themselves as much more than just people with animals for sale. "We're trying to save these species – that's the reality of it," says amateur herpetologist Forrest Fanning. (Herpetology is the study of reptiles, which are colloquially referred to in the trade as "herps." Those who breed, sell, buy or take an interest in reptiles are called "herpers.")

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