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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

Andrew Wyatt, president of the United States Association of Reptile Keepers, the reptile industry's chief lobby, is less concerned with the proposed ban to import the snakes – "You can get higher-quality ones bred right here in the United States," he says – but is instead concerned about the regulation's larger implications for the industry. He argues that this is just the beginning of a campaign to rid the country of foreign reptiles, spearheaded by xenophobic nonprofits and enabled by federal regulators who "cross-pollinate" with the advocacy groups. "The big NGOs are trying to set a precedent that will change the way America looks at anything non-native to the United States," he says. "They have this ideal of returning things to the way they were 200 years ago."

Though Wyatt says the sales of the nine large snakes combined only comprise about 10 percent of the total reptile market, he still regards the proposal as "the biggest threat to our industry right now," and says he is devoting half of the organization's $300,000 budget to fighting the rule change.

Since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the possible listing of the nine snakes as "injurious" in March of last year, the agency has received more than 50,000 citizen comments, according to Ken Warren, a spokesman for the agency. "We are in the process of rigorously reviewing all the comments, all the inputs and all the scientific data," Warren says, adding that the agency hopes to make a recommendation within the next few months.

In the case of the pythons in the Everglades, it's a matter of dispute as to where they came from – Wyatt and others in the reptile industry believe it was Hurricane Andrew in 1992 that scattered exotic pets throughout the area; Reed's colleagues think the snakes were released in the area by humans in 1985.

But Reed also says his hypothesis matters little in the grand scheme of things. "We will never know for sure how the snakes became established," he says. "But regardless of the proximate reasons, we do know the ultimate reason – we imported these animals for the U.S. pet trade."

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