Reptile owners weigh in on invasive snake issue

Concerned that the headline-grabbing news of nonnative giant snakes invading Florida’s Everglades and possibly more of the U.S. is becoming politcized and ignoring science, the United States Association of Reptile Keepers (USARK) is speaking out.

Several people have written to NatGeo News Watch in response to our early posts, Congress weighs ban on importation of pet pythons and Nine giant invasive snake species threaten U.S. ecosystems, pointing out that the people who know most about boas and pythons, the pet reptile owners and traders, have different perspectives about what’s needed to prevent and reverse the problem of the snakes breeding in the wild.

Written testimony handed to the U.S. Congress last week by Andrew Wyatt, president of USARK, presents the analysis of the reptile industry, which he says is not only opposed to releasing the animals into the American wilderness but is promoting ownership accreditation, teaching best practices, and helping to extract alien snakes already established in the wild

Responsible ownership and trade

“USARK represents the highly sophisticated commercial production of captive bred reptiles in the United States. We are a science and education based advocacy for the responsible private ownership of, and trade in reptiles. USARK endorses caging standards, sound husbandry, escape prevention protocols, and an integrated approach to vital conservation issues,” Wyatt said in his testimony.

“The health of these animals, public safety, and maintaining ecological integrity are our primary concerns.”

“Our goal is to facilitate cooperation between government agencies, the scientific community, and the private sector in order to produce policy proposals that will effectively address important husbandry and conservation issues. The health of these animals, public safety, and maintaining ecological integrity are our primary concerns.

“Over the past 60 years, the practice of keeping reptiles has changed from an obscure hobby to an incredibly widespread and mainstream part of the American experience. Reptiles have become intensely popular and are now present in millions of American households (1 in every 25 U.S. households has 1 or more reptiles). They now permeate pop culture, movies and advertising. Who doesn’t know the Geico Gecko?”

U.S.$3 billion industry

From early beginnings in the pet trade, herpetoculture, the practice of breeding reptiles and amphibians, has grown into a sophisticated and independent $3 billion annual industry, Wyatt said.

“Herpetoculturists produce high quality captive bred animals for collectors, research, zoos, museums, TV & film…These animals can be valued at over $100,000 for individual specimens.

“Millions of dollars flow into the national economy from the reptile industry. It is interlaced and interconnected with all levels of economies. Purchases of equipment, dry goods, bedding and cages channel money into U.S. manufacturing.

“Millions of dollars go to support American agriculture with purchases of food, including rodents, grain, bedding, vegetables and prepared diets. Millions of dollars more support airlines and parcel shippers.”

The reptile industry in the United States accounts for 82 percent of the worldwide export and trade in high quality captive bred reptiles, Wyatt added. Thousands of American small businesses and their employees depend on

the industry.

Reptile Nation

“Reptiles are an animal interest that have captivated an incredibly diverse cross section of the American demographics; from scientists to school children, Wall Street bankers to construction workers, conservationists, attorneys, teachers, rock stars, actors and even politicians.

“Your friends and neighbors keep reptiles. Some member of your family keeps, or has kept, reptiles. Collectively we refer to this demographic as the Reptile Nation, comprising more than five million Americans. All are intensely interested in protecting their legal rights to possess and work with reptiles.”

USARK is concerned about feral Burmese pythons in the Everglades and the impact they could potentially have on the ecosystem of South Florida, Wyatt said. “We recognize the problem and have committed to be part of the solution.”

Python removal program

USARK members helped create a python removal program in coordination with Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and were the first to be licensed to remove pythons from state lands in South Florida, Wyatt said.

“USARK has actively appealed to the U.S. Department of the Interior to open up Everglades National Park to a removal program modeled on the Florida program.

“We do not believe captured pythons should be re-released back into the Park for any reason.”

USARK has offered $10,000 to United States Fish & Wildlife Service to establish the basis of a program to get pythons out of Florida and into qualified hands that can securely and humanely house them for the rest of their natural lives, Wyatt said.

“The federal government has failed to capitalize on this vast pool of knowledge and experience to most effectively address the issue of feral Burmese pythons in the Everglades National Park and South Florida.”

“USARK has great expertise in regards to pythons; how to find them, where to find them, reproductive behaviors, predation, safe secure maintenance in captivity… etc. Unfortunately, in our view, the federal government has failed to capitalize on this vast pool of knowledge and experience to most effectively address the issue of feral Burmese pythons in the Everglades National Park and South Florida.”

Beyond the invasiveness of the Burmese python, USARK fears that the issue is becoming “overly politicized and media-driven, thus creating a situation where we’ve selectively interpreted the available science,” Wyatt said.

The issue isn’t especially wellknown, and thus it lends itself to misinformation and over-generalizations, he added.

Danger to humans ‘grossly overstated’

“The physical danger posed by pythons toward humans has simply been grossly overstated. Even in their native range of Southeast Asia, where human population densities far exceed that of South Florida, deaths attributed to pythons are extremely rare.

“As a general matter, pythons have never posed a real threat to humans. That’s not to say, however, they make the best family pet in every case, or that they cannot pose a threat when best handling practices are not followed or existing laws designed to ensure responsible ownership are ignored. Only that they are not the dangerous killers portrayed by activists in the media.”

USARK estimates that today there are over four million boas and pythons in captivity in the United States, representing about $1.6 billion in asset value and $1.8 billion in annual revenues. Of these in captivity today, 100,000 are Burmese pythons or African pythons.

USARK will continue to work on shifting the ongoing debate over these species toward policy resolutions based upon complete and solid science, Wyatt said. “The utmost of care should be taken in any attempt to manage the captive and feral populations. If mistakes are made, problems will only be compounded.

“Simply legislating animals onto the Injurious Wildlife List of the Lacey Act will not accomplish HR 2811’s stated intent. Rather, it will destroy the most valuable resource capable of effectively managing the millions of animals already here. If you reduce the value of these animals to zero and destroy the livelihoods of those most qualified to deal with the secure disposition of all of these animals, where will that leave us?

“Best management practices and professional standards specific to certain reptiles is what is needed, not draconian measures that will only succeed in destroying a viable industry.”

“USARK has been developing and employing best handling practices and accreditation for many years and welcomes a more in-depth discussion in this regard with Congressional and administration officials. It is our belief that best management practices and professional standards specific to certain reptiles is what is needed, not draconian measures that will only succeed in destroying a viable industry.

Captivity as conservation

“Not only is the reptile industry a viable component of the American economy, but we have made an unparalleled contribution to conservation: captive breeding as a conservation safety net. Captivity is now considered an important tool of vertebrate conservation.

“What is today being attempted around the world for amphibians through the International Amphibian Ark, and as

proposed by the Great Cats and Rare Canids Act, and many captivity programs for other rare vertebrates ranging from Sumatran rhinos to Guam kingfishers, has already been accomplished for reptiles. Today the vast majority of boas and pythons held in captivity are captive-bred animals. These are animals that have not been removed from the wild.

“Reptiles are today more securely established in captivity than any other vertebrate group. This is truly one of the greatest conservation accomplishments of the past 20 years.

“Almost all species and subspecies of boas and pythons have been bred in the United States. There are now viable self-sustaining captive populations of several hundred species of reptiles being maintained in the United States. Most pythons and many boa species now exist in captivity as viable ancillary populations.

This has been accomplished through a decentralized, nongovernmental, economically driven model of conservation. It is American private enterprise that has achieved this very impressive modern goal, not a penny of American taxpayer dollars has been spent in this endeavor.”

State legislation as model

State-level legislation in place in all but eight U.S. States should be considered by the U.S. Congress, Wyatt said.

“For example, last year legislation was passed in North Carolina with the support of the North Carolina Partners in Amphibian & Reptile Conservation to regulate the ownership and use of large constricting snakes. Similar legislation exists in the states of Texas and Florida.

“These measures ensure that safe, secure, professional best management practices are observed to legally work with these animals. USARK is also currently working in Virginia and South Carolina to introduce similar legislation in 2010.

“These best management practices embodied in existing state legislation could easily be adapted to a national USARK accreditation process insuring uniformity and professionalism across the country.”

Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn
  • dangles

    Thanks again for a prompt response to our concerns, Mr. Braun.
    But you still failed to mention the Pyron/Burbrink/Guiher Report that you did a blog on last year:
    That, in combination with the Barker publication, essentially eradicate any any claims the HSUS and other supporters of HR2811 have.
    Many of us in the Reptile Nation watched the webcast of the HR2811 hearing the other day, and many of us were NOT impressed at ALL with Andrew Wyatt’s testimony. He completely avoided the claims that HSUS and other supporters were making, leaving them essentially un-countered.
    Dr. Elliot Jacobson (the other testimony given opposed to HR2811) did a better job, but still fell short of pointing the USGS reports out for what they are: financially driven propaganda that is PAINFULLY incomplete – flat-out bad science!
    We do thank you, however, for posting at least part of our side on this, Mr. Braun.

  • aceace88

    Thank you Mr. Braun for presenting the other side of this debate! Well done!

  • dangles

    I feel like I need to clarify my last post.
    I have taken some flak (understandably) for my criticism of the testimony, so I wanted to be sure everyone is clear about where I stand.
    While I feel that Andrew Wyatt’s testimony before the subcommittee failed to address the main arguments for the bill – and have spoken with several others who agree – I in NO way want to make it sound as if I do not support him and USARK.
    Andrew Wyatt and USARK have been INVALUABLE in our fight against such baseless legislation. If it were not for them, we would have seen our hobby legislated away long before now.
    USARK has been working VERY hard (arguably harder than anyone) to oppose such legislation, and have accomplished more than any of us could have otherwise.
    If it were not for USARK, the Reptile Nation would not have had a voice at the hearing at all, let alone two.
    I support USARK (both in principle and financially – I am a member) and truly do appreciate what they have done.

  • j. Michael

    I am a writer/researcher, and owner of both Boas and Pythons for over 25 years. Born in the Midwest and now living in Florida for the last 17 years, I am intimately aware of the local and national presence of these animals in the wilds of Florida, and across many households, retail pet locations and wholesale breeders. My own research of them has been outside the typical scholastic, laboratory environment, or even the zoological atmospheres many exotics are studied in. My focus has been specifically on these animals within the American home; how to care for, own, and understand their needs across the many years they will live to make great companions. A book, called Boids In America, specifically discussing this will be out by March 2010.
    The Burmese Python is one of the most passive, docile and trusting animals a human could care for, providing – like any animal – it receives the care, patience and attention it requires. To see them demonized by the people we put in office to represent us, and to do so from a long list of inaccurate, manipulated deception that is echoed by the media in concert with their wishes is an assault on the very essence of our individual freedoms and rights. Unlike most informed people from the reptile community, I see no virtue in placating and appeasing those who’ve shown such disrespect for us as Americans, by speaking in generalities and trying to avoid direct contradiction with those who fleece our naïve nature when understanding political motivations is concerned. There is nothing about the Python issue, that is founded in science, the ecosystem or safety of human beings. It is all political money grabbing from a myriad of state and Federal agencies, and individuals with a well funded, well organized campaign to justify whatever they choose to do.
    Previously nonpolitical, I have been dragged into this debate from shock and disregard by our politicians at every level, both State and Federal, to the facts – or lack of them – in preparing the arguments for legislation that has already been achieved on some issues, and continues to be more aggressive in taking away what I see as our civil rights. The lies, the contortions and deliberate exaggerations to further hysteria and chaos in an otherwise uninformed public who’s outside the reptile and exotic animal community, borders on treason. Strong words? I think anytime, we have representatives like Senator Nelson from Florida (D), and Congressman Kendrick Meek (D), Florida’s 17th District in Miami, and Thomas J. Rooney (R), Florida’s 16th District, using the deceptive and misleading rhetoric that has been waged, quite effectively through local media, like Palm Beach’s Channel 12 and Fox 29 – that we need to question anything they say or do on our behalf.
    Florida Gov. Charlie Crist is another wannabe rising political star (not off the ground yet) who’s shown his contempt and prejudice for animal rights and the rights of his State’s residents by jumping on a vindictive bandwagon against the Pythons with his endorsement of the State’s sanctioned pro bono mercenary hunt in the Everglade National Park. If any semblance of facts existed in the excuses given for such a search and destroy mission was true, then at least the option could have been presented to allow “found” Pythons to be rescued “alive” and their fate given to the forces of humane options in a “right to life” that we as human gods over wildlife should respect. Particularly when these animals were not in the ENP by their own choosing. Also, they were not there because owners released them. That is another fallacy perpetrated by divisions of Florida’s government doing the Governor’s bidding to justify whatever they deem is appropriate. There has NEVER been any arrest or report, or admission by anyone of ever releasing a Python, or Boa into the Everglades, or anywhere else in Florida. But this is spewed out routinely to validate their actions – whatever they may be.
    The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), led by Wayne Pacelle, is another entity that has been deceiving animal lovers for many years, raking in millions of dollars and [maybe] using 5% of that money for the causes they promote their existence to revolve around. Meanwhile, their personnel enjoy very nice compensation for nonprofit organization, and the other expenditures are used for greasing the wheels of lobbying to keep their existence mainstream in Washington circles. Money that is thrown at Congressmen and Senators, solely for maintaining a “reason” for HSUS to exists – because it certainly isn’t money being used for animals. HSUS has been at the forefront of lies, deception and fear aimed hysteria surrounding the Pythons and all big snakes, lending the façade of their credibility to a witless public, being led around by the nose while our tax payer money is being sucked through their pipelines of self serving existence, and no other reason.
    While Florida’s Governor Charlie Crist, with typical NAZI like approach to kill first, consider other options later, sent out nearly 20 self described herpetologist experts with a license issued by FL Fish & Wildlife Conservation (FWC) for this most recent killing field endeavor begin in mid-July of this year and just ending; they managed to terminate only a total of 37 Pythons across more than three months in a localized area reputed to contain “up to 150,000 or more Pythons.” Thirty-seven pythons, in an area with millions of alligators, who feed on baby pythons, but of which no mention to this balance is ever made. Instead, they quote “no natural enemy.” The real mission behind this witch hunt, is to solicit money for a “reason” – defined as a “problem” – much like the problem and reason used in 2001 to take us to war with Iraq. All built on lies formed by politicians who wanted to read facts the way they could sell it to justify that very expensive mission, in blood and oil. Only unlike this more trivial appearing issue, by comparison, we weren’t losing our civil rights going to Iraq.
    This witch hunt legislation H.R.2811 to ban a $3 billion industry out of existence, has far more serious consequences than $3 Billion, or even the fate of Pythons.
    When politicians can use such extreme, out of context deceptive sound bites without being challenged on it, to push through things that take our pursuit of happiness away from us – which any first grader will know animals do for compassionate people – then we stand to lose anything, at any time, anywhere.
    Give nothing to HSUS, and support anyone running against those who endorse H.R.2811 or any other bill that takes our rights to own animals away from us, regardless of its pretense.

  • Daniel

    Here is an educational video on the HSUS.

  • snakelady

    I’m a keeper of several snakes (including boas) and I am also a member of USARK.
    Thank you, Mr. Braun, for including our side of the story!

  • Daniel

    Here is what the real scientists think of the USGS report on the invasion of pythons report.
    PRESS RELEASE November 24, 2009, 5 AM EST
    Scientists Characterize Justification for Congressional Python Ban as “Unscientific”
    November 24, 2009, Wilmington, NC- In a letter to the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary an independent group of scientists today characterized a United States Geological Survey (USGS) report being touted as the justification for a ban on import and trade in pythons as “unscientific”.
    The independent group of scientists and herpetologists, including professors from the University of Florida, Arizona State, and Texas A&M among others penned members of Congress in response to comments made by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) during a November 6th hearing on H.R. 2811, a bill that could determine the fate of much of the reptile trade in the United States. During that hearing USFWS Deputy Director Dan Ashe characterized the USGS report as “peer-reviewed science”, a claim that struck a nerve within the scientific community.
    “It is a misrepresentation to call the USGS document ‘scientific’” stated the scientists. “As written, this [USGS] document is not suitable as the basis for legislative or regulatory policies, as its content is not based on best science practices, it has not undergone external peer-review, and it diverts attention away from the primary concern. We encourage the USFWS and USGS to submit this document to an independent body for proper and legitimate peer review. Additionally, we encourage the Committee to review this document, not as an authoritative scientific publication, but rather as a report currently drafted to support a predetermined policy”.
    H.R. 2811, Introduced by U.S. Representative Kendrick Meek (D-FL), who recently announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate, could add all pythons, and even boas, to the Injurious Wildlife list of the Lacey Act; a designation reserved for only the most dangerous alien invaders to our natural ecosystem. Such a move would prevent all import, export, and interstate transport of pythons in the U.S. The scientific justification for such a move hinges on a recently published report of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) entitled ‘Risk Assessment of Nine Large Constricting Snakes’, which attempts to paints a picture of large constrictor snakes as an immediate threat to eco-systems over much of the U.S.
    Source: United States Association of Reptile Keepers (USARK)
    Contact: Andrew Wyatt president@usark.org
    Letter To Congress:
    24 November 2009
    U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary
    The Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism & Homeland Security
    2138 Rayburn House Office Building
    Washington, DC 20515
    Dear Chairman Bobby Scott and Ranking Member Louie Gohmert:
    We write in regard to the recent Congressional hearing on HR 2811. As scientists who have worked with reptiles including those cited in HR2811, we express our reservations regarding the document recently released by USGS as an “Open-Report”, titled Giant Constrictors: Biological and Management Profiles and an Establishment Risk Assessment for Nine Large Species of Pythons, Anacondas, and the Boa Constrictor.
    Simply put, this report is not a bona-fide “scientific” paper that has gone through external peer review. Part of this report is fact-driven, described by the authors as “traditional library scholarship.” By the authors’ admissions, there are surprisingly little data available regarding the natural history of these species. In their attempt to compile as much information as possible, the authors draw from a wide variety of references, ranging from articles published in peer-reviewed professional journals to far less authoritative hobbyist sources, including popular magazines, the internet, pet industry publications, and even various media sources. While such an approach is inclusive, it tends to include information that is unsubstantiated and, in some cases, contradicts sound existing data.
    As scientists whose careers are focused around publishing in peer-reviewed journals and providing expert reviews of papers submitted to these journals, we feel it is a misrepresentation to call the USGS document “scientific”. In fact, much of this report is based on an unproven risk assessment model that produces results that contradict the findings presented in a recently published scientific paper that used a more complex and superior model (see: Pyron R.A., F.T. Burbrink, and T.J. Guiher. 2008. Claims of Potential Expansion throughout the U.S. by Invasive Python Species Are Contradicted by Ecological Niche Models, PLoS One 3: e2931. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002931). Unfortunately, the authors of the USGS document limit their reference to this scientific work to an unsubstantiated criticism. To the contrary, this alternate model is validated by its relatively accurate prediction of the natural distribution of the species in question (something the USGS model does not even attempt). Furthermore, despite its conclusion of a limited potential distribution of Burmese pythons in the United States, the model presented by Pyron et al. accurately predicts the presence of Burmese pythons in the Everglades.
    The USGS model likely provides a gross overestimate of potential habitat for these snake species. People throughout the United States keep pythons as pets, yet the only known breeding populations in the United States are in the Everglades. Such a wide distribution of potential sources of invasion, but only a localized invasive event, suggests that factors beyond those used in the USGS model are critical to limiting the suitability of habitat for pythons. The authors even state that climate is only one factor of several that affect the distribution of an animal, yet they develop a model that only uses overly simplistic climatic data (e.g., the climatic data did not take seasonality into consideration).
    We are further concerned by the pervasive bias throughout this report. There is an obvious effort to emphasize the size, fecundity and dangers posed by each species; no chance is missed to speculate on negative scenarios. The report appears designed to promote the tenuous concept that invasive giant snakes are a national threat. However, throughout the report there is a preponderance of grammatical qualifiers that serve to weaken many, if not most, statements that are made.
    We fully recognize the serious concerns associated with the presence of persistent python populations in southern Florida. As top predators, these animals can and will have a dramatic impact on the community of wildlife that lives in the Everglades. Inaccurately extending this threat to a much large geographic area is not only inappropriate, but likely takes needed focus away from the real problem in the Everglades.
    In conclusion, as written, this document is not suitable as the basis for legislative or regulatory policies, as its content is not based on best science practices, it has not gone through external peer-review, and it diverts attention away from the primary concern. We encourage the USFWS and USGS to submit this document to an independent body for proper and legitimate peer review. Additionally, we encourage the Committee to review this document, not as an authoritative scientific publication, but rather as a report currently drafted to support a predetermined policy.
    Elliott Jacobson, MS, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACZM
    Professor of Zoological Medicine
    University of Florida
    Dale DeNardo, DVM, PhD
    Associate Professor School of Life Sciences
    Arizona State University
    Paul M. Gibbons, DVM, MS, Dipl. ABVP (Avian)
    President-Elect, Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians
    Interim Regent, Reptiles & Amphibians, American Board of Veterinary Practitioners
    Director, Exotic Species Specialty Service
    Animal Emergency Center and Specialty Services
    Chris Griffin, DVM, Dipl. ABVP (Avian)
    President, Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians
    Owner and Medical Director
    Griffin Avian and Exotic Veterinary Hospital
    Brady Barr, PhD
    Resident Herpetologist
    National Geographic Society
    Endangered Species Coalition of the Council of State Governments
    Crocodilian Specialist Group
    Warren Booth, PhD
    Invasive Species Biologist
    Research Associate
    North Carolina State University
    Director of Science
    United States Association of Reptile Keepers
    Ray E. Ashton, Jr.
    Ashton Biodiversity Research & Preservation Institute
    Robert Herrington, PhD
    Professor of Biology
    Georgia Southwestern State University
    Douglas L. Hotle
    Curator of Herpetology/Conservation/Research
    Natural Toxins Research Center
    Texas A&M University
    Francis L. Rose (Retired) , B.S., M.S. (Zoology), PhD (Zoology)
    Professor Emeritus
    Texas State University
    Edward J. Wozniak DVM, PhD
    Regional Veterinarian
    Zoonosis Control Division
    Texas Department of State Health Services
    CC: Secretary Kenneth Salazar, US Dept of the Interior; Director Marcia McNutt, US Geological Survey; Director Sam Hamilton, US Fish & Wildlife Service

  • StevenFord

    This latest Cause of the Day would be absurd if they weren’t going after my pets.
    Anyone who thinks that boas and pythons are going to overrun the country has never dealt with respiritory infections in reptiles.
    This anti-reptile campaign is only the opening salvo; I expect owners of large dogs to be next on the agenda.

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