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.”

Wildlife

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