Commentary: Snake vendors hiss at 'job-killing' constrictor ban

The Miami HeraldFebruary 11, 2012 

Oh my…. Rabbits. You really don't want to see bunny rabbits at a reptile show.

But there they were, in all their warm-blooded incongruity, with those big pleading eyes and furry cuteness, locked in a cage under the sign that described their gruesome fate. "Reptile feed. $10 each."

Twitchy noses gave them the appearance of being nervous. And why wouldn’t they be? The rabbits and a nearby box of mice found themselves as unwilling players in what most of us mammals would regard as a herpetological horror show. The bunny booth at the Repticon reptile show in Fort Lauderdale this past weekend was set among row after row, box after box, of boas and pythons and anacondas — more species and subspecies of squeezy rabbit-killers than I had ever supposed existed.

A snake show is no place for a bunny.

But neither is the Everglades.

A peer-reviewed study published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the Burmese python has wiped out both the marsh and cottontail rabbits in the southern reaches of the glades. Since pythons moved into the neighborhood, the raccoon population has dropped 99.3 percent, opossums by 98.9 percent and bobcats by 87.5 percent.

The authors of the study blame the discards of the exotic pet industry. “The magnitude of these declines underscores the apparent incredible density of pythons in Everglades National Park,” said Michael Dorcas, lead author of the study, a biology professor at Davidson College in North Carolina, and author of the paper Invasive Pythons in the United States.

The crowd at the snake show Saturday was having none of it. “Nobody knows what’s killing those animals,” said Maggie Davis, a herp hobbyist and owner of a number of constrictors, including a neon-yellow biak. “The White House is just caving in to those animals’ rights crazies.”

Oddly enough, a local kid working the parking lot at War Memorial Auditorium used a similar term to describe the people attending the reptile show, some, to his discomfort, with pythons draped around their necks. Crazy, I suppose, depends on whether you’re someone apt to side with the snakes or, on the other side of the political divide, with the bunnies.

Last month, the Department of Interior banned the importation and interstate transportation of four big constrictors — the Burmese python, the yellow anaconda and the northern and southern African pythons. The implications hung over Saturday’s show. A fellow conducting a workshop on handing the ball python warned, “We don’t how long before they ban this snake too. They could add more species to the list and wipe out our industry.”

Snake breeders have been pushing the notion that theirs is an “industry” that provides much employment. That the snake ban is a job killer. Apparently, the reptile crowd has picked up much support among influential Republicans — though in states outside of Florida that are not yet menaced by python invaders. They defend snake traders as victims of overzealous federal regulators. Their hostility, though, seems slightly inconsistent. Republicans are dead set against unauthorized immigrants of the people kind, but defend the unfettered importation of exotic snakes.

But everything, in an election year, gets politicized. My vote goes to the marsh rabbit.

I suppose this is about a cultural divide. It’s hard for me, not a snake enthusiast (I’m okay with geckos and frogs) to understand why the U.S. should allow the importation of exotic pets that could threatened the native fauna. Besides, there’s something bothersome about a pet that would happily eat you if the opportunity presented itself. Without compunction. Without batting one of its non-existent eyelids.

But the snakey crowd has very different wants than the rest of us. One vendor was selling $20 plastic buckets with reinforced lids. “Transport your venomous snakes.” A real need, apparently. Exotic reptile websites offer all manner of poisonous imports, from spitting cobras to black mambas to Gabon vipers. Not creatures you’d want to carry around in a milk carton. For collectors who prefer venomous creatures with legs, another vendor was selling live scorpions.

Last week’s study was so startling in its finding of a horrible ecological disaster that the need to tighten up on the exotic snake trade seemed incontrovertible. Robert Reed, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey and a co-author of the paper, noted unhappily, “It took 30 years for the brown tree snake to be implicated in the nearly complete disappearance of mammals and birds on Guam. It has apparently taken only 11 years since pythons were recognized as being established in the Everglades for researchers to implicate pythons in the same kind of severe mammal declines.”

“A bunch of lies,” said an angry vendor, who clearly would like to add journalists and federal biologists to the diet of his constrictors. The reptile convention took on a little of the paranoid air that hangs over the gun shows that are held in this same auditorium with participants sure that President Obama wants to take away their weapons.

The old gun motto, “I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands” could be slightly altered for constrictor collectors. “I’ll give you my python when you pry it from around my cold, dead neck.”

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