State Senator Seeks to Ban Exotic Snakes as Pets
Sen. Eleanor Sobel said Wednesday that she will file a bill that would take the fangs out of the Burmese python pet market by making it illegal to own the type of snake blamed this summer for suffocating a 2-year-old girl in her bedroom.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson has already introduced a similar federal measure and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commissioner held a hunt for the slippery suspects, but Sobel, D-Hollywood, told the News Service of Florida that the hunting effort was off the mark.
“I think it’s a baby step in what needs to be done,” Sobel said. “These species can multiply quickly and they are out there in our neighborhoods. Expanding the number of bounty hunters and season is a good step, but I don’t think it’s enough.”
The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has reported that the 13 python experts permitted by the state to capture and kill the snakes on state land in South Florida captured 17 as of the beginning of this month. The program is slated to continue until at least Oct. 31, at which time officials will consider expanding it.
But while state officials consider extending their bounty, Sobel is proposing to outlaw altogether importing for personal use or sale the Burmese or Indian Python (python molurus), Reticulated Python (python reticulatus), African Rock Python (python sebae), Amethystine or Scrub python (Morelia amethystinus), Anaconda (Eunectes) and Nile monitor (Varanus niloticus).
“These non-native, invasive species are coming into Florida,” Sobel said. “This bill’s intent is to be proactive and forward-looking to save our fragile environment as well as the people of Florida. Our legislation will turn off the spigot, stopping the flow of dangerous reptiles into the state by prohibiting their import for personal use.”
However, Sobel said she did not expect the grass to be clear for her plan, acknowledging the presence in the weeds of both a strong pet lobby and a Republican majority in the Legislature who are usually reticent to reduce personal freedoms.
“The other side will probably oppose it and so will the people who have a vested interest in selling and trading these snakes,” she said. “The industry is sure not going to be real happy and they are probably going to do everything they can to stop it. There seems to be a fascination with reptiles in Florida,” adding that the same can be said of the nation and the world.
Wildlife Foundation of Florida Executive Director Brett Boston agreed that something needed to be done about exotic pets and plants in the state, though he said he did not endorse or oppose Sobel’s legislation.
“We have a climate where everything that’s brought in, whether it’s a plant or animal, survives pretty well because it’s pretty forgiving,” Boston said. “If we were in Alaska, they’d be dead. You get a hard freeze and they die.”
Boston said that non-native species like the Burmese python impact the Florida environment far beyond the headlines generated by the summer’s tragedy.
“You run the risk of the critter getting out and choking out native species,” he said. “So many of our native species are in trouble anyway, and then you put the non-native species in there to compete for food and space. I understand people have the freedom to have pets, but we have to stop and say ‘that’s not really worked.’”
Any ban on pythons or other exotic species will only go so far toward fixing the problem though, Boston added, because they are too prevalent now.
“From the 50,000 foot view, we need to look closely at exotic pet imports,” he said. “We have so many that we’re never going to get rid of them, but can we at least learn our lesson?”
One of the opponents Sobel said was likely to want to strike at her plan told the News Service Wednesday that a pet ban was unnecessary because there are already strict rules for owning them.
“Florida has the comprehensive regulation of what are called the ‘big 5’ constrictors, requiring permits, record keeping and microchips, so I question why we need to fully ban them,” said Marshall Meyers, CEO of Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, which opposed a similar proposal by U.S. Sen. Nelson and U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek.
Meyers said a better course would be to strengthen enforcement of existing rules and increase sanctions. He added that there could be unexpected consequences of banning snakes like the Burmese python altogether.
“A ban would drive these animals underground,” Meyers said. “People will abandon them and turn them loose because they don’t want to turn them over to the authorities and have them killed.”