Special Interests and Their Brand of Snake Oil

By on September 9, 2011 with 0 Comments By Wayne Pacelle

Go just about anywhere in America, and you’ll hear from regular people that Washington is broken—and what they mean is that there has been a breakdown in public confidence in our political institutions and the people who work within them.

The bad and even reckless decision-making of these public officials reflects some of the ideological divisions that exist within the country. While we’re one nation, there’s also great pluralism, and there are major disagreement and fault lines when it comes to our values. In other cases, it’s more about special interests gaming the system, with narrow-minded corporations or lobby groups stymieing popular reforms and thwarting the will of the people.

Burmese python - credit William Warby
William Warby via Flickr

On animal issues, we know that public overwhelmingly supports our positions on so many issues. Yet too often, sensible reforms are blocked. For example, the public doesn’t support captive hunts of exotic mammals in fenced enclosures, but the NRA and their allies in the trophy hunting lobby thwart a ban on this unsporting cruelty. We don’t want extreme confinement of animals on factory farms, but agribusiness groups defend the status quo. We don’t want lifelong confinement of breeding female dogs on puppy mills, but the big breeders and the American Kennel Club bollix up reform. Special interests too often rule the day.

One example that’s been both disturbing and confounding to watch relates to the trade and possession of large, dangerous, and exotic constricting snakes. Within the last couple of years, we learned that the pet trade has been shuttling enormous numbers of snakes—from yellow anacondas to reticulated pythons—into the country. Somehow, these merchants find willing buyers, and many of these exotic fanciers soon realize they are in over their heads—sequestering the animals in some deficient aquarium or holding cell, shunting them off on sanctuaries, starving and killing them, or even releasing them in the wild. As a result of the random releases, enormous numbers of exotic snakes, such as Burmese pythons, have colonized Florida, wreaking havoc with native species, including endangered species.

Some of these pet snakes have injured or killed people; in fact, two weeks ago, two adults were sentenced to 12 years in jail for their negligence in allowing a python to slither into a baby crib and kill the 2-year-old girl sleeping in it. And finally, there’s the issue of the snakes themselves. Hundreds of thousands of the animals have been imported into the country in recent years, and there’s almost never a good outcome for these hapless creatures. They are curiosities that invariably turn into victims themselves.

You would think enacting a policy to halt the import of these dangerous snakes would be a no-brainer. It’s good for animals, the environment, and public safety. But as Jim Snyder of Bloomberg reported last month, there’s a lobby, led by the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers, that’s been fighting this reform at every turn. The group has temporarily succeeded in blocking federal legislation to crack down on the trade, and they’ve at least slowed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from adopting a rule to stop the spread of these injurious species.

The snake sellers argue that it’s a jobs issue—that a federal crackdown on the trade will cost them jobs. They want to preserve their profits and their opportunity to exploit these animals at the expense of so many other people. Is it possible to put a figure on the life of a child killed by a pet snake that should never have been in this country—no mind in someone’s living room in Sumter County, Fla.? And what’s the cost of the death of hundreds of thousands of snakes who suffer and die as a result of this trade? The Interior Department does have an answer on some of the ecological costs. It says it’s spending about $100 million this year to combat invasive species such as the pythons in Florida.

It’s easy to rail at Washington, and in so many cases, it’s the right response. But there’s more to the story. Rail at the special interests that are thwarting the public good. And take action to turn it around. It’s up to us to provide a counterweight and to restore some good sense and sound policies. If we leave the playing field to the reptile dealers, the puppy millers, the NRA and so many other selfish interests, the animals won’t stand a chance.

Wildlife/Marine Mammals

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