At an announcement today in south Florida, which is ground zero for the problem of invasive species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a ban on the trade in four large constricting snake species. The FWS designated them as “injurious” under the Lacey Act, forbidding snake traders from importing or transporting the large constrictors in the interstate exotic pet trade. This legal move is “act two” in the long-running drama that followed the release of a comprehensive 2009 U.S. Geological Survey report that detailed the devastating consequences that nine species of large constrictor snakes have had, and may have, on the environment. The species listed today under the Lacey Act are the reticulated python, DeSchauensee’s anaconda, green anaconda, and Beni anaconda. All four species are captured from the wild and shipped to the United States for the pet trade, with reticulated pythons also captive-bred in inhumane, warehouse-type conditions. The reticulated python, especially, makes up a large portion of the constrictor snake trade, and is responsible for fatal attacks on humans.
In 2012, the FWS listed four other species under the Lacey Act, so these two executive agency actions cover eight of the nine species listed as problematic by the federal wildlife agency – with only boa constrictors omitted from the list. The prior listing included the Burmese python, Northern African python, Southern African python, and yellow anaconda. We applaud the efforts of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and FWS Director Dan Ashe for taking this latest action and not letting this issue lie unattended and in the reeds any longer. We are hopeful that the Administration will continue to work toward listing boa constrictors as well.
The trade in large constricting snakes is fraught with risks. The trade is inhumane, with a high death rate for the snakes who are captured in the wild and often transported for thousands of miles. As with so many other forms of trade in live wildlife, there is an enormous mortality rate during capture, holding, and transport, where the animals typically don’t get fed or watered and are denied any medical care. In one instance in 2013, authorities discovered 850 snakes in the garage of a New York area animal control officer who was selling the snakes over the Internet.
The trade also poses serious risks to the ecology of a wide range of states in the southern tier of the nation, where temperatures are warm enough to allow these animals to survive. Many people who acquire these giant snakes have no idea what they are getting into – in terms of the care and the cost, to say nothing of the smell and the upkeep of an in-home habitat for the animals – and some of these overwhelmed snake owners dump the animals into the wild. The federal government has said that there may be tens of thousands of Burmese pythons in south Florida, and one survey suggested that the snakes have wiped out most small- and medium-sized animals there, including raccoons and bobcats. Boa constrictors have colonized south Florida and Puerto Rico and loose boas have been found in Hawaii, posing a threat to some of the most ecologically sensitive areas of North America. We’ve now tracked more than 500 human safety incidents involving large constrictors that include attacks, intentional releases, and escapes from poorly secured cages. In the United States, pet Boa constrictors and reticulated pythons have killed at least five adults and three babies.
It is much more humane and fiscally responsible to deal with the problem of invasive species through prevention, rather than to contain the animals once they’ve become established. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and that’s true for snakes, too. The snake lobby – yes, there is one, if you can believe that – has fought these anticipated restrictions on the trade in dangerous snakes for years. They’ve hired lobbyists and commissioned reports that grossly inflate the purported economic losses that the pet industry would sustain if restrictions on the trade were imposed, even though these restrictions cover just a handful of the most problematic species and snake traders have hundreds of other reptiles to sell. The federal government should have seen through this smokescreen a long time ago. This is not a trade worth preserving, and it’s an economic and ecological loser for our country.
The Constitution doesn’t say a word about the right to possess anacondas or pythons. We applaud the FWS for listing these four species, and look forward to working together to end the trade in all species of dangerous snakes.