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Owners say rules constrict

By MICHAEL A. MOHAMMED
Published February 19, 2007


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photo
[Times photo: Zach Boyden-Holmes]
Stephen Norman, 19, of New Port Richey holds an albino Burmese python Friday morning, one of more than a dozen snakes he keeps in his apartment. Norman isn't happy about the new regulations for microchips and registration for larger snakes.
photo
[Times photo: Zach Boyden-Holmes]
One of Norman's Burmese pythons devours a mouse. He said the rules will be unenforceable for existing snake owners.


She's a big girl. She lays her head on your shoulder, gives you a hug and sighs.

She flicks you with her tongue. And hisses.

You start to get why people own Burmese pythons.

The 13-foot, 60-pound snake lives at Oldsmar's Herp Hobby Shop. Like most giant constrictors, she's sluggish - unless, of course, there's a small furry critter in front of her.

But now, Burmese pythons, four other constrictor species and one species of lizard are at the center of a debate between state officials and snake enthusiasts.

New rules, which take effect Jan. 1, 2008, categorize the animals as "reptiles of concern."

Now, owners of the pets must fill out a questionnaire, meet stricter caging requirements previously reserved for venomous reptiles and identify their reptiles with a photograph or implanted microchip.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials say the rules will increase public safety, promote better pet care and protect Florida's wildlife and ecology from invasion by non-native species.

Snake lovers call the rules discriminatory and say they set a precedent for further regulation.

Microchip for 'Thundercles'?

Hillsborough Animal Services director Bill Armstrong pushed for the new rules after he realized wild animals could be kept in almost any residence in Florida.

"Eighteen-foot anacondas or 13-foot Burmese pythons should not be in a residential neighborhood," Armstrong said.

No Floridian has ever been killed by an exotic reptile kept under a permit, said commission Capt. Linda Harrison.

Still, Armstrong supports tighter restrictions.

"Does it happen often? Heck no, it doesn't," he said, but "these are snakes that can kill a human and clearly could consume a small cat or even an infant."

Armstrong served on an 11-member panel that came up with the new rules. Most of the other members, he said, worked in the reptile industry.

Eugene Bessette, a Gainesville-area snake breeder who also served on the panel, said the new rules were "enforceable and workable."

Not everyone agrees. Stephen Norman, who owns five Burmese pythons, isn't wild about the rules requiring microchips and registration.

"I have no intention of getting it done," he said, after feeding a dead rat to a python.

Norman, 19, works at the Herp Hobby Shop. He said the rules are unenforceable for existing snake owners because the state has no record of them and no way to find them.

He owns several big constrictors on the "species of concern" list, including the pythons and four reticulated boas, with names like Foamy, Ugly and Thundercles.

Harrison said big snakes like the Burmese pythons are "not an animal that's going to hunt you down and try to attack you." She's more worried about non-native breeds getting loose and hurting native species.

For example, some experts think escaped Burmese pythons are becoming a menace in the Everglades, competing with alligators for the top spot on the food chain.

Worried about privacy

Bobby Rex, owner of exotic-pet store Scales in Brandon, said when he heard the commission was considering the new rules he stopped buying Burmese and reticulated pythons.

"As soon as I sold out of them, I did not reorder," he said.

Rex said he doesn't sell many of the big constrictors anyway. He steers customers to smaller and more manageable snakes. But he resents a new rule that allows unannounced inspections of snake enclosures in owners' homes.

"To me, it's just an invasion of privacy," he said. He fears the rules may lead to stricter legislation in the future.

Armstrong, of Hillsborough Animal Services, considers the new rules a first step to closer oversight of snakes. He hopes to create an online database of registered large-constrictor and venomous reptile owners.

"The people that own this stuff say that if you do that, people will protest in front of their house," Armstrong said, "or thieves who know the value can use it as a shopping list.

"My argument is that public safety trumps what they would claim to be a right to privacy."

Antivenin a requirement

The new rules also expand existing restrictions on venomous reptiles. Already, owners have to have 1,000 hours of experience handling and caring for venomous species before they can get a venomous reptile permit.

Now they must have a plan in case they get bitten, keep antivenin on hand and label cages with the snake's species name and photograph.

Joe Pittman, a snakebite expert at St. Joseph's Hospital, says that he treats about two dozen bites a year, nearly all from wild snakes. In the eight years he has worked at the hospital he has treated only three bites from venomous pets.

About two dozen snake owners have venomous snake permits in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, according to commission records.

Holders of venomous-animal permits and owners of big constrictors tend to be well trained, said Pittman, who owns several smaller snakes.

"Most people who own these bigger types of snakes are very responsible," Pittman said.

Shirley Parker, a 75-year-old Plant City grandmother, got into venomous snakes more than 30 years ago as a teacher for Nature's Classroom, Hillsborough county's outdoor education center.

She currently owns a young male copperhead snake, which she estimates is her 12th poisonous pet.

Parker was bitten twice while in her 40s, once by a diamondback rattlesnake and once by a cottonmouth rattlesnake. Neither bite required antivenin, though both times her arm swelled and turned black and blue.

"I hate to say this, but it's sort of exhilarating," she said. "My best friend thinks I'm dumb, but it makes me think I'm still alive."

Michael A. Mohammed can be reached at mmohammed@sptimes.com or 813 226-3404.

Fast Facts:

Reptile owner

If you own one of the following reptiles, you must obtain a permit to keep it. "Reptiles of concern" include:

- Indian or Burmese python

- Reticulated python

- African rock python

- Amethystine or scrub

python

- Green anaconda

- Nile monitor

Get a permit

Complete an application and a qualifying questionnaire, specify where the reptile will be held and provide appropriate caging. Applicants must also provide 1,000 hours of experience in caring for the species, or provide 500 hours of experience in addition to passing a written exam.

Source: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

[Last modified February 19, 2007, 00:56:49]


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