Pythons ride a losing streak as debate rages over their status as pets.
New York City, January 1997: Michael Hano, vice president of the New York Herpetological Society (NYHS), receives a call from a woman who wants a nine-foot snake removed from her home. It seems that her son no longer wants his pet Burmese python. The animal hasn’t been given food or water in nearly two months, and the woman and her son are too terrified to open the cage’s lid. That night Hano retrieves the snake, who is thin and suffering from pneumonia. “Between Burmese pythons and iguanas,” he reports, “we average about one call a day like this one.”
Commonly attaining lengths up to 17 feet and often exceeding 100 pounds, wild Burmese pythons inhabit the lush forests and lowlands of Southeast Asia and the Indo-Australian archipelago. Like other snakes in their phylogenetic family, they use strong, constricting muscles to kill prey. The species’ distinct markings, red-brown blotches outlined in gold against a muted background ranging from pale yellow to soft gray, make them popular in the skin trade. Their size makes their captive-bred counterparts popular among a growing breed of pet owners.
To many, Burmese and other giant snakes, such as African rock and reticulated pythons and boa constrictors, represent the ultimate in snake keeping. The purchase is the easy part; in most towns in the United States, giant snakes readily are found at pet shops and breeder expos. What happens to them next is a bit of a crap shoot, many winding up victims of negligent owners who have been misinformed about their new pet. Whatever the reason—from “My new landlord doesn’t allow reptiles” to “They told me if I kept him in a small tank he wouldn’t grow”—zoos, animal control agencies and herpetological societies are asked to place these unwanted pets daily.
Says Ward Stone, wildlife pathologist for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), “We’ve documented a disturbing trend in the abandonment of non-native reptiles. They are irresponsibly sold to people who have little or no idea of their housing requirements or care. Many people simply abandon the animals to fend for themselves.” In one of many recent incidents in the Albany, NY, area, for example, a landlord found a Burmese python in a cardboard box in a vacated apartment.
Stone expresses concern about environmental threats from non-native species. “Very little is known about snake diseases, and there is a good chance that parasites could impact native populations,” he says. This scenario is of particular concern in warm states such as Florida, where various species of ex-pet reptiles—including green iguanas, boa constrictors and, yes, Burmese pythons—already have established themselves in the wild. Given such consequences, it’s no wonder that irresponsible owners have given themselves, and snakes, a bad name.
Unarmed and Dangerous?
Last October, a 19-year-old Bronx man was found dead in his apartment, his 45-pound, 11-foot Burmese python entwined around his body. Police sources theorized that the animal mistook the victim for food as the man prepared to feed his pet a chicken. The snake was not kept in a cage. At the family’s request, the python was euthanized.
Although giant pythons have been involved in fewer than 10 fatalities in the past decade—the rate is higher for human deaths involving horses and dogs—these tragic accidents could have been prevented had owners practiced proper procedures.
At least two people should be present when handling or feeding a giant python; the animal must be contained in a safe enclosure when fed, and food should never be offered by hand. Explains Peter Taylor, chief reptile keeper at St. Louis Zoo, St. Louis, MO, “The scent (of food) in the air elicits a snake’s feeding response. All of a sudden their senses are on alert, and the next thing that moves could be something to eat.” As a result, countless owners have sustained the jabbing bites of a large python at feeding time. They may have neglected to wash their hands after handling food items, or chose to dangle the rabbit or chicken manually.
The potential for injury is increased if the snake is at large, in a position to follow through with the constriction component of the feeding response. Says Taylor, “It’s surprising that the specimens who have killed adult men have not been really large. But once a snake gets around the upper body, a person can become unconscious in minutes, if their carotid artery gets cut off or if they panic.”
Large pythons are capable of blocking blood flow when carried around their owner’s neck, an often-seen method of transport during warmer months. “It is completely ill-advised to be walking around with a big snake,” says Taylor. For one, it becomes more difficult to anticipate an animal’s behavior. “Once they’re out in the warmth and bright light, there may be some release of a snake’s captive predictability.” Quicker reactions and increased tongue flicking and movements illustrate this crisper defensive response.
Snake-wearing ambassadors do a good job of showing the world the worst side of pet keeping. Says Taylor, “Some see their reptiles as an extension of their ego, and think about the potential reactions of other people rather than about the animal. They are also forcing their animals upon the considerable percentage of the population that is uncomfortable with snakes.”
Although they are not required by law to screen buyers, knowledgeable pet store employees do take time to counsel potential owners. Says James Favia of Glen Ellyn Pet Center in Glen Ellyn, IL, “Some stores want to make a fast dollar and neglect to tell the customer how large these snakes get. When we sell a reptile, we let the person know about care and long-term growth. Often we’ll say, ‘This is really not a good choice for you,’ and recommend another.” Favia also informs customers of local regulations; in Illinois, for example, any snake more than 6 feet must be registered.
The Escondido, CA-based American Federation of Herpetoculturists (AFH) also has gone to bat for giant pythons with its campaign to foster responsible ownership. The non-profit organization recommends that vendors refuse the sale of large constrictors to minors without parental consent, and that buyers are given information on their care at the time of purchase.
The group also finds itself battling legislation restricting the keeping of reptiles, and members feel their avocation is targeted unduly. Although the controversy has pitted animal protection groups and public officials against reptile owners, a number of “insiders” advocate legislation.
NYHS’ Hano believes the reptile community should consider policing itself, working with legislators to draw up guidelines for appropriate species. “A permit system that’s not too problematic would be better than what we have now. Perhaps this would preclude a blanket law making all snakes over a certain size illegal. Without a system, the increasing numbers of irresponsible owners make additional incidents inevitable.”
Says DEC’s Stone, who has had to retrieve many abandoned giant snakes, “The recent (human) fatality should be a stimulus to look at licensing these large constrictors.”
As debate rages, snakes continue to be purchased and kept irresponsibly, and animal groups continue to receive calls about unwanted reptiles daily. Several sources for this story expressed concern over “another story about how dangerous big snakes are.” But this article is not about “vicious” pythons; it is about irresponsible human beings. Hopefully, with increased educational and legislative efforts, the story will be different next time around.
Let the Burmese python buyer beware. NYHS’ Michael Hano provides a rundown of reptile requirements:
* Price tags vary, from a low of $35 at breeder expos to $200 at some pet stores for an 18-inch hatchling.
* Snakes should be housed in an easy-to-clean enclosure that’s tough enough to support this strong species. Responsible owners often opt for custom-made cages of hard plastic or waterproof plywood. Minimum size requirements of 8 X 3 X 3 feet ensure space enough for a 15-foot adult to turn around easily. Keep cage tops and doors secure—snakes are notorious escape artists.
* Pythons have a penchant for bathing, so captive-raised animals should have a water bowl in which they can submerge. A 30-gallon container half-filled with water does the trick.
* What’s for dinner? A three- to five-pound rabbit or chicken once weekly, if you’re an average giant python. Pet-store prices can add up; some owners shop at live poultry markets.
* The last word on giant pythons as pets? Says Hano, “There are a wide variety of reptiles and amphibians available that are just as beautiful and fascinating as giant constrictors. You’re not missing out by not having one of the largest species in the world.”
ASPCA Animal Watch – Spring 1997