Our opinion: Exotic snakes and deadly consequences

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The death of two young boys in New Brunswick, Canada, this week brings to light the dangers inherent in keeping certain types of exotic animals as pets.

The boys died from asphyxiation when a 100-pound African rock python escaped from its enclosure, slithered through a ventilation system and fell through the ceiling into the room where the boys were sleeping. They had been visiting the apartment of a friend whose father owned an exotic pet store on the floor below, although police said the 14-foot python had been kept inside the apartment. A snake expert said it was possible that the python was spooked and simply clung to whatever it landed on.

Exotic snakes have been a problem in this country as well, with sometimes dire consequences for humans and the environment. For example, pythons and boa constrictors are a major concern in south Florida and are typically found in the Everglades where they have been released by pet owners and allowed to reproduce unchecked.

A scientific survey published by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences last year showed that areas infested with the pythons and other constrictor snakes since they took hold about 15 years ago had found no rabbits, no foxes and a nearly 90 per cent drop-off in raccoons, opossums and bobcats. And in a case tragically similar to that of the two Canadian boys, a 2-year-old Florida girl died four years ago after being strangled by a pet python that escaped from its aquarium and attacked her in her crib.

Another exotic snake story emerged a little closer to home earlier this week. Police in Burlington reportedly found a 5-foot-long boa constrictor in the parking area at Leddy Park. Fortunately, animal experts from the Vermont Wildlife Refuge Center were contacted, and assisted in the capture of the snake before anyone was hurt.

Unlike the pythons, boa constrictors are not illegal in the United States.

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In 2009, the U.S. Geological Survey recommended banning nine species of large constrictor snakes under the Lacey Act. In 2012, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service banned only four species -- Burmese pythons, northern and southern African rock pythons and yellow anacondas. The agency has yet to take action on reticulated pythons, green anacondas, DeSchauensee's anaconda, Beni anaconda and boa constrictors. By banning only four of the nine species, the trade simply shifts and does not solve the problem, according to the Humane Society of the United States.

Boa constrictors, identified as "high risk" by scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey, have become established as an invasive species in more areas than any other boa or python species. They have colonized in Puerto Rico and pose serious threats to other states and territories, including Hawaii, where loose boa constrictors are being found with greater frequency.

In the U.S., a dozen people have been killed by African rock pythons, Burmese pythons, reticulated pythons and boa constrictors since 1990.

Based on those facts, and in light of the recent deaths in New Brunswick, the Humane Society is again urging the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to immediately ban the import and interstate transport of those five additional large constrictor snake species for the pet trade.

"The tragic death of these two young children once again illustrates that these powerful wild animals belong in their native countries, not in private hands in the United States," Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the HSUS, said in a statement. "Private ownership of large constricting snakes almost never turns out well for these animals, it puts people at risk, and it threatens our natural resources and native wildlife species. The risks are just too great, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has already taken a positive step by banning the species involved in this tragedy, must act to curb this trafficking of this class of wild animals for the pet trade."

There have been too many cases of these snakes escaping from their enclosures, or being released into the wild when they got too big for their owners to handle. It's time to end the importation and sale of these exotic monsters before they wreak more havoc on the environment and kill more innocent children.


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