By Erika N. Chen-Walsh
“Propaganda is a soft weapon; hold it in your hands too long, and it will move about like a snake, and strike the other way.”
~ Jean Anouilh
According to the American Pet Products Association, there were 13 million reptiles living as pets in the U.S. as of 2011.
HSUS calls large constrictor snakes “high maintenance, deadly predators.” (Debbie Leahy, Captive Wildlife Regulatory Specialist, HSUS, June 8, 2012.) HSUS’s official policy on all reptiles is that, “For public health, conservation, and humane reasons, The HSUS recommends that the general public forgo pet reptiles. Wild animals are best left in the wild where they belong.” (www.humanesociety.org/issues/exotic_pets/facts/reptile_trade.html, accessed November 30, 2012.)
HSUS has named large constrictors to its list of “Species of Greatest Concern,” which also includes big cats, small wild cats, bears, primates, wolves, venomous reptiles, and alligators and crocodiles. HSUS’s written goal is to pass laws “limiting the possession of these animals to zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and sanctuaries accredited by the Global Federation of Sanctuaries (GFAS).”
In pursuit of this goal, has used extremely inflammatory rhetoric to try to terrorize the general public and to inspire lawmakers to action based on false premises. According to Leahy, the problem with escaped large constrictors has reached the point where, “Escaped pythons are springing out of toilets, attacking people in gardens and ambushing children playing in their yards.”
The facts do not support this hyperbole. The argument is most easily made using HSUS’s own statistics (for which they do not provide citations.) HSUS claims that 17 people have been killed by large constrictors in the US since 1978. HSUS further claims that there have been 1,111,768 large constrictors imported since 1977. Using those figures alone, without factoring in the millions of large constrictors bred in captivity this country since 1978, it makes the risk of death from a large constrictor less than 0.01%. Less than 1/100th of 1% risk of being killed by a large constrictor snake. If the millions of captive born constrictors in this country are considered, that fraction of a percent plummets even further. And that is using HSUS’s own statistics.
The chance of being killed by a vending machine, a clothes dryer, a sand hole, a shark attack, a dog or a bee are significantly higher than the statistical risk of being killed by a large constrictor.
The risk of salmonella is not limited to snakes, and is in fact more common with respect to turtles. Nonetheless, according to CDC and USDA 87% of all salmonella cases result from food related sources. Only 3% are derived from pets, and less than 0.1% are derived from reptiles. The risk of salmonella from pets can be eliminated or mitigated with proper hygiene.
The consumption of chicken and eggs pose a far greater risk of salmonella poisoning than reptiles.
The risk of large constrictor snakes being able to survive outside of the southernmost tip of Florida has been discussed in the first two parts of this series. However, below are two maps to illustrate the survival range of large constrictor snakes in the U.S.:
In reality, feral cats and feral pigs cause significantly more damage to domestic ecosystems and wildlife than snakes. Moreover, as mammals, feral cats and pigs are vectors of zoonotic diseases that are transmissible to humans (rabies, distemper, toxoplasmosis, campylobacter, etc.). Snakes do not. Wild deer populations are more dangerous to the public at large due to collisions with motor cars than are feral or captive bred snakes.
Representative Southerland (R-FL) summed it up perfectly when he described HR 511 as being a “solution looking for a problem.” Reptiles have not posed a public safety risk or an invasive species risk in the United States. The role of the government is not to preemptively legislate animals that are the lifeblood of small businesses to slake the thirst of overzealous animal rights advocates, such as HSUS, seeking to get blooded on exotic animal legislation.
Herpetoculturists need to control this dialogue through education and the spread of accurate information about what these animals mean to us as pets, what they mean to our business interests, and the value they add to our lives and our economy.
Part One of this series of posts discussed the background of HR 511 and the falsified junk science upon which it is based.
Part Two examined the truth about pythons in the Everglades and the heroes of the subcommittee hearing on November 29, 2012.