HR 511 Part Three: Separating Fact From Fiction About Constrictor Snakes

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

1-DSC_0361The Statistical Danger of Death From Captive Constrictor Snakes

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 to1-pig-erika (1) 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.

chickenThe Risk of Salmonella

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.

Invasive Species

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.:

The map used in the fatally flawed Climate Match from USGS that mistakenly relied on temperature averages to produce and incorrect range of habitat for tropical constrictors.
The map used in the fatally flawed Climate Match from USGS that mistakenly relied on temperature averages to produce and incorrect range of habitat for tropical constrictors.
The actual geographic range in which tropical constrictors can survive in the U.S.
The actual geographic range in which tropical constrictors can survive 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.

Closing Remarks

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.

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HR 511 Part Two: The Truth About the Everglades and Heroes of the Subcommittee Hearing

By Erika N. Chen-Walsh

Part One of this series discussed the background of HR 511 and the falsified junk science upon which it is based.  Part Three dispels other myths and propaganda about constrictor snakes.

The HR 511 Subcommittee Hearing of November 29, 2012

cap-reflecting2The U.S. House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs held a legislative hearing on HR 511 on November 29, 2012.  (The hearing in its entirety can be viewed online here.)  Andrew Wyatt had originally been invited to supply all four opponent witnesses to testify against HR 511 in the Subcommittee hearing. However, in the two weeks prior to the hearing, the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (“PIJAC”) became interested in the issue and asked to provide an opposition witness as well.  The final witness panel included the following (each witness’s written testimony is linked to their name):

In opposition to HR 511:

Dr. Brady Barr
Resident Herpetologist,
National Geographic Society and
Dangerous Encounters
Geographic Channel

Shawn K. Heflick
The Python Hunters
National Geographic Channel

Andrew Wyatt
President and Chief Executive Officer
United States Association of Reptile Keepers

Colette Sutherland
“The Snake Keeper”
Spanish Fork, UT

In support of HR 511:

John Kostyack
Vice President
National Wildlife Federation

Peter Jenkins
Executive Director
National Environmental Coalition on Invasive Species

Opening Remarks from the Hon. John C. Fleming (R-LA), Subcommittee Chair

Chairman Fleming demonstrated an immediate understanding of the issues and a genuine concern for the economy and the protection of small businesses, stating, “I have concerns that H.R. 511 will end up destroying hundreds of small businesses without providing any real benefit to the Everglades.”  He further noted that HR 511 now seeks to “go far beyond the recommendations of the South Florida Water Management District, the State of Florida and the Fish and Wildlife Service.”  Chairman Fleming delivered a thorough and accurate history of issues surrounding constrictor snakes and the Lacey Act, and herpetoculturists owe a debt of gratitude to Chairman Fleming for his thorough and thoughtful analysis of the issue.

Pythons in the Everglades

Dr. Brady Barr, Resident Herpetologist, National Geographic Society, expressed frustration at the amount of misinformation being Barr-Sutherland-Heflickdisseminated to the public and clearly explained, as a PhD in the field of reptiles, why pythons cannot survive beyond the southernmost tip of Florida, stating that,

“The snake species referenced in this hearing are native to tropical regions of the planet, whereas the Southern Everglades is a sub- tropical climate characterized by seasonal temperature fluctuations and more extremes. These tropical snakes do not possess the behavior and physiology to tolerate cold temperatures. Low temperatures (below 15 degrees C.) result in these snakes having problems digesting prey, acquiring prey, avoiding predation, moving, essentially surviving. Furthermore, these snakes lack the innate behavior to seek refugia at the onset of cold weather conditions, resulting in quick death or a compromised immune system in which the snake ultimately succumbs. Climate data reveal that temperatures found in Southern Florida simply are not conducive to the long term survival of large tropical snakes. When it gets cold, these snakes die.” (Emphasis added.)

This opinion was echoed by Shawn Heflick, a biologist with a Masters Degree on invasive species in Florida. Heflick has traveled the world capturing and studying pythons, anaconda and boas on five continents.  He is a licensed Python Agent for both the Everglades National Park and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and he is the Host of National Geographic WILD’s series, The Python Hunters, which explores the conservation issues of reptiles around the globe and educates people about their plight.

Heflick described a study he conducted with collaboration from the USDA, APHIS and FWS ith permitting from Florida Wildlife and Conservation Commission, which included both Boa constrictor and Burmese Pythons. Within just four days, 100% of the specimens in the study had died due to exposure to the cold.  (Jacobson et al. 2012.) Heflick testified that the wild Burmese python population has not expanded beyond south Florida and further, that it is on the decline, due to massive die-offs in 2009/2010, rendering population numbers lower than ever before.

Colette Sutherland, of The Snake Keepers, also testified that her snake breeding business had suffered severe adverse consequences due to the fear that Boa constrictor would be added to the Lacey Act list of injurious species.  Animals for which she had paid $25,000 per pair, she was unable to sell.  Sutherland and her husband ended up euthanizing 60 adult boas because of the market collapse caused by bills such as HR 511.

Brady-WyattAndrew Wyatt, president of USARK, testified about both economic impact and the fallacy of pythons thriving outside of southern Florida.  Wyatt cited a new study published in Integrative Zoology, “Environmental temperatures, physiology and behavior limit the range expansion of invasive Burmese pythons in southeastern USA,” by Jacobson et al., which is a collaboration by University of Florida, USDA and real python experts.  It is a peer reviewed paper confirms what other studies have also demonstrated: “…[I]t appears unlikely that the Burmese pythons inhabiting the Everglades will be capable of expanding or becoming established far beyond southern Florida”.  Wyatt referenced at least four other cold weather studies from the University of Florida, USDA Wildlife Services, Savannah River Ecological Lab and Vida Preciosa International that refute the USGS projections.

Wyatt offered compelling testimony, citing the Georgetown Economic Services (GES) report on “The Modern US Reptile Industry” in 2011. According to GES, listing these nine constricting snakes on the ‘Injurious Wildlife’ list of the Lacey act would cost small businesses as much as $104 million in the first year and much as $1 billion over 10 years. This action has been opposed by the US Chamber of Commerce, The Small Business Administration (SBA) Office of the Advocate, Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), PIJAC and USARK.

Proponents of HR 511, including but not limited to the Humane Society of the United States (“HSUS”), the Natural Environmental Coalition on Invasive Species (“NECIS”), and the National Wildlife Federation (“NWF”) promote misinformation about pythons in the Everglades.  The testimony of both Peter Jenkins and John Kostyack relied heavily on information from HSUS.

Kostyack testified that, “Giant constrictors are top predators in the south Florida ecosystem. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), they are voracious and indiscriminate consumers of native wildlife and can grow rapidly to more than 20 feet in length and 250 lbs in weight.”  Using the typical hyperbole of the animal rights industry, Kostyack ignored the fact that the largest feral Burmese python in U.S. history was captured in August 2012, measuring in at 17.7′.

Jenkins, also following the HSUS mantra, testified about an “excellent new report by the Humane Society on Constrictor Snake Incidents,” which stted that reticulated pythons “are known as particularly “vicious,” prone to unprovoked attacks and in their native ranges are reported as “man eaters” more so than any other species of snake.”  Jenkins provided no reference for his inflammatory rhetoric.  Jenkins went on to try to take issue with the GES report cited by Wyatt about the economic impact of reptiles in the US.  Notably, Jenkins failed to offer any evidence to refute it.

Ranking Minority Member Gregorio Kilili Sablan (D-Northern Mariana Islands) expressed concern about the risk of large constrictors becoming a problem in the island territories.  Representative Madeleine Z. Bordallo (D-Guam) expressed concern over the problem of the brown tree snake in Guam.

However, perhaps Representative Steve Southerland, II (R-FL) summed it up best, when he stated that HR 511 is “a solution looking for a problem.”

Chairman Fleming concurred, stating that, “Florida is handling a Florida problem that exists only in Florida . . . our Federal Constitution created a government in which the rights of the federal government would be limited and all other powers would go to the states.”

Herpetoculturists in the U.S. need to make their voices known in a respectful and professional way.  Please commend Chairman Fleming and Representative Southerland on their intelligent treatment of this issue, which is being driven hard by ideologues who believe that reptiles should not be kept as pets under any circumstances.

HR 511 Part One: An Introduction to HR 511 and the Junk Science Behind It

By Erika N. Chen-Walsh

Because we focused on the snake, we missed the scorpion.”  ~ Egyptian Proverb

The Legislative History of HR 511

US Congressman Tom Rooney (R-FL)

On January 26, 2011, U.S. Representative Thomas J. Rooney (R-FL) introduced House Resolution 511 which seeks to amend title 18, United States Code (the “Lacey Act”), to prohibit the importation of nine species of constrictor snakes as injurious species.  These include the following: of the Indian python of the species Python molurus, including the Burmese python of the species Python molurus bivittatus; of the reticulated python of the species Broghammerus reticulatus or Python reticulatus; of the Northern African python of the species Python sebae; of the Southern African python of the species Python natalensis; of the boa constrictor of the species Boa constrictor; of the yellow anaconda of the species Eunectes notaeus; of the DeSchauensee’s anaconda of the species Eunectes deschauenseei; of the green anaconda of the species Eunectes murinus; of the Beni anaconda of the species Eunectes beniensis.’

Following its introduction, HR 511, it was referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary.  From there, on February 14, 2011, it was referred to the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security.  On February 27, 2012, it was discharged from that committee.  It was ordered to be reported on September 28, 2012 by a voice vote and was finally reported out on October 5, 2012 and referred to the House Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans, and Insular Affairs.  On November 29, 2012, the Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans, and Insular Affairs held a hearing on HR 511.

What is Behind HR 511 and Its Predecessors:  Garbage In, Garbage Out

At the outset, it is important to understand the facts.  HR 511 is not something new.  Permutations of it have been floating around for approximately five years.  In 2011, the Obama administration was successful in passing a rule change to the Lacey Act that made the interstate transport of four species of constrictor snakes illegal.  That rule change went into effect in February 2012.

The rule change was contingent upon the same fatally flawed “science” upon which the proponents of HR 511 continue to rely.  The house of cards began with the United States Geological Survey (“USGS”) and its “study” entitled, “What Parts of the US Mainland are Climatically Suitable for Invasive Alien Pythons Spreading from Everglades National Park” (“Climate Match”).  The study was flawed for many reasons, including but not limited to:

  • An incorrect conclusion that Burmese pythons can live throughout the bottom third of the United States;
  • It was erroneously based on temperature averages instead of temperature extremes leading to the incorrect conclusion that tropical pythons can survive the low temperatures ranges in areas outside of the southernmost tip of Florida;
  • It falsified data points in the published study by manufacturing data that were not in the data set by as much as 60% for a single country; and
  • It was widely condemned by scientists from around the world, including the National Geographic Society, University of Florida, and the Thailand National Natural History Museum.

The Climate Match was followed by a second piece of propaganda, a gray paper entitled, “Giant Constrictors: Biological and Management Profiles and an Establishment Risk Assessment for Nine Species of Pythons, Anacondas and the Boa constrictor.” (The “Constrictor Report”.)  The Constrictor Report, a USGS internally generated document, was based on the junk science Climate Match. It was not peer reviewed and it was not published in any journal.

A panel of eleven independent experts from the National Geographic Society, the University of Florida, Texas A&M University and others condemned the Constrictor Report, stating in a letter to the US Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee that the Constrictor Report was “not scientific” and “not suitable as the basis for regulatory or legislative policy decisions.”  Even USGS itself, in its response to an Information Quality Act challenge generated by the United States Association of Reptile Keepers (“USARK”), was forced to admit that, “This document was not designated by the USGS as a highly influential, scientific document.”

HR 511 and its predecessors that have been buzzing around Washington DC like a throbbing swarm of bees is based on a “study” with falsified data and incorrect assumptions.  Its foundation is ideological propaganda meant to terrorize lay people and influence law makers.

Part Two of this Series will examine the truth about pythons in the Everglades and the heroes of the subcommittee hearing on November 29, 2012.

Part Three will dispel fact from fiction about constrictor snakes.

Tribute to the Dog

By Erika N. Chen-Walsh

Senator George Graham Vest  (December 6, 1830 – August 9, 1904) was a U.S. politician. Born in Frankfort, Kentucky, he was known for his skills in oration and debate. Vest, a lawyer as well as a politician, served as a Missouri Congressman, a Confederate Congressman during the Civil War, and finally a US Senator. He is best known for his “a man’s best friend” closing arguments from the trial in which damages were sought for the killing of a dog named Old Drum on October 18, 1869. As long as the name of the late Senator George Graham Vest of Missouri is mentioned it will always be associated with his love for a dog.

In 1869,  in Johnson County, Warrensbug, Missouri, Senator Vest represented a plaintiff whose dog, “Old Drum” had been shot by a neighbor. The defendant did not so much deny the shooting as he disputed the $150 value the plaintiff sought in damages. For his closing argument, Senator Vest stated as follows:

“Gentlemen of the jury: the best friend a man has in the world may turn against him and become his worst enemy. His son or daughter that he has reared with loving care may prove ungrateful. Those who are nearest and dearest to us, those whom we trust with our happiness and our good name, may become traitors to their faith. The money that man has, he may lose. It flies away from him, perhaps when he needs it the most. A man’s reputation may be sacrificed in a moment of ill-considered action. The people who are prone to fall on their knees to do us honor when success is with us may be the first to throw the stone of malice when failure settles its cloud upon our heads.

The one absolutely unselfish friend that a man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him and the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous… is his dog.

Gentlemen of the Jury: a man’s dog stands by him in prosperity and in poverty, in health and in sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground, where the wintry winds blow and the snow drives fiercely, if only he may be near his master’s side. He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer, he will lick the wounds and sores that come in encounters with the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince. When all other friends desert he remains. When riches take wings and reputation falls to pieces, he is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens. If fortune drives the master forth an outcast in the world, friendless and homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege than that of accompanying him to guard against danger, to fight against his enemies, and when the last scene of all comes, and death takes the master in its embrace and his body is laid away in the cold ground, no matter if all other friends pursue their way, there by his graveside will the noble dog be found, his head between his paws, his eyes sad but open in alert watchfulness, faithful and true even to death.”

The jury deliberated less than two minutes. The record becomes quite sketchy here, but some witnesses claim the plaintiff, who had been asking $150, was awarded $500 by the jury. The Missouri Supreme Court denied cert.  There is a statue erected of Old Drum in the Johnson County Square that stands to this day.