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.

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.

Bulletin: Illinois Dangerous Animals Act REPEALED AND RESTATED

By Erika N. Chen-Walsh

Attention Illinois Herpers:

The Illinois Dangerous Animals Act was repealed in its entirety on August 27, 2012. HB 2582 was introduced on 2/18/11 as PA 97-1108. It was signed into law by Governor Quinn on 8/27/12.

It amends the Illinois Criminal Code and either amended or repealed entirely dozens of acts. 720 ILCS 585 was one of the acts repealed entirely. Effective January 1, 2013, there is no 720 ILCS 585  in effect in Illinois.

Within the Act is now 720 ILCS 5/48-10, which incorporates in totality the prior Illinois Dangerous Animals Act (720 ILCS 585) verbatim.

Full history of HB 2582 can be seen here:  http://www.ilga.gov/legislation/BillStatus.asp?DocNum=2582&GAID=11&DocTypeID=HB&LegID=&SessionID=84&SpecSess=&Session=&GA=97#actions

New Jersey Takes Aim at Exotic Animals

By Erika N. Chen-Walsh

October 12, 2012

The New Jersey Legislature is gearing up to restrict the ownership of exotic animals, including reptiles.  On September 20, 2012, the New Jersey Senate introduced Senate Concurrent Resolution 127 which was referred to the Senate Economic Growth Committee.  SCR 127 seeks to establish a task force on the “Illegal Trade and Inhumane Treatment of Endangered and Exotic Animals.”  On the same day it was introduced and referred to committee, it was released from committee with amendments and had its second reading.

October 11, 2012, the New Jersey Assembly introduced Concurrent Resolution 163, the Assembly companion bill to SCR 127, which was referred to the Assembly Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

The task force members, as defined in both Resolutions, are stacked heavily in favor of the animal rights industry and shall include the following:

 One member with significant managerial experience at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection or the United States Environmental Protection Agency, who shall serve as chairperson of the task force;

b.    One member representing the nonprofit organization known as Big Cat Rescue;

c.     One member representing the nonprofit organization known as EcoHealth Alliance;

d.    One member representing the nonprofit organization known as the Humane Society of the United States; and

e.    Two members of the public,  one of whom shall be appointed by the President of the Senate and one of whom shall be appointed by the Speaker of the General Assembly, both of whom shall not hold elective office, and who shall have substantial knowledge and expertise related to endangered and exotic animals.

The full text of SCR 127 can be read here:  http://legiscan.com/gaits/text/664110

The full text of ACR 163 can be read here:  http://legiscan.com/gaits/text/665821

On October 4, 2012, the New Jersey Senate introduced Senate Concurrent Resolution 2233 which seeks to modify New Jersey’s existing statute regarding ownership of exotic animals to include a new provision requiring $250,000 in liability insurance for every applicant  of a permit to possess a “live potentially dangerous indigenous animal or a live potentially dangerous exotic animal” prior to the issuance of the permit.

On October 11, 2012, SCR 2233’s companion bill, ACR 3338 was introduced in the New Jersey Assembly and was referred to the Assembly Financial Institutions and Insurance Committee.

The full text of SCR 2233 can be read here:  http://legiscan.com/gaits/text/665599

The full text of ACR 163 can be read here:  http://legiscan.com/gaits/text/665815

Importantly, SCR 2233 and ACR 163 allow the specific “potentially dangerous exotic animals” and “potentially dangerous indigenous animals” to be determined through administrative rule.  However, both definitions include reptiles and amphibians explicitly.

Wake up, New Jersey, and be prepared for to fight to protect your exotic pets.

SB 310: Kasich’s Big, Expensive Blunder Poised to Kill Small Business in Ohio

By Erika N. Chen-Walsh

“There is poison in the fang of the serpent, in the mouth of the fly and in the sting of a scorpion; but the wicked man is saturated with it.”    ~ Chanakya

May 22, 2012, Ohio’s Senate Bill 310, which went through 16 revisions in the Senate and one, big Omnibus Amendment in the House, passed the Ohio House of Representatives by a vote of 89-9. It was rushed through the Senate regarding the House amendments on the same day and passed by a vote of 30-1. SB 310 awaits only Governor Kasich’s signature before becoming Ohio law. There is no chance of veto.

SB 310 has sweeping implications for all exotic animals. In terms of reptiles, it imposes a prohibitive permitting scheme for all species of venomous snakes and certain constrictors over 12′ in length. It imposes enormous and specific liability insurance or surety bond requirements on owners of venomous snakes, the likes of which are not available. SB 310 requires owners of all restricted snakes to meet certain standards of care that have not been defined and will be set by administrative rule at some later date by group of people unqualified to define best management practices for reptiles. By administrative rule, the director of agriculture can require any information he chooses on the application to own restricted snakes and breeding restricted snakes requires a separate permit. Additional species may be added to the dangerous wild animals list or the list of restricted snakes by either legislative process or a simple concurrent resolution without full legislative process. The impact on reptile hobbyists, owners, breeders and small businesses will be enormous.

How did Ohio go from being one of the few completely unregulated states with respect to exotic reptiles, to one of the most restrictive in less than three months?

The genesis of SB 310 goes back to 2010 and Kasich’s predecessor, Governor Ted Strickland. Strickland was under tremendous
pressure from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) to regulate standards of care for Ohio farm animals. HSUS had threatened to file petitions for HSUS’s proposed constitutional amendment on animal care and housing. (FN1.) Strickland, caving to the pressure of HSUS’s threats, made a deal to draft an executive order. In exchange for this agreement, HSUS agreed to drop their ballot initiative for 2010 and committed to instigating no future initiatives for at least ten years. (FN2.)

On January 6, 2011, the deal brokered between Strickland and HSUS resulted in Strickland issuing an emergency executive order banning exotic pets in Ohio. (FN3.) The executive order would have authorized the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) Division of Wildlife to adopt new rules that prevented new private ownership of wild animals, required existing private owners of dangerous wild animals to register the animals with the state, and defined the type of facilities that could own and rehabilitate dangerous wild animals. The emergency rules would be in place for 90 days. (FN4.)

Four days later, Kasich was sworn in as Ohio’s governor, having defeated Strickland in November 2010 by a narrow margin. (FN5.) By this time, Andrew Wyatt had become aware of the terms of Strickland’s well publicized deal with HSUS. In January 2011, he began contacting Kasich’s office.

By the spring of 2011, Kasich had decided not to sign Strickland’s exotic animal ban because he felt that it exceeded the authority of ODNR and because he felt that it would damage Ohio small businesses. (FN6.) Kasich blocked Strickland’s executive order until its expiry.

Then Zanesville happened. On October 18, 2011, Zanesville, Ohio police began receiving 911 calls of lions, bears, tigers, and other large, dangerous animals wandering loose. The animals, 56 in all, belonged to a man named Terry Thompson, who had kept them on a private game preserve and who chose to turn them loose just prior to killing himself. No humans were harmed by the loosed animals, but unfortunately, the animals were not so lucky. Forty-nine lions, tigers, bears, wolves, mountain lions and a baboon were slaughtered. Most of these were shot and killed by law enforcement officers within 1500 feet of their pens. One was hit by a car. No reptiles were involved in the Zanesville incident.

The public criticism against Kasich from the Zanesville tragedy was swift and condemning. Kasich, of course, refused to accept any culpability, but it turned into an enormous political embarrassment for Kasich, so much so that he sent his friend, Jungle Jack Hanna to the media to defend him. Hanna (television celebrity and Director Emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium), a strong Kasich ally who personally donated $7500 to Kasich’s gubernatorial campaign, made the rounds on national TV claiming it was not Kasich’s fault and further stating that even if Strickland’s original ban had been left in place, there wasn’t anyone to enforce it and no place to put the animals if they had to be taken away. (FN7.)

Politicians achieve their status in life by renegotiating every promise they ever make. The most successful ones make the largest reversals. Kasich may become very successful.

Before Zanesville, Kasich claimed to be protecting Ohio’s small businesses. After Zanesville, he claimed that he blocked Strickland’s executive order because of deficiencies in that order. He became hell bent on passing prohibitive legislation against exotic animal owners as political damage control.

In December 2011, Wyatt met with Senator Troy Balderson, the senator representing the district in which Zanesville lies, and the same senator who sponsored SB 310. Wyatt also met with the director of ODA, the director of ODNR, both of their staffs, and multiple other legislators regarding the inclusion of reptiles (which have never posed a public safety threat in Ohio) in what was already taking form as a huge, restrictive legislative thundercloud for exotic animals and to educate the administration on the impact to Ohio residents and businesses. Other organizations also became interested in and around this time and they, too, began trying to influence the governor.

Senator Balderson made multiple promises to Wyatt during these meetings. Balderson assured Wyatt that only crocodilians and venomous snakes would would fall under his permit system (no constrictors), and that the system would be favorable to industry and it would be “business as usual.” He reversed on those promises.

On March 8, 2012, Balderson introduced SB 310, seeking to enact a sweeping law to establish requirements governing the possession of multiple species of animals, which would be designated as “dangerous wild animals” as well as multiple species of snakes which would be designated under the law as “restricted snakes.” He reversed on his promise to omit constrictors. He reversed on his promise to maintain “business as usual” for the reptile industry. SB 310′s provisions with respect to snakes were so onerous and expensive that they would have served to be a de facto ban on the ownership of multiple species of constrictor snakes as well as venomous snakes.

Rumors in the Statehouse circulated that Balderson, who was not elected but appointed to his senate seat by Kasich, was buckling under the pressure of the governor, who was in a frantic scramble to avoid looking bad over Zanesville. Wyatt made the strategic decision (with which I agreed whole heartedly) to discontinue discussions with Balderson because at best, he lacked the political authority to negotiate, or, at worst, he was negotiating in extremely bad faith.

Wyatt appeared on March 27, 2012 at the first opponents hearing on SB 310 before the Senate Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources Committee. Wyatt gave compelling testimony to a standing room only crowd, amid a sea of NO SB 310 buttons provided by Wyatt, that the reptile industry generates approximately $30 million annually in the state of Ohio; that thousands make their livings or supplement their incomes by farming reptiles as a non-traditional agricultural pursuit; that a rational argument could not be made that working with any reptiles presented public safety risks, and that 90% of the impact of SB310 was directed at the reptile industry, hobbyists and pet owners. He requested that all reptiles be removed from SB 310 and that administrative rule making authority to add new species be removed as well.

Wyatt and I both appeared on April 17th, and on April 24th, each time presenting testimony that not only would SB 310 create a huge burden on Ohio commerce and small businesses, but that reptiles have statistically never posed a public safety risk in Ohio or elsewhere in the U.S.

By April 17th it was clear to us that the Senate intended to listen to virtually unending testimony on SB 310, but had every intention of passing SB 310 out of committee. During that week, Wyatt began executing its strategy to try to ameliorate the damaging provisions of SB 310 in the Ohio House of Representatives. Wyatt felt, and I agreed, that progress in the Senate was futile and further efforts there were going to be fruitless under the circumstances.

Balderson made and reneged on more promises regarding SB 310 during this time period. For example, he promised that administrative rule making authority to add new species would be removed. In fact, he put that promise into writing. But he reneged.

By April 24th, SB 310 was in its 16th version. Some opponents spoke out in favor of the sixteenth version because Balderson removed Boa constrictor , removed constricting snakes less than 12′ long, and allowed surety bonds in certain cases instead of liability insurance for venomous snakes. The inclusion of constrictors, later “bargained” back, was not a victory. Balderson took pains to agree to “concessions” that the legislature could reclaim because of his failure to remove administrative rule as promised. It was a shell game played by Balderson and Kasich against the stakeholders and their representatives who were inexperienced at the carnival.

Wyatt and I  began meeting with House representatives on April 24, 2012 and voicing our objections to SB 310. These objections were resoundingly well received in the House and we were assured that the House would not buckle to the whims of a tyrannical governor as the Senate had.

Beginning in April, several aides also intimated to us that somehow, some of the opponents of SB 310 were leveraging it against another pending piece of legislation, Ohio SB 130. In other words, if opposition to SB 310 were quelled, SB 130 might not be scheduled for committee hearing. SB 130 is a puppy mill bill and puppy production in Ohio is a much larger industry that reptile keeping. Another layer of intrigue had been added. Although we could not verify for certain this had happened, we received enough comments from enough offices, that it seemed likely. As of May 23, 2012, SB 130 still has not been scheduled for further committee hearings and the session is about to end. It was assigned to the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on February 2, 2012, more than a month before SB 310 was even introduced.

On April 25, 2012, SB 310 passed out of the Ohio Senate on a vote of 30-1 and moved to the House. The same day, Wyatt was on the phone with Chairman David Hall’s office addressing the issue of administrative rule as well as other problematic features that persisted in SB 310. By this time, Wyatt and I already had appointments scheduled for the following week with more than half of the representatives on the House and Natural Resources Committee to discuss SB 310 and had contacted Kasich’s office multiple times regarding meeting with the governor to discuss SB 310. After two weeks of such attempts, Kasich’s aide admitted that Kasich would not meet with us regarding SB 310 and told us that, through her, Kasich made a personal request to the director of agriculture, Director Daniels, to meet with Wyatt and me. Unfortunately, the director’s schedule did not allow that to happen.

By May 1, 2012, we had submitted a proposed substitute bill to Representative David Hall, the Chairman of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. We were in Ohio on May 8th and 9th for continued meetings with legislators in the House, to discuss the particulars of our sub bill (which was distributed to the House Committee on May 8th) and to testify in the House Committee hearings.

Throughout hearings, we continued to hammer home the points that SB 310 represented an unfunded mandate that would fall squarely on the shoulders of Ohio taxpayers, that reptile owners continued to be disproportionately affected, that reptiles posed no safety risk in Ohio, that administrative rule to add new species violated due process rights, that the insurance requirements of SB 310 were impossible to meet because such policies did not exist, and that ideologues and imported animal rights experts were the only proponents, proponents that would drive Ohio residents out of business.

Attendance by committee members at the House committee hearings was outstanding. Members asked pointed and excellent questions and paid close attention to the testimony that was given. On two nights, these public hearings went until approximately midnight. Andrew and I appeared on behalf of the Ohio reptile community, and multitudinous Ohio residents appeared and testified as well, many in the herpetoculture community as well as owners of exotic mammals. At most hearings, opponents outnumbered proponents by more than 20 to one. Proponents were HSUS, PETA, a handful of local zoo representatives (always at least one of Hanna’s cronies from the Columbus Zoo) and imported animal rights advocates from other states.

Early on, Representative Jim Buchy (R) developed a pointed interest in support of our positions and our sub bill. Buchy sent our sub bill to drafting and through him it was proposed to the House committee. Other representatives were also opposed to the Senate version of SB 310 and it was clear to them that Wyatt’s criticisms of specific provisions were accurate.

In our May 8, 2012 meeting with Chairman Hall, he explained to us that when the House received SB 310 from the Senate, the House committee members felt that SB 310 was so problematic that there were not enough votes to pass it out of committee. Hall indicated that he would not call for a vote if they could not pass it. However, if the changes were made in the House necessary to pass SB 310 out of committee, he felt certain that the Senate would not approve it. In that case, the two chambers were required to “conference” the issue, with the governor, which would delay the session.

After May 10, 2012, no further testimony was taken on SB 310. On May 14th, seven committee members caucused SB 310 with Balderson and Kasich. We learned after that caucus that the majority of the House committee was also caving under Kasich’s will. All of the House committee members were up for reelection in November. They were anxious to get back to their districts to campaign. Balderson threatened that substantive changes would not pass in the Senate. Kasich promised that he would veto SB 310 if it arrived on his desk with substantive changes. As a result, the only changes that the House committee proposed in its Omnibus Amendment were those that both Balderson and Kasich had pre-approved.

The Omibus Amendment did not restore legislative process to SB 310. Instead, it allows the director of agriculture to add species to the restricted snakes list or to the dangerous wild animals list (or between those two lists) with approval of the General Assembly. This could be through the introduction of an amendment in the form of a bill. However, it can also be through a concurrent resolution, for which hearings, multiple readings, committees and public input are not required. A concurrent resolution only needs a simple majority vote in each chamber and may occur quite silently. This is not full legislative process.

The insurance provisions in SB 310 are either not obtainable or may be so onerous that the cost will preclude nearly all breeders from meeting the requirements. The standards of care are not defined and administrative rules could impose standards of care that are so impossible as to represent a ban on all permits. Moreover, the director of agriculture can, by administrative rule, define what information and requirements are necessary to keep restricted snakes. SB 310 is a defacto ban on keeping venomous snakes and possibly constrictor snakes over 12′ of certain species.

On May 16, 2012 , SB 310 passed the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee late in the evening by a vote of 17 to 4. The four Representatives who opposed the bill were Buchy, Boose, Damschroder and Hagan.

On May 22, 2012, SB 310 was read on the House floor for its third consideration. Chairman Hall testified that there had been over 15 hours of testimony taken by the House committee, more than 80 witnesses had appeared to give oral testimony and additional written testimony was submitted. He thanked Kasich, Balderson, and Balderson’s legislative aide. He said, “We made the bill stronger,” and, “I feel that we did get it right.”

Representative Terry Boose testified against SB 310. Boose asked more questions in committee than any other representative. He stated that when the House received SB 310, “I was 100% for the bill. I thought it was a good bill before listening to the 80 plus witnesses who testified.” Boose went on to list the litany of problems with SB 310. He said it created a false sense of security. He correctly noted that even if SB 310 passes, it is powerless to prevent another Zanesville, that a person could still own all those animals and still release them. He testified that SB 310 “takes away property rights, not just your neighbor next door, but businesses, valuable businesses in Ohio.”

Boose talked about the $30M to $100M annual revenues generated by the exotic animal business and said that SB 310 will “regulate them out of business.” He testified about the “out of state animal rights groups” that want to impose SB 310 on Ohio. He compared SB 310 to Ohio’s Jarod’s Law (referring to a environmental school safety law in Ohio that went into effect in March of 2006 and was repealed entirely in 2009 because the extraordinary costs of the regulations). (FN8.)

Boose noted that none of the proponents nor the committee had been able to find insurance or surety bonds with the language and terms SB 310 will require. He noted that SB 310 will force this businesses underground. He testified that the bill was devoid of any of the rules that it seeks to enforce. He said, “I cannot vote for this bill.”

Wyatt and I applaud Boose for testifying that, “When we pass laws that people cannot obey, then we destroy the Rule of Law and create a lawless society.”

SB 310 passed in the Ohio House of Representatives by a vote of 89-9. Those that voted against it were: Representatives Boose, Buchy, Conditt, Damschroder, Goodwin, Christina Hagan, Martin, Newbold, and Uecker. It immediately moved to the Senate the same day, where it passed by a vote of 30-1. The sole senator voting against it was Senator Jordan.

This is a sad day for reptile keepers in Ohio. We applaud the Ohio legislators that held to their promises and had the courage, the integrity and the intelligence to stand up for Ohio businesses and commerce in light of the pressure and hysteria of the ideologues to which Kasich and Balderson succumbed.

FN1 http://ohioansforlivestockcare.com/

FN2
http://industry.ohiopork.org/PageResources/Agreement_reached_between_Ohio_agriculture_and_HSUS.pdf

FN3
http://ocj.com/2011/01/strickland-issued-executive-order-completing-agreement-between-ohio%E2%80%99s-agricultural-leaders-and-hsus/

FN4 Id.

FN5 http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/02/AR2010110206305.html

FN6 http://www.plunderbund.com/2011/10/21/kasich-refusing-to-take-responsibility-for-blocking-dangerous-animal-ban/

FN7 Id.