There are few other animals that elicit as wide and as strong of emotions and reactions (and have thus developed as undeserved of a negative reputation) as snakes in general. While perhaps a few other well-known animals such as sharks, spiders, and even crocodilians, bears, or big cats, for example, can also instill deep rooted human fears of predatory animals or animals which can harm us, none of these carry quite the same level of perception as an animal that lives, and appears, very differently (and oftentimes almost “alien” or “foreign”) than what we are used to seeing or are familiar with. Snakes certainly do not have functional limbs (aside from vestigial limbs in some genra) which they use in locomotion, nor do they have hair, fur, or feathers that we often come to associated with more “desirable”, “cute”, or “fluffy” species.
When it comes to venomous reptiles, and venomous snakes in particular, there are perhaps even greater ranges of reactions and attitudes towards them. Many people are absolutely terrified at the simple thought of a venomous reptile (or any reptile for that matter) and may go through great lengths to avoid or even harm and persecute them. Others, however, have an extremely deep rooted fascination, appreciation, and respect towards these animals in particular, and enjoy the many different ways and opportunities that are available to see, learn, and interact with them on a number of levels. There are very roughly 3,400 snake species found worldwide, with roughly 600 species (or more) being venomous to at least some known degree. With such a diverse array, it should come as no surprise that there is also a tremendous diversity of venomous snakes that inspire a great amount of awe, respect, and oftentimes even surreal feelings towards being able to witness in person. Certainly, a large, heavy set Gaboon Viper (Bitis rhinoceros and Bitis gabonica) or Rhinoceros Viper (Bitis nasicornis) for example, are impressive and beautiful animals that can impress nearly anyone interested in these animals with their large and unusual shape and size, and intricate geometric array of pinks, pastels, and even reds, oranges, greens, yellows, and black patterns. Many small, slender arboreal species of Bush Vipers (Atheris sp.), are also another example of these animals that capture and captivate our eye with their unique appearances (some have projectile-like “horns” above each eye, the purpose of which is not yet fully known or understood) and bright coloration of yellow, orange, green, or even turquoise blues. The number of examples of beautiful and fascinating animals could go on indefinitely.
When it comes to the keeping of venomous reptiles in captivity, particularly when done by what is known as the private sector (which can collectively include hobbyists, individual owners, or other privately operated and funded zoological facilities, educational, and research institutions/organizations, as well as many other entities), and even working towards conservation efforts and initiatives towards these species in the wild, these issues have long been not only a controversial ones, but also quite complex when it comes to any public policy involving these animals. Each year, a number of different forms of legislation and regulatory activity are seen affecting reptile and amphibian keeping at all levels of government in the form of proposed state bills to local or municipal ordinances or bylaws, as well as other regulations. As a result of this, many questions are often posed or asked, particularly by those who may not fully understand or be familiar with reptiles or reptile keeping. After all, these animals can be potentially dangerous, and have the potential of killing with a single bite. Why should anyone be allowed to keep venomous reptiles? Why would anyone want a venomous animal? Why does anyone need one? Isn’t doing so a largely unnecessary risk? In order to help put this issue into a proper perspective and to make an educated and analytical assessment towards the issue, there are several facts and other topics that need to be considered.
Venomous Snakes: Aggressive or Defensive?
Unfortunately, when it comes to TV and other popular media outlets, venomous snakes and other reptiles (and herps, or reptiles and amphibians in general) more often than not earn an undeserved bad reputation as “evil”, “viscous”, or “slimy” monsters, and the issues surrounding them are usually highly sensationalized and inaccurate. Heavily inflammatory words and language such as “chase” and “attack” are also even quite frequently used in reporting. But is this really the case? Do snakes, venomous or otherwise, really seek out humans to “chase” or “attack”? To help answer these questions, let’s first look at three different terms as to what “poisons”, “venoms”, and/or “toxungens” actually are, and how and why animals that may possess or fall into any or all of these qualities or use them. In other words, what is venom actually, and why do some animals actually have or use it?
Poison: a toxic substance (comprised of one or more toxins) causing dose-dependent physiological injury that results in self-induced toxicity (e.g., bacterial endotoxins) or is passively transferred without a delivery mechanism from one organism to the internal milieu of another organism without mechanical injury, usually through ingestion, inhalation, or absorption across the body surface.
Toxungen: a toxic substance (comprised of one or more toxins) causing dose-dependent physiological injury that is actively transferred via a delivery mechanism from one organism to the external surface of another organism without mechanical injury.
Venom: a toxic substance (comprised of one or more toxins) causing dose-dependent physiological injury that is passively or actively transferred from one organism to the internal milieu of another organism via a delivery mechanism and mechanical injury.
When its structure and purposes are examined further, venom can very often be found to be simply a more evolutionarily advanced set of enzymes and proteins (sometimes much more so) developed or evolved over time as a means for that animal to more quickly and efficiently secure its primarily prey without the substantial chance of it escaping or being able to cause injury in return. Venoms are also a relatively expensive and precious resource for most animals that have them to be able to use and produce. When it comes to animals having venoms, toxungens, or in some cases, poisons (in the most notable case of Rhabdophis species, or the keelback snakes, as well as many other species in recent findings), there is actually very little, if anything at all, that separates or distinguishes these animals behaviorally in the most fundamental sense from other reptiles or amphibians. In fact, venomous reptiles are simply reptiles that have simply developed a much more sophisticated means of capturing and securing their food. With the possible exception of only the very few of the largest boa and python species (where even then, most cases of human stalking and predation can be considered highly anecdotal and questionable), snakes do not prey upon or ingest humans. Certainly, there are no venomous snake species that are large enough or are able to successfully ingest humans of any age or size. These animals simply do not have the urge, desire, or inclination to come into close contact with humans, and will actually do everything in their power to either avoid being seen or detected to begin with, or perform many other preliminary warnings or displays to warn potential threats/predators that they may be venomous or are not to be disturbed. For example, rattlesnakes have developed loose, multi-segmented rattles comprised of keratin (the same material as human hair and fingernails are comprised of) that are shaken to warn potential predators or other large animals not to step on or trample them. Cobras have developed their famous and well known hoods as a warning to potential predators by spreading the skin and ribs in their neck region to form the “hood”. Many other snakes have also likewise developed other ways of remaining cryptic (or camouflaged, unseen) or other sounds and behaviors such as hissing, tail rattling, and gaping as a means of warning other animals.
In fact, when it comes to the conservation and protection of venomous reptile species in the wild, it is much more often the animals that require protection from people rather than the other way around. Humans, and human related activities and expansion are perhaps the greatest threats facing many species worldwide. Unfortunately, as it is widely known, many reptile and amphibian species face a variety of such threats including habitat loss, fragmentation, or degradation, as well as outright slaughter, exploitation or persecution. Sometimes, these activities may be for inhumane and ecologically unsustainable “rattlesnake roundups” that still occur, unfortunately, in several states where snakes are gassed from their burrows and dens and subsequently collected, housed/displayed, and slaughtered in inhumane and unsafe manners, or simply out of irrational fear, hatred, or due to other negative attitudes and false perceptions. Many venomous snake species in particular, such as the timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus), are also hit especially hard by all of these ecological threats often due to their very unique habitat/overwintering requirements in the form of deep sandstone or limestone rock outcroppings or fissures that go well beneath the frostline that limit their distribution significantly compared to other native snake species, as well as their very slow reproductive rates and juvenile recruitment rates compared to other snake species (where it often takes an adult female timber rattlesnake 8-10 years or more to reach sexual maturity, and where they may only mate and reproduce every two to three years and give birth to a small litter of young).
Venomous Snakebite: The Numbers and Epidemiology
Now that it has been established that venomous reptiles aren’t the evil, scary monsters that are out to attack and ingest people, the question then remains as to why anyone at all should be allowed to privately keep or work with these animals, or why anyone would want to? First of all, it needs to be established that the purpose of this article certainly is not to encourage venomous (or “hot”) reptile ownership for everyone, particularly novices or beginners, or to imply that these animals are not potentially dangerous. They certainly can be potentially dangerous animals, particularly in inexperienced or unqualified hands. In other words, venomous reptiles certainly are not, and should not be considered suitable “pet” animal species, at least in the traditional or most widely understood sense. Many species of harmless and nonvenomous snakes, and other reptiles and amphibians can, and often do make for excellent and more appropriate pets for the beginner than do medically significant species. Most private keepers and individuals that are serious about the animals they keep recognize this, and thus do not consider the animals under their charge or possession as their “pets”, but rather “zoological specimens” or similar terms to the like.
Worldwide, snakebite statistics, as well as estimates and epidemiology are widely ranging, and in many areas of the world, snakebite reporting is not considered mandatory, and as such, can be difficult to adequately track and gain a universally accepted consensus thereof, and may often go unreported or underreported. However, according to at least some estimates, there are believed be as many as roughly 400,000 to 1.8 million or more snakebites and envenomations, and roughly 20,000 to well over 90,000 snakebite fatalities each year. In the United States, there are roughly between 2500 and 4,000 snakebite envenomations, and between 5 to 10 snakebite fatalities each year. With these numbers seemingly so unacceptably high, why then would anyone want to keep or work with animals that kill thousands of people annually throughout the world? In order to gain a proper perspective and assessment of this issue, this epidemiology and numbers need to be more closely examined. When these numbers are further scrutinized or closely examined, however, one may be surprised to find that the vast majority of these snakebites and fatal envenomations are typically occurring in poorer, third world countries and other areas of the world such as India, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar in southern to southeastern Asia, and in much of sub-Saharan Africa, where humans often live in close, unintentional proximity to the snakes, and where there very often much more limited access to, and availability of modern medicine, healthcare, and anti-venom treatment.
Upon even closer examination of these statistics, one may also find that very few of these snakebites and snakebite fatalities are actually the result of keeping captive venomous reptiles. Although these animals can indeed be challenging and potentially dangerous to work with, there have only been 16 recorded deaths attributed to captive venomous reptiles in the United States from 1990 to 2009 (which amounts to an average of less than 1 death per year) while over the same time period, over 800,000 automobile deaths, and 14,000 deaths due to boating accidents took place. Some further statistical trends to consider would include agricultural machines, which kill well over 560 people each year, alcohol related accidents over 300, antibiotics killed 39 people, and accidental or incidental trips and falls on stairs or household furniture kills 1,389 people. Accidental drownings in bathtubs or natural water bodies are responsible for over 330 deaths each year, and even vending machines claimed 37 lives from 1978 to 1995, and hot dogs 77 children alone. While any accidental or premature death is certainly and undoubtedly tragic and unfortunate, these statistics should be kept in mind when keeping the issues with venomous reptile keeping in proper perspective.
Animal rights, or anti pet/animal ownership groups may then counter these above arguments by stating that this is because there are more hot dogs or vending machines, or of “xyz” for example, than there are captive venomous reptiles, and thus the per capita rates would be different, thus essentially arguing that these animals are too “inherently dangerous” to be kept in captivity. They may go on to argue that captive reptile/exotic animal incidents often go un-reported or under-reported, as worldwide snakebite statistics often are, and as such, how would we know the rates of incidence for captive animal’s aren’t actually much higher than they currently are? To answer and address some of these counter arguments, we must first consider the number of private venomous reptile keepers that are out there that do maintain these animals. Although there is not currently a good or solid consensus on the number of private venomous keepers as far as I am aware of, it can be safely stated that there are at least several thousand, if not more that do so in the United States, and many more internationally.
Why then, if there are thousands of private venomous reptile keepers out there, are there not hundreds or thousands more public media or other news media reports (or at least verifiable death consensus reports) of captive venomous reptiles escaping or wreaking public havoc left and right each year? Well, first off, we’ve already established that these snakes are not viscous man eaters that are out to attack or otherwise “get” people. The answer to this lays largely in that keeping venomous reptiles may often be a slight to moderate voluntarily accepted occupational risk or hobby hazard (particularly when primary and/or secondary containment methods fail or are not utilized), but it very seldom is a public safety issue unless serious negligence or carelessness is occurring. In addition, as with many other exotic reptiles, most venomous snakes have very specific temperature, humidity, habitat, diets, and other environmental requirements in order to survive, and even more specific requirements in order to reproduce. Even overnight temperatures of less than 50-60 degrees F will be enough to overcome and prevent the establishment of any exotic venomous reptile outside of its secondary containment system. Overall, however, public safety and animal welfare are the top concerns that must always be met with regards to venomous reptile keeping.
Professionalism, Practices, and Structure of the Private Sector
If many other reasons are needed for allowing the responsible private keeping of venomous reptiles by knowledgeable and qualified individuals, they would certainly entail both what the private sector has been able to accomplish, and what it can bring to the table in terms of what it has, and can contribute to our ever increasing body of scientific knowledge and understanding of all aspects of these animals, both in the wild and in captivity, from their biology and natural history, to their reproductive behaviors and habits. In other words, it is the private sector which has perhaps made the greatest strides in understanding, and even discovering new or previously unknown or poorly understood behaviors of these animals. Although many public zoos and other facilities certainly also do tremendous work in the areas of education and conservation, they simply lack the collective funding, space, and other resources needed to protect, conserve, and propagate in captivity every species, particularly those in greatest conservation need. In many cases, unfortunately, zoos must make difficult funding priorities by attracting and maintaining the public’s interest and support in ways that oftentimes are difficult to accomplish otherwise when it comes to garnering support for the conservation and education towards venomous snakes, and other feared and “unpopular” species. In fact, the private venomous reptile keeping sector is the entity which funds, supports, and provides animals for research, display, or other captive breeding purposes for not only public zoos and institutions, but in many cases, also for venom extraction and research facilities, museums, and many other public and private educational and research institutions. These entities have all been equated to a stacked deck of cards, in which the private sector is represented by the cards at the lower, or bottom of the pyramid. As could be expected, if these cards are ultimately removed, the entire pyramid can be expected to collapse.
Furthermore, it must also be remembered that most, if not all individuals in the zoological, as well as many other related public sector fields earned their start in the private sector at some point or another and in some form or another. How many people who have developed a professional interest or career in venomous herpetology began their endeavors by catching and keeping toads and garter snakes, or by intensely liking dinosaurs as a child? These are many of the same traits and characteristics many individuals, whether they are in the public or private sector have in common. These are all answers to the previously asked questions as to why anyone would want, or need a venomous reptile. The answer to this has thus been shown to be quite simple in that many people are intrinsically interested in and fascinated in them.
Despite what may be heard from false propaganda stating otherwise, it is actually more often than not, not quite as easy for an untrained or unqualified individual to purchase or acquire a venomous reptile, either from a show or expo, or online as is often stated by animal rights/anti pet organizations. These organizations rely on fear mongering, myths, and other misinformation about reptiles and the reptile community in order to make their talking points, and ultimately remove all animals from captivity (including even service and seeing-eye dogs). These efforts by the reptile community are due largely to the excellent self-policing, and self-regulatory efforts the responsible private venomous reptile keeping community has implemented and enforced. These individuals are serious, knowledgeable and responsible, and realize that both the animals under their care certainly can be potentially dangerous in the wrong hands, and the potentially negative and far reaching public safety and animal welfare of poor or irresponsible actions regarding these animals. For example, most reputable and professional private venomous reptile keepers and breeders take great time to interview and ascertain any potential buyer’s levels of knowledge and experience when it comes to the animals they sell, and take the time to verify each buyer’s legal status in terms of whether or not the animal/species is legal to keep in the particular buyer’s state or area. They use all appropriate handling tools and equipment for their animals, which include hooks, tongs, safety glasses, tubes, and other equipment, and do not promote reckless free handling or unauthorized handling of animals. They also utilize comprehensive bite, escape, and accident protocols for each species they maintain, and consult with their physicians and other healthcare providers ahead of time on ensuring the appropriate anti-venom availability and treatment for each species in the event of a bite or accident. Most private keepers also appropriately label and designate any and all enclosures housing a venomous reptile, whether temporary or permanent, with the appropriate and relevant common and scientific names (including genus and species), sex, quantity, and any other vital information needed to assist emergency first responders and healthcare officials.
While it may be true to an extent that, if when left up to self-policing or self-regulatory non-governmental bodies/organizations, there may be individuals who do not keep these animals or act responsibly, and thus ruining the privilege, right, or whatever one wishes to call or consider animal ownership, the reptile and greater exotic animal communities have evolved greatly over the decades, and are now much more responsible and well-developed than before. Collective punishment (which can be considered penalizing all for the irresponsibility and/or negligence of some within the community) has been shown multiple times to be ineffective and unconstitutional when it comes to addressing the public safety and animal welfare concerns surrounding venomous reptile ownership. Instead, when it comes to these issues, local, state, and federal governments should, and must work with any and all local, affected stakeholders rather than against them. These stakeholders can include a wide array of people and organizations, including the individual, non-affiliated private keepers and hobbyists to local, regional, and state herpetological societies that work to educate the public and enthusiasts about all misunderstood reptiles and amphibians. These societies also work to provide a basis and source of expertise on such local to state laws and ordinances, as well as other forms of proposed rules and regulations.
The state of Florida, for example, has long served as a model state for venomous reptile rules and regulations in which venomous reptiles, as well as other ROCs (or reptiles of concern) are subjected to tiered regulatory systems requiring a minimum number of 1,000 hours of training and experience, as well as numerous other enclosure, housing, handling, transport, and other requirements for ROCs. Just recently, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission met in September of 2016 from St. Augustine FL to review and update their ROC regulations after several prominent venomous snake escapes took place in the state of FL over the years, including the updating of acceptable cage/enclosure materials, and eliminating inferior materials such as wood and melamine byproducts (which were proven to be subject to warping and sagging over time, and resulting in the unintentional escape of at least one venomous animal in FL). These recommendations were based largely on the successful collaborative efforts of TAG, or the Technical Assistance Group, which comprised on local stakeholders that worked hard to fine tune and ultimately pass these updated working regulations. Likewise, several active local and state herpetological societies have worked and cooperated with local and state governments and legislatures in working to enact improved best management practices regarding the housing, caging, and transport of venomous reptiles, and other reptile species of concern (namely crocodilians and large constrictors). The Madison Area Herpetological Society (MAHS) of Wisconsin, along with USARK (the United States Association of Reptile Keepers) for example, have been great examples of local stakeholders working with government to educate law makers on these issues (many may not even be aware that most multi-department pet stores carry reptiles and reptile supplies) to produce favorable outcomes for improving public health and safety, animal welfare, and addressing the concerns and input of all local stakeholders.
In closing, it is hopefully the intent of this article to shed a greater light and understanding on the still controversial practice of private venomous reptile keeping in the United States, and elsewhere in the world. As was properly acknowledged by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission at their recent September, 2016 hearings, many of these issues are complex in nature, and require the participation and support of local stakeholders in order to be addressed. Upon closer examination and analysis of the issue of venomous herp keeping, it is also the hope of this article that the issue has been placed into its proper perspective, and that it can be seen as an issue that can be addressed without collective punishment or other over-reaching means, by ensuring that only those individuals or applicants that possess the necessary/requisite knowledge and experience are permitted to keep and propagate these animals responsibly in a manner that ensures animal welfare and public safety, while eliminating those who may not care about the animals or their communities by causing chronic problems for law enforcement and other public officials. The FL F&W Conservation Commission recently commended the venomous reptile community for its informative and professional conduct and testimony during their process, and referenced our community and industry as a model for other groups, industries, and organizations to follow when addressing the Commission. This is the level of well-established legitimacy that everyone in the reptile community must work to establish and maintain.