In 1900 the American congress passed and President William McKinley signed what is commonly refered to as The Lacey Act (from here on known as “the bill”) named after Iowa senator John F. Lacey who authored the bill. The original intent of the bill was to curb the poaching of game and birds in one state only to have them shipped across state lines into another state. In the original version of the bill was also concerned with the introduction of
non-native, invasive species into the American ecosystem. It has been amended several times over the years, and in 1969 the list of wildlife covered by the bill was expanded to include amphibians, reptiles, mollusks, and crustaceans. Over the years since the original version of the bill was made law the penalties have increasingly gotten stiffer and stiffer for violating it. For example in 1981 congress amended the standard of prosecution to be knowingly whereas it had been willfully. They also increased the maximum civil and criminal penalties to 10k and 20k respectively.
Latest proposed amendment
On Feb 3, 2009 Senator Bill Nelson (D)Florida, introduced SB 373 that aims to add the following change to the Lacey Act:
To amend title 18, United States Code, to include constrictor snakes of the species Python genera as an injurious animal.
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,
SECTION 1. IMPORTATION OR SHIPMENT OF INJURIOUS SPECIES.
Section 42(a)(1) of title 18, United States Code, is amended in the first sentence by inserting ‘; of the constrictor snake of the species Python genera’ after ‘polymorpha’.
This bill was cosponsored by Carl Levin (D)Michigan and has was revised before coming out of committee and being sent to the full senate for a vote. The amendment narrowed the list of species banned under this proposed law change to nine. They include:
- Python molurus – Indian Python
- Broghammeras reticulatus – Reticulated (regal) Python
- Python sebae – African Rock Python
- Python natalensis – Natal Rock Python
- Boa constrictor – Boa Constrictor (BCI, BCC, etc)
- Eunectes notaeus – Yellow Anaconda
- Eunectes deschauenseei – Dark-Spotted Anaconda
- Eunectes murinus – Green Anaconda
- Eunectes beniensis – Anaconda (Bolivia
While the change to “only” nine species is much better than the original bill which would have essentially banned all constrictor snakes it is still unacceptable for a variety of reasons.
It is based on bad science
The purpose of the Lacey Act is to protect native plants and wildlife from both invasive foreign species and human beings. It is a national law that is appropriate when a species is able to spread beyond a very localized region. The species listed above simply cannot survive outside of very specific climates. In other words they are NOT in any way shape or form an invasive species for any part of the Unites States except very specific locations, primarily in Flordia.
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) released a study (PDF) that even to the most casual observer is teeming with errors, misconceptions, half-truths, and outright lies. Unfortunately this same study is what many politicians and lay persons are using to guide their thinking on SB373. For instance the report claims that there is a colonization risk in the US by these animals via the pet trade. That might be true if we all lived in the extreme south of Florida but for the other 99.9% of the country there is no risk of colonization. If I were to put my Boa Constrictor outside in the 6 inches of snow that is on the ground it would die in very short order. Same is true of any of the species listed. There is a reason they are native to the tropical and sub-tropical regions they are and it’s not because they invaded and adapted to those areas.
That report isn’t the only one that relies on lies. Another estimate claims that there are approximately 50,000 invasive snakes living in the Florida Everglades. Originally published in 1999 by Cornell University that same number is cited a decade later. Two questions come to mind.
- Why are the estimates at 50,000 ten years after the Cornell study? If these snakes pose a threat of colonization why haven’t their numbers grown?
- Why are these 50,000 animals still living in a very, very tiny (geographically speaking) region? Why have they not migrated?
Fact is that the estimates are likely way off. By tens of thousands. If there were 50,000 giant constrictor snakes in the Flordia Everglades they’d have a HUGE impact on the local wildlife. There wouldn’t be any of it left! These snakes don’t feed on your average sized pet mice or gerbil. They need large prey and there’s simply not that much large prey in the Everglades. They haven’t migrated because they can’t. There is no other climates that support their needs. Southern Flordia is unique out of all the rest of the United States. It is the only place that combines the necessary temperatures, humidity, and food source for these animals to survive. When we examine these two facts objectively it’s impossible to say that these 9 species of snake pose a threat of colonization.
It is economically disasterous for many people
There are many people who make their living with these snakes. They have dedicated their time, effort, and money to breeding and promoting these snakes. These snakes are their livelihood. With the state of the economy today it is utter foolishness to turn around and tell people they can’t make a living doing what has been perfectly acceptable and legal up to that point. Granted people will still be able to breed and sell these and other snakes but because it would prohibit the interstate trade of them it would ruin many small businesses. Beyond just the snake breeders are the small businesses who exist solely to support them. Cage builders for example. If I can’t buy a Reticulated python what need have I for a cage that can house one? If I can’t buy a Boa Constrictor I don’t need to feed it, therefore the people who breed and sell feeder animals are impacted.
This law is motivated by emotion not fact
The simple fact of the matter is that the only reason this amendment to the Lacey act is going to pass is because it is a hot button, emotional issue. The people who support this law have exploited one unfortunate event over the past year that has gotten the attention of the national media. The death of 2 year old Shaianna Hare when an illegally and improperly secured Burmese python escaped from it’s cage and killed her in Florida. In fact S 373 looked to be heading nowhere fast until this happened. No one was ignorant enough to believe that these snakes are an invasive species that are dangerous to the American ecosystem. But when a little girl was killed any excuse to ban them became a good excuse.
There is a real problem
No one should say there isn’t a very real problem with these snakes. There is, but it is very much a local problem for the state of Florida to deal with. The Florida Wildlife and Conservation Commission began a program to record, capture and kill injurious species in the Everglades. In fact Florida is so serious about dealing with the issue that they’ve declared the hunt will go for a full year from January 1, 2010 to December 31, 2010. No one denies that Florida has a very real problem to deal with. The issue is that it’s not an issue that can spread to other parts of the country.
We won’t get another chance
This matter is pressing for one simple matter. It made it out of committee. This means that the full Senate will vote on it and if they pass it then it is passed on to the House of Representatives who would then make the changes they see fit to it and then vote on it. Once the President signs the bill it becomes law. Do we want to risk that either the House won’t pass the bill or that President Obama won’t sign it? If you own snakes, or any other reptiles you need to oppose this amendment to the US Code. There are several things you can do.
- Contact your state’s Senators directly
- Contact your local and state representatives as well. They also need to be educated on the matter.
- Support organizations such as U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers and PIJAC both of which are working hard to oppose S 373 and other bills at both the federal and state level that would hurt our hobby.
- Write letters to your local newspapers telling them the facts as they are
- Be on the lookout to correct misconceptions online. If it is a place you can post a comment correcting wrong information do so. Keep it short, and respectful, but don’t just let it go without correcting it