The Snake Lobby

Two years ago, in my Ottawa Citizen piece about the New Brunswick python incident (still ongoing; here’s the latest), I argued that snake keepers should be very careful not to imitate gun rights activists. “More than a decade ago,” I wrote then, “I saw people on reptile discussion websites compare exotic pet bylaws, which they found overly restrictive, to gun control legislation, which they also opposed. And I thought to myself: no, don’t make that argument. You won’t win that argument. Comparing snakes to guns will get reptiles banned in every large city in Canada.”

But as Slate‘s David Fleshler writes, reptile keepers have been doing that very thing—adopting the tactics of the gun lobby—in the United States, and getting results.

The reptile analogue of the NRA is USARK, the United States Association of Reptile Keepers (the Canadian equivalent is CanHerp), which amazingly has managed to portray itself as the defender of a multimilion-dollar industry and get a receptive hearing from politicians at the congressional and state levels—at least, it seems, right-wing politicians with a hate-on for government regulations, particularly of the environmental sort.

As a snake keeper on the centre-left of the political spectrum, I honestly don’t know what to make of this. I suspect the environmental threat posed by introduced giant constrictors is overstated but nonetheless real. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for venomous snake keeping, but enthusiastically support (and practise) the keeping of harmless, captive-bred snakes, and I get annoyed when harmless and dangerous snakes are conflated—by both sides.

I also believe that the dichotomy between domestic and exotic animals is largely a false one, particularly when you’re applying rules appropriate for smart animals with complex social lives to terrarium animals of very little brain. For a lot of people, I think, the ick factor gets in the way of properly evaluating the safety, ethical and environmental aspects of snake keeping.

But I’m not at all keen on political arguments and tactics that have very little to do with the animals themselves—arguments and tactics that, I fear, will do more harm than good to snake keeping in the long run.