How Snake Keepers Should React to the Python Tragedy

(First published in The Ottawa Citizen, 8 Aug 2013.)

It’s always uncomfortable to be a reptile keeper whenever a dangerous snake makes the news. Toronto alone has had at least three such incidents in recent years: an escaped saw-scaled viper in 2000, an escaped Egyptian cobra in 2006, and a gaboon viper seized in 2010. The public freaks out and the media goes into overdrive, headlines are made across the country, and reptile keepers worry that a moral panic will lead to a crackdown on exotic pet ownership.

But this time it’s worse than an illegal snake getting loose: this time, children have died.

Reports that a 14-foot African Rock Python may be responsible for the deaths of two young boys in Campbellton, New Brunswick have left snake keepers like me horrified at what happened, astonished to the point of disbelief that it could have happened, and, to be honest, a bit worried about what might happen next.

I read news articles online and the knot in my stomach tightens. Then I make the mistake of reading the comments on those news articles. Comments that make me feel targeted, even though every snake I’ve ever kept has been safe, sane and relatively small. No one should have the right to keep these things, they say. Snake keepers are sick in the head. It makes for hard reading. The articles asking whether the laws regarding exotic animal ownership should be tightened up don’t help either.

When you do something on the edge of public acceptance, you tend to get a little defensive about it. But snake keepers have to be careful not to let our defensiveness and our urge to protect our interests overwhelm our response to this situation.

For one thing, we should be careful that we don’t imitate gun rights activists.

More than a decade ago, 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.

I imagine gun owners might feel the same after a mass shooting as reptile keepers after an incident like Campbellton: awkward and defensive. Gun rights activists can be aggressively defensive: they were pushing back against possible new gun control legislation before the victims of Sandy Hook were in the ground. That upset a lot of people, but the National Rifle Association could get away with being tone deaf and insensitive because, well, they’re the NRA. Reptile keepers, on the other hand, can’t make or break a politician’s career.

In responding to Campbellton, reptile keepers need to help the public, not fight it.

According to news reports, the python was kept without a proper permit; the species was already banned in New Brunswick. So you could argue that more laws aren’t the answer. Giant snakes are already prohibited in many jurisdictions. But in most of Canada, exotic pet ownership is governed by a patchwork of bylaws: some municipalities have no restrictions, some ban giant and venomous snakes, some ban boas and pythons regardless of size, and some ban snakes altogether.

I suspect that every municipality in Canada is now checking their animal control bylaws and asking themselves whether they need to update them to include bans on dangerous exotic animals.

This is not necessarily a bad thing.

Because, to be perfectly frank, I have no interest in defending the right to keep dangerous snakes. This is not a hill I want to die on. I don’t accept that in order to maintain my ability to keep corn snakes and garter snakes, I must defend the right to keep anacondas and giant pythons. If I equate corn snakes with rock pythons, I don’t get to keep rock pythons—I lose the right to keep corn snakes.

When municipalities update their animal control bylaws, reptile keepers are frequently there to defend their interests, correctly pointing out the minimal risks of what we do. But calling for education and responsibility, as we’re wont to do, can only go so far. Reptile keepers need to go beyond defending our interests. We need to engage with wildlife officials and bylaw officers, as proactively as possible, presenting ourselves as part of the solution, not part of the problem. You want to make sure your city or town doesn’t ban harmless animals? Then you need to go to them and say: these are the animals you need to worry about; these are the ones that need to be controlled.

We need, in other words, to focus public concern where it belongs: on the animals that can pose a risk to human safety, not exotic pets in general.