One odd quirk of Canadian reptile law that I’ve known about for a while is that garter snakes can’t be kept as pets anywhere in British Columbia. Not just the three species found in that province—any garter snake. This question just came up on the Facebook Garter Snakes group, which I manage. I did some digging and found the exact laws and regulations that prohibit this. I’m sharing what I turned up here for future reference.
British Columbia’s Wildlife Act regulates wildlife, and wildlife is a term that has a specific definition under the Act: something has to be defined as wildlife (as opposed to controlled alien species, another defined term in the Act) in order for the Act’s provisions on wildlife to apply to it. The Act defines wildlife as “raptors, threatened species, endangered species, game and other species of vertebrates prescribed by regulation.” For that prescribed by regulation part, see schedule A of B.C.’s Designated Exemption Regulation, which defines a number of species, not all of which live in B.C., as wildlife. This includes, among other things, all species of garter snake. (Garter snakes aren’t being singled out: the list also includes all true frogs, treefrogs, toads, mole salamanders, lungless salamanders, pond turtles, snapping turtles and softshell turtles. More on that in a moment.)
Back to the Wildlife Act, where section 33 prohibits the private possession of wildlife without a permit or regulatory exemption. A permit can be issued under paragraph 2(j) of the Permit Regulation but I have no information on how that works in practice. The only regulatory exemption I’ve found for keeping wildlife in captivity is for Red-eared Sliders, the keeping of which is exempt from section 33. Wildlife can’t be imported, exported or trafficked in without a permit either. Penalties can include a fine of up to $100,000 or a year in prison for the first offence, but in practice it will never be anywhere near that high for someone keeping a pet garter snake.
Fine and good, but why are they being so heavy-handed, you ask? Garter snakes are plentiful and harmless, after all. But given what other species are being defined as wildlife (and therefore prohibited), my guess is that they’re trying to prevent people from bringing in non-native species that stand a chance of surviving in British Columbia. (Which is also more or less what Alberta law sets out to do.) They don’t want people snatching local garter snakes from the wild, but they also don’t want escaped Eastern Garter Snakes establishing themselves out there either.
People are getting confused because B.C. is trying to do both things at the same time: they expect laws about native wildlife and exotic wildlife to be separate. But other provinces do it this way as well.
Featured image: Photo of a Valley Garter Snake in Port Coquitlam, B.C. by Harold Wright. Creative Commons licence.