MIAMI — An appeals court recently concluded that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cannot legally bar large exotic snakes from being traded across state lines, despite their potential threat to Florida's native animals.
The April 7 ruling by the Washington, D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals was in response to a legal battle between the United States Association of Reptile Keepers (USARK) and the U.S. government.
In 2012, wildlife officials deemed Burmese pythons, northern and southern African pythons and yellow anacondas as a threat to wildlife. A nationwide ban was implemented that discontinued the importation, transportation and interstate commerce of the four types of snakes. In 2015, reticulated pythons, DeSchauensee's anacondas, green anacondas and Beni anacondas were added to the list of banned snakes.
The USARK sued the U.S. Department of Interior claiming that the ban was made based on faulty science. USARK President Phil Goss said that the issue with giant snakes is not a national problem but is "isolated to southern Florida," Reptile Magazine reported.
The ban was first announced for the Florida Everglades, where tens of thousands of Burmese snakes were beginning to change the national park's ecological balance by nearly wiping out species such as the marsh rabbit. The snakes, which are native to South and Southeast Asia and can grow to as long as 19 feet, began to settle in the Florida wetlands in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew resulted in many Burmese being let loose or escaping breeding facilities.
Although USARK has been at the forefront of fighting for reptile owners' rights, others in the industry share the organization's sentiments. Joe Fauci, the president and founder of Southeast Reptile Exchange Inc., thinks that the science behind why Burmese pythons and other large snakes are considered a threat to wildlife doesn't make much sense.
"Whether (Burmese pythons) are doing all the damage they claim is questionable," Fauci told the Florida Record. "If you look at things the Burmese don't eat, like frogs and lizards and small insects, the population is down on all of those things. And if the population is down on those smaller things that these carnivorous animals eat, then it's going to affect those populations too. I doubt the Burmese are doing all that damage."
Fauci said that the pythons have predators like raccoons and alligators.
"They claim the Burmese have no natural predators, and that's just not so," he said. "All kinds of things would eat their eggs, like raccoons. Alligators would feast on Burmese pythons."
Fauci, a Tampa reptile breeder who has owned several Burmese pythons throughout the years, also thinks U.S. wildlife officials may have ulterior motives for enforcing the ban, such as financial gain.
"I think scientists overestimate the number because they get grants," Fauci said. "There's money in saying their population is larger than it really is."
The recent ruling does not affect the ban on importing large exotic snakes, but due to the large population of potentially hazardous snakes in the Everglades, it is unclear how soon any of the legal decisions on handling the reptiles will affect the country's wildlife.
"It's kind of crazy to say they want to ban and catch all the Burmese when they have the whole Everglades National Park to produce them, because you can't legally collect them out of the park," Fauci said. "If you want to collect them and cut their numbers, you need to collect them in the park, because they're allowing them to produce. The snakes are probably here to stay."
Snake owners are encouraged to postpone moving their animals until U.S. Fish and Wildlife has completed its review of the ruling.
The court decision will enable snake owners to travel across state lines with their pet, seek out-of-state vet care and attend trade shows.