Snakes on the Brain

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Lions and tigers and bears — and  maybe soon, snakes.

The first bill filed in the House for this legislative session would add venomous snakes to the ‘inherently dangerous to humans’ list in Mississippi Code.

Gil Ford Photography

Rep. Earle Banks, D-Jackson

“My bill addresses public safety, and to me, it’s something I’m really concerned about,” said the author of House Bill 1, Rep. Earle Banks, D-Jackson. “When you think about tornado, when you think about the chances of another hurricane Katrina, when you think about people that may have some type of non-native snake or reptilian, (it) can be harmful and dangerous if let loose on the public.”

“If a home is destroyed or a lab is destroyed, if those facilities are destroyed, these reptilians are going to do whatever it takes to survive,” Banks said. “They are going to get out into the wild. They are going to invade our native habitats. They are going to wind up in somebody’s back yard.”

The section of state code Banks wants to amend restricts the import, transfer, sale, purchase and possession of selected wild animals that the state has deemed necessary to limit from widespread ownership.

This is accomplished by requiring a permit of possession before someone can have one of these creatures. The permits require proof of liability insurance in the amount of $100,000 for each “inherently dangerous” animal up to a maximum of $1 million. With such steep liability insurance required, the idea is to limit access.

Richard Rummel of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks said that because the insurance coverage is so expensive, they rarely have to give out the permits.

“Back when this was passed in ’98 some people would have say a pet cougar or something like that,” Rummel said. “Exotic animals and wild animals don’t generally make good pets.”

“You can buy just about anything on the internet these days. And when they see it online, they want to get it, but they never end up talking to a veterinarian or anyone else that would know something about taking care of a lion cub or a monkey,” Rummell added.

“They just think, ‘Oh, I’ve got the money’ and then they try to figure out what to do. They ought to just stick to dogs, cats and goldfish,” he said.

Current law already lists these creatures as “inherently dangerous:” Gibbons, orangutans, chimpanzees, siamangs, gorillas, macaques, mandrills, drills, baboons, Gelada baboons, wolves (including crosses between wolves and domestic animals), jackals, dingoes, maned wolves, red dogs, African hunting dogs, bears, wolverines, hyenas, lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, snow leopards, cheetahs, cougars, elephants, rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses and African buffaloes.

There is a process for issuing permit exemptions to zoos, university research facilities, governmental agencies, transient circuses and rehabilitation and sanctuary facilities.

Ken Hackman handles Shaggy the carpet python.

“I fully support the idea behind the bill,” said Ken Hackman, a zoology teacher at Madison Central High School. “But it doesn’t go far enough. I don’t think things like boas and pythons, exotic animals should be sold in the United States.”

Hackman points to the rapid growth of invasive Burmese pythons in the Florida Everglades for example: “Two years ago, the estimate was 100,000. Right now the estimate is closer to 175,000. What’s going to happen to the ecosystem of the Everglades? You’ve got multiple endangered species that live there.”

Hackman said that the pythons were likely introduced because owners could no longer take care of them.

“We’re bringing in things that if they get loose in our environment either will (A) suffer and die or (B) will have no natural enemies and spread all over the place,” Hackman said.

Beth Poff, director of the Jackson Zoo, said the language of the bill alone might need some altering:

“I get a little tickled sometimes at the use of poisonous and venomous. ‘Venomous’ means that the snake bites you and that puts venom in you. ‘Poisonous’ would be like you ate the snake and died from that,” she said.

But Poff also sees enforcement as particularly tricky with the addition of venomous snakes.

“There is already a native species permitting process for things like copperheads, water moccasins and rattlesnakes,” Poff said. “All that is already in place. So the bill is really talking about exotic venomous snakes like vipers and things like that. That’s something that should be looked at because those animals can be very dangerous. … But there is a long list of venomous snakes that are not native. Really you would have to train people to be able to identify what species they are. And then, where do you put them? Who takes care of them?”

“This is something that may not go anywhere,” Banks said, “but I’m going to keep putting it out there because we’ve got to keep thinking about the effects of global warming — and I believe in global warming — the environment is only going to be more conducive to reptilians because the planet is warming.”