In the coming months, the US Fish and Wildlife Service will determine whether or not to include five more species of constrictors to the Lacey Act. This coming week, July 24 to be exact, the open period for public comment will be closing, so I decided submit a comment. If you don’t know what the Lacey Act is, it is, to put it simply, the law that makes it illegal to transport certain animals plants across state lines. This includes moving them from one state to another or importing them from out of the country. There are two main goals of the Lacey Act. The first is to limit or prevent the trade of endangered and rare animals, and the second (which it is more often used for) is to prevent the introduction and spread of “injurious” animals, which it defines as non-native species that would cause personal, economic, or environmental harm to an area should they become established.
As I’ve discussed in some earlier posts, there are those organizations that want to banish all interaction between people and animals, including in the form of keeping pets. Some of these organizations have begun trying to use loopholes in other laws to make it more difficult or even impossible to own certain animals. For example, some groups have pushed to have clownfish listed under the Endangered Species Act under the argument that the reefs they live on might eventually disappear as the result of climate change. This listing would make it illegal to own any clownfish, despite the fact that they are overwhelmingly being captive bred and few are coming from reefs anymore. Similarly, HSUS is currently running a campaign designed at whipping up the most fear possible in an effort to get these constrictors included in the Lacey Act, which would severely limit the ability of hobbyists to acquire them.
Copied below is the letter I submitted via the FWS’s public commenting system, and I’ll expand some on my thoughts below that.
How would people react to an animal that can grow to more than eight feet and will eat virtually any other animal, regardless of its size? This animal is also known to kill large numbers of other animals even without having the goal of eating what it kills. It has a lifespan of more than 100 years and can spread through and into virtually any conceivable environment. Based on this information, should we immediately take action to eradicate such an animal? I should hope not, because I’m not talking about any snake, or even any reptile, but instead I am talking about human beings.
Throughout my life, I have been fascinated by all animals, including snakes and other reptiles. For most of my professional life I have interacted closely with a wide range of animals, including the Boa constrictors under consideration for inclusion in the Lacey Act. I have seen the irrational fears that people have towards these animals, as well as experienced first hand how these fears are patently unfounded. Unfortunately, for many people, reality is less important than personal feelings.
As demonstrated above, it is easy to sensationalize extremes into making a point, but we should be willing to consider all the facts and not just those that get the biggest headlines. Yes, those who are arguing for this legislation are correct that certain subspecies of Boa constrictor have the potential to reach 13 feet in length, but like eight foot humans, it is exceedingly rare. Can a Boa constrictor bite a human? Yes, but so can virtually every other member of the animal kingdom. The reality of Boa constrictor is that they are an extremely gentle and mild mannered species that, while large, stays small enough that a single individual can safely handle one.
Perhaps the greatest threat to all wildlife is fear, apathy, and a general attitude of unimportance towards animals. People have more potential to create catastrophic devastation to wildlife and the environment than all other animals combined, and the only way to control this potential is through creating relationships and bonds with animals. Reptiles in general, and snakes specifically, are in the unfortunate position of being the victims of deep routed fear and hatred that has been passed down for generations. The only way to overcome this, and ultimately protect these animals that very much need and deserve our protection, is through education and creating positive personal experiences. In the quest to do this, Boa constrictor makes the ideal ambassador thanks to its peaceful demeanor and impressive yet handleable size.
Ultimately, though, inclusion in the Lacey Act should have nothing to do with the personality traits of an animal species or people’s emotional responses to that animal. Inclusion in the Lacey Act is intended to be a method of preventing the spread of invasive species, so we must look at how much potential there is for Boa constrictor to become injurious in the United States.
Currently, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, there are two populations of Boa constrictor in South Florida (http://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/nonnatives/reptiles/common-boa/), one of which has been present for approximately 40 years. This population is the only of the two that has established a confirmed breeding colony, but in the time this population has been established, it has not spread beyond a small range and has not been shown to have caused any negative environmental impacts. Presence does not, and should not, automatically equate with being injurious, and there have been no other confirmed populations in the continental United States. Naturally, the range of Boa constrictor extends into northern Mexico, yet it has never pushed into any of the bordering states. If Boa constrictor had the ability to “invade” the United States and become injurious, there would already evidence spreading and environmental impacts.
Looking at what is being written by those who are pushing for the inclusion of Boa constrictor to the Lacey Act, it is clear that even they have no evidence of any damage arising from its presence. Their messages take one of two forms. The first is an emotional appeal playing to the fears that many hold towards snakes. The second is a deceptive and fallacious argument where they talk about the risks of Boa constrictor invasion but only offer evidence from a completely separate species (namely the Burmese Pythons in the Everglades). What they fail to address with this argument is the lack of impact that has been made by the existing Boa constrictor populations that have been present for three times as long as the Burmese Pythons.
There are certainly animal species that contain in them the potential to cause great harm to people or the environment, and this is a large part of what the Lacey Act was created to combat. However, the decision of what animals truly are injurious is one that should be made using all of the available information and should not be swayed by emotion or public opinion. Those who would argue for the inclusion of Boa constrictor to the Lacey Act are, at best, merely catering to fear mongers who hate them for no reason other than the fact that they are snakes.
The five species that are being proposed include Boa constrictor (obviously the animal that I discussed), Reticulated Pythons (Python reticulatus) and three species of Anaconda. I’ll admit that I have mixed feelings on the keeping of giant constrictors, of which the Anacondas and Reticulated Pythons fit the description. On the one hand, they are animals that get large enough to potentially be dangerous for a single person to handle, particularly if that person is not well experienced. I definitely think it should not be as easy as it is to acquire giant constrictors such as Reticulated Pythons. On the other hand, if a reptile keeper is knowledgable and experienced enough to safely keep them than who am I to tell them they can’t?
Boa constrictor, on the other hand, is one of the species that I personally consider an ideal pet species. They are commonly called “Red Tail Boas” in the pet trade and there are actually several subspecies (between 7 and 10 depending on who you ask) that are found. The largest of all Boa constrictors was around 13 feet in length, but this is incredibly rare. Very few captive red tails exceed ten feet, and most will stay below eight. While an eight foot snake sounds incredibly large to a lot of people, in reality it’s not. While it is large enough to be impressive, it is still relatively easy for a single person to be able to handle and control an eight foot boa.
I have a tendency to be a little bit of a sci-fi nerd, and probably my all time favorite book series is the Ender’s Game series. In it, the main character (Ender Wiggins) has an enormous sense of empathy, to the point that he can so clearly see events from others’ perspectives that he can perfectly understand their motives and rationalizations. At one point in the book, he says “I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves.” In many ways, I believe the same thing about animals. Even those that I have not cared for in the past, when I take the time to learn about them, understand what they do and why, then my opinion changes and I become fascinated and interested and begin to care even more for those animals. I believe that forming relationships with animals and taking personal interest in them is the only way to get a person to try to protect and treat that animal humanely.
This is the area that I think Boa constrictor is an ideal ambassador capable of creating positive impressions in people. They are large enough to leave an impression in the mind of those that encounter them yet gentle enough that, if given the chance, they can prove that snakes are not the vicious, evil creatures that should be feared and hated and killed as so many seem to believe. Including them in the Lacey Act would undermine all of the potential benefits that can arise from allowing people to have experience with these animals. It would be a shame if we as a society allow irrational fears to eliminate a potentially powerful tool to improving the future of an entire class of animals.