Jan. 26 2011 12:00 AM

A proposed federal law to tackle a snake problem in Florida could have local implications

When walking into Preuss Pets at 1127 N. Cedar St. in Old Town, reptile hobbyists will feel excited about the variety of reptiles in the store’s southeast corner. From small colorful snakes to majestic boas, from tiny spiderlings to bird-eating tarantulas and from poison dart frogs to salamanders, enthusiasts will find 60 varieties of their beloved critters living there.

But proposed federal legislation could push some exotic large snakes out of the pet store and has infuriated snake owners around the country. The proposed law comes with local economic implications.

In early 2010, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to list nine constrictor snakes as injurious wildlife under the Lacey Act. The act would ban the importation and interstate transportation of the animals. Anyone who imports or moves these snakes between states without a permit would get a penalty of up to six months in prison and a $5,000 fine, according to the agency.

Ken Warren, a spokesman for the agency’s south Florida office, said they are reviewing and analyzing public comments on the rule and will make the final decision before the end of the year.

The proposal was based on a U.S. Geological Survey study that suggested invasive Burmese pythons in the Florida Everglades may quickly spread into other parts of the country and the animals, if freed, will pose a serious risk to native ecosystems.

The Fish and Wildlife Service argues that these snakes met the legal criteria for being both injurious and invasive and that they are trying to prevent it from becoming an invasive species problem.

But the science of the study is challenged because the snakes could only be invasive in a few select parts of the country.

“It (the science) is badly flawed,” said James Harding, a herpetologist at Michigan State University. “The large constricting snakes will never be a problem in Michigan because they can’t survive our winters,” he said.

Rick Preuss, owner of Preuss Pets, said none of the exotic snakes in his store, if released, could possibly establish a population in Michigan, let alone disrupt the local ecosystem. So why should he be subject to the trade restrictions?

The Preuss family has been selling foreign snakes since 1972. Right now they have about 15 to 20 snake species. The store’s largest snake, a boa constrictor, is among the nine species in the proposed ban.

Preuss said these species that include pythons, anacondas and boa constrictors are from tropical areas. Thus, they need high temperatures to survive.

The ban will only affect a small portion of Preuss’ business, as the reptile department accounts for about 5 to 10 percent of his business.

But pet snake breeders and hobbyists are enraged.

The U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers has filed formal objections with the Interior Department and is threatening a lawsuit, The New York Times reported Jan. 8.

The group advocates for the responsible private ownership of and trade in reptiles. It estimates that 1 million Americans own snakes of the types listed in the ban.

Michigan, too, has a good deal of reptile hobbyists who keep large snakes in captivity, Harding said.

Jason Boget is one of them. He got involved with reptiles 20 years ago and has worked at Preuss’ reptile department for the past 10.

He said people who breed and sell the animals across state-lines as their income would be hurt badly if the trade is restricted. But those are only part of the reptile business.

The reptile industry is broad, which includes professional breeders, pet stores, reptile expos and scores of companies that raise rats, mice and earthworms as food for pet snakes. Others make cages and other equipment for snake breeding. It’s an estimated $3 billion business nationwide, according to the reptile keepers association.

number of jobs it produces is significant,” Harding said. “Any kind of
federal legislation has to take into account not only ecological but
also economic impacts.”

Bates is among people who are upset about the ban. Bates owns Marty
Made Cages, a Warren-based business that produces tanks for reptile
owners. He said the ban is “ridiculous” and has joined the national
reptile keepers group to campaign against the legislation.

fact, both Harding and Preuss think that simply banning importations of
large snakes won’t be a big deal because there are plenty of breeders
in the country who can supply the market. But if interstate
transportation of these animals is restricted, breeders would have limited room to expand.

said Michigan isn’t as big of a snake-breeding state as others and
would likely be less effected. But he said that when crafting
legislation, policymakers should ensure it doesn’t infringe upon the
freedoms of people or the economy.

Preuss said responsible ownership rather than transportation should be targeted.

there are issues for potential injuries or even environmental risks,
you put the responsibilities upon the owners,” Preuss said.

recommends requiring snake owners to plant microchips in their pet
containing owner information. This would make the snake easier to
identify and track.

“Micro-chipping in dogs and cats can apply to reptiles,” Preuss said. “It’s a very effective way to keep track of animals.”