Giant pet constrictors have clearly been denied their rightful place in the national mythology. American children grow up unexposed to the lovable reptilian equivalents of Snoopy or Garfield or Clifford the Big Red Dog.
Popular culture has been inundated with drooling fleabags like Lassie or Rin Tin Tin. That mutt Buck has been immortalized six times over in the movie adaptations of Jack London’s Call of the Wild. Yet, notable serpents of the anthropomorphized kind pretty well disappeared from literature sometime after Genesis.
YouTube offers up several million kitten videos. The news media cranks out one story after another about heroic dogs. But where are the stories about the pet boa that dived into the swimming pool and saved the baby from drowning, or the Burmese python that pulled its unconscious owner from the burning house? Where are the heart-rending reports on seeing-eye anacondas or the drug-sniffing African pythons working tail-in-hand with law enforcement?
Obviously, reptilian bigotry has permeated our very culture. Particularly among South Floridians, who have damn few kind words for the 140 invasive reptiles and amphibians flourishing in their midst. None are more maligned than the Burmese python.
But a few heroic congressmen, siding with the United States Association of Reptile Keepers, have taken a courageous stand against rampant herpetophobia. Last week, the Republicans running the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs, pretty well snuffed out a bill that would impose a nationwide ban on the import and interstate sale of nine species of pythons, anacondas and boa constrictors.
The Republican leadership decided there was no need for such a ban. “A solution in search of a problem,” said committee member Steve Southerland. He denounced the measure as a job-killing attack on the exotic snake industry (A lot of us had never thought of snake commerce as a major industry, worth rescuing, but there you have it). “It’s open season on business. It’s open season on enterprise, on freedom.”
Such stirring words on behalf of exotic snakes. One could imagine Southerland interposing an anaconda over the rattlesnake depicted on the “Don’t Tread On Me” naval flag of the American Revolution. Except the old naval flag would need to be extended another 15 or 20 feet to accommodate that particular reptile.
The odd thing about Southerland’s tirade on Thursday was that he happens to be a congressman from Florida, a place overrun with the transgressions of the exotic pet trade. We’ve got iguanas, iguanas everywhere. We’ve got Nile monitors, interesting little pet shop lizards that, turned loose, grow to be vicious, fast, six or seven feet long creatures with nasty bites and powerful tails, threatening pets, native wildlife and snowbirds on Florida’s southwest coast (not to mention that herd of monitors lurking in the C-51 Canal in West Palm Beach). And now we have reports of a Nile crocodile on the loose near Homestead. (Last week the scientific journal Biological Invasions published findings that boa constrictors had established a breeding population in Puerto Rico, which gave South Floridians, with their own feral boas slithering about, yet another reason to worry.)
But mostly, it’s the pythons that have people worried. Yet the testimony last week at the congressional hearing, mostly from folks affiliated with exotic reptile commerce, seemed at odds with South Florida’s slithering reality. Andrew Wyatt, of the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers, testified that there was “no demonstrable connection with any decline in mammal populations” associated with those Burmese pythons spreading through the Everglades.