In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Breeders’ lawsuit over reptile ban doesn’t have merit

Exotic-reptile dealers are fighting it out in federal court with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which put the squeeze on the sale and import of four kinds of giant constrictors.

In a lawsuit laden with unintended irony, the United States Association of Reptile Keepers described its “mission” to “support scientific research, provide public education, and advocate for conservation of all manner of reptile species.”

Down here in South Florida, we can sure as hell attest that reptile dealers have, indeed, done wonders for all manner of reptile species. Whether we wanted them or not.

Huge black and white spotted tegus are eating their way across the Everglades. Breeding colonies of the South American lizard — which can grow to four feet in length and weigh 30 pounds, have been observed in Miami-Dade, Hillsborough and Polk counties. Last summer, a reptile breeder in Bay County singlehandedly created another colony, when he moved out of his house after releasing dozens of tegus in his backyard.

Thankfully, tegus aren’t nearly as fearsome as our voracious Nile monitors, the big, aggressive, toothy, nasties running amok across Southwest Florida, devouring birds and mammals along with the occasional poodle and kitty cat. Other clusters of monitors, which can grow to four or five feet in length, have been spotted in Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. Among their delightful attributes, the lizards sometimes resort to “cloacal evacuation,” — projectile diarrhea — as a defense mechanism.

Lately, we’re getting unsettling reports of African rock pythons — some 30 different sightings have been reported in southwest Miami-Dade County, where last summer a rock python killed a 60-pound Siberian husky in a suburban backyard, even as the dog’s owners hacked away at the coiled snake with garden shears.

The spread of rock pythons, known for their aggressive ways, is only slightly more worrisome than reports that anacondas and boa constrictors have been seen slithering through the South Florida’s flora.

Mostly, though, we’ve got Burmese pythons. In scientific terms, we have Burmese pythons up the wazoo.

Wildlife biologist guess that as many as 100,000 might be gorging themselves on native fauna. In 2012, a peer-reviewed study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the Burmese python has wiped out both marsh and cottontail rabbits in the southern reaches of the glades. Pythons had devastated the raccoon population by 99.3 percent, opossums by 98.9 percent, bobcats by 87.5 percent. Not to mention what these snakes have done to the wading bird population, whose nests are built above the reach of alligators and crocodiles but provide no protection from adept climbers like pythons.

These nonnative snakes and lizards have something in common — something beyond the ecological havoc they’re wreaking in Florida. All of them came to us courtesy of reptile dealers, who imported or bred the exotics that became breeding stock for an environmental disaster. The creatures descended from “pets” that had been discarded by owners who (inevitably) found them too big, too inconvenient, too unlovable, perhaps too dangerous for a house full of kiddies.

They can’t be stopped. Not now. The Everglades is too vast and too similar to their native habitat. Which makes the damage being wreaked by discards of the exotic pet trade hereabouts incalculable. Which makes the lawsuit filed by the reptile keepers association, complaining about the economic damage members are suffering from a ban on the import and interstate sale of certain constrictors, seem utterly audacious.

The reptile keepers claim that the Fish and Wildlife Service employed dodgy science back in 2012 when it cracked down on the commerce in Burmese pythons, northern and southern African pythons and yellow anacondas. Essentially, the reptile dealers argue that the federal agency was improperly taking preemptive action, based on speculation about the damage these nonnative animals might cause in the wild. South Florida, of course, offers plenty of sad, scientific evidence of what happens to an environment when responsible government agencies fail to take preemptive action.

The reptile keeper lawsuit hits the usual political buttons. The ban has hurt “small, individual or family-run” businesses. Jobs will be lost. Not to mention how this ban undercuts our fighting men and women: “A large portion of the industry’s customer base are men and women in the armed services who tend to own large reptiles, including the species at issue, in larger proportion than the public as a whole.”

The lawsuit resorts to a kind of subtle extortion, warning that the ban is “incentivizing the release of listed snakes by irresponsible breeders or pet owners due to economic pressures or when moving to other states.” In other words, rescind the ban or else snake dealers will turn loose the makings of an even bigger environmental disaster.

The Fish and Wildlife Service filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit last week, but the agency’s argument mostly had to do with the reptile keepers lack of standing, and their fallacious claim that they were driven by environmental, scientific and educational concerns, though their real concerns were “purely economic.”

Neither party in the lawsuit mentioned the real problem with the ban — that it didn’t go far enough. That other constrictors should be kept out of the U.S. That an insane array of poisonous snakes from Asia, South America and Africa — bought and sold in the U.S. over the Internet — ought to be banned. That we don’t need any more exotic reptiles in the pet trade. That we have all the evidence the government might need to support a total ban, slithering through the Everglades.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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