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Snake Lobby, Animal Groups Clash Over Python Bills

The exotic pet industry is feeling the squeeze from Florida lawmakers and animal welfare groups seeking to ban the importation of pythons into the United States.The industry’s lobbyists are scrambling to win changes to legislation advancing in the House and Senate that would add pythons to a federal list of “injurious— species — a designation that would bar future imports and interstate transport. The bills, sponsored by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.), take aim at the tens of thousands of Burmese pythons that have invaded the Florida Everglades in recent years. The snakes, which can measure 25 feet in length and weigh as much as 250 pounds, are thought by some to have escaped from pet shops during Hurricane Andrew in 1992. They’ve since flourished, wreaking havoc with the delicate Everglades ecosystem and raising public safety concerns. “Lord forbid, a visitor in the Everglades ever encounters one,— Nelson wrote to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in July. The fears were exacerbated when a 12-foot pet albino Burmese python escaped its aquarium and suffocated a central Florida toddler last month. But industry officials say the bills overreach while doing nothing about the Everglades infestation. “An import ban does not address the real issue,— said Marshall Meyers, CEO and general counsel of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, which says federal efforts should mirror stringent state regulations for large reptiles. With anti-python momentum growing, PIJAC and the United States Association of Reptile Keepers are working behind the scenes to soften the blow of the bill before it comes to the House floor after the August recess.During last month’s House Judiciary Committee markup, the groups were successful in adding language to the bill (H.R. 2811) that restricts the ban to two species: the Burmese and African Rock pythons. That allows the continued importation and sale of the Ball python, a smaller African species that is “by far the most popular within the pet trade,— Meyers said.But animal welfare groups want the scope of the bills broadened, not narrowed. Beth Preiss, director of the Exotic Pets Campaign of the Humane Society of the United States, said the limited ban in the amended House bill will lead to increased imports of other large constrictor snakes including reticulated pythons and anacondas — both of which have reproductive habits similar to the Burmese python and grow even bigger. The two sides are also at odds over how the bill should apply to the tens of thousands of existing snakes that would be covered under the law. Species labeled injurious under the federal Lacey Act, which regulates wildlife commerce, are prohibited from interstate transport. That could be a fatal strike for snake breeders, who want a grandfather clause added to the bill that would allow interstate sales to continue. “The way the bills are written now, they would essentially destroy a $3 billion a year captive/bred industry,— said USARK President Andrew Wyatt, who noted that a single snake can fetch as much as $10,000. The transport issue could also raise complications for owners who relocate to a new state. “Some people may just turn them loose,— Meyers said.But opponents said any sort of grandfather clause would undercut the intent of the bill. “That’s really just ludicrous if you think about it,— said Peter Jenkins, the director of international conservation for Defenders of Wildlife. “These species will invade whether they’ve been captive, bred or imported. They’re still the same animal.—Regardless, a House Democratic staffer suggested the bill is unlikely to see major revisions before the floor, saying the changes sought by both sides would likely threaten its chances of passage. That leaves the best prospects for changes in the Senate, where the Environment and Public Works Committee is expected to mark up the bill later this year. Nelson spokesman Bryan Gulley said the Senator is listening to interest groups’ concerns about the bill and willing to entertain changes to improve it. “The bottom line is we’ve got to get the python problem under control,— he said.

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