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Business and Economy

Animal Owners, Officials Square Off Over Proposed Exotic Pet Regulations

Nick Woodward
Maine Public
A green lizard.

Is a hedgehog at the top of your holiday list? Or maybe you’re hoping to pull a python out of your Christmas stocking this year.

Before you go and write to Santa, you might want to know that the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is revamping the rules on what kinds of animals Mainers can keep. Some exotic animal owners say IF&W has a bad attitude about such animals, but advocates of the rule change, including the state, say there’s too much at stake to get it wrong.

The ballroom at this South Portland hotel is abuzz with excitement. People of all ages are peering into lit glass enclosures and reaching out to pet big, velvety snakes and colored lizards resting on rocks.

It’s the 2016 Reptile Expo, where enthusiasts of all things exotic and scaly come together. But this year, the event’s major sponsor, the Maine Herpetological Society, is worried that changing regulations will hurt the hobby and those who make a living from it.

The new, more complex rules would create four classifications of animals and set minimum qualifications needed for those who wish to keep an animal listed in a particular class.

“It doesn’t really make sense to me why they went that route,” says Rob Christian, who heads the Maine Herpetological Society.

Credit Nick Woodward / Maine Public
This rescued Colombian red tailed boa, no longer wanted by her owners, was doused in gasoline and set on fire. Some in favor of stricter regulation point to cases like these as evidence that stricter control is needed; others argue that such cruelty cases are rare, and would not have been prevented by tighter control.

Christian says the old system was at least simple and clear. There was one list of animals that anyone could obtain; anything not on that list required special permission from the state. But even under that system, Christian says IF&W has been too restrictive for those who want to keep an animal that’s not on the white list.

Christian says he has applied for permits for more than 20 different species of animals, including pets common in other states such as geckos and tarantulas.

“And they denied me permits for everything,” he says. “Everything I applied for, they denied them.”

When asked whether there was a reason given for the denial of the permits,” Christian says no.

Currently, Maine is the only state in the nation that prohibits tarantulas. Going forward, the department will have to supply a reason for denying a permit application.

Credit Nick Woodward / Maine Public
Benjamin and Emily Burnham of Durham look at tortoises, which would be restricted or prohibited under the new regulations. The pair already have a bearded dragon. Emily says she wants a snake, but their mother, Kelly Burnham, says 'I have no intention of impulse-buying a python.'

That won’t necessarily help others whose living depends on keeping restricted species. Jason Perillo’s business manufactures terrariums and habitats for reptiles for a number of zoos across the country.

“Right now, a lot of my zoos are working with vipers. Mostly arboreal tree vipers and then lowland species of vipera and pseudo-vipera, and for us, we actually have to work on a better locking mechanism and shift mechanism so that they can put them in the enclosure and also shift them sideways so the keeper is completely isolated from the animal. We’re not actually able to actually bring in any of those species,” he says.

Perillo says that means the enclosure cannot be tested, because each system must be designed for the exact species that will inhabit it. And he says IF&W has been unwilling to work with him to grant any kind of variance so he can keep the necessary snakes to do the work. He says, if things don’t change, he will need to move his business to another, more permissive state.

Others say the department has and continues to go too far.

Credit Nick Woodward / Maine Public
This hognose snake is one of the smaller slitherers on display.

“We have examples of where we wanted to work with fish like koi-carp. We had a $300,000 co-sponsored industry grant. We couldn’t get a permit from IF&W until two days before the sponsoring body wanted to revoke that grant and take it off us. And only then with a special appeal did we get a very limited permit,” says researcher Ian Bricknell with the University of Maine School of Marine Sciences.

Bricknell says the process has seemed at times arbitrary and unscientific, and will become even more onerous for academic researchers under the new system. Certain important species of frog and fish, commonly used in research, he says, would be prohibited under the proposed rules.

But from the state’s perspective, many of these restricted creatures pose significant threats to native wildlife from invasive species, and from diseases that could be unleashed on native wildlife.

“Despite the best efforts of the people that may own those animals, in some cases they have been able to escape in the past, and we need to consider that possibility and be aware of what the implications of an event like that may be,” says Nate Webb, a wildlife biologist with IF&W who has been involved with drafting the new rules.

Credit Nick Woodward / Maine Public
Proponents of the stricter rules say snakes belong in the wild, not under glass. Opponents say the creatures adapt well to life indoors as long as their needs are met.

Webb says the public has to be protected.

“Certainly in the past we have denied permits in situations where issuing that permit would not have been, in our view, in the best interest of Maine people and Maine’s wildlife, and that certainly can be upsetting to somebody that wants to import or possess some of those species,” he says.

All of this comes as, just over the border in New Brunswick, a man faces criminal charges after his African rock python killed two young children who were sleeping over at his home. The children were bitten repeatedly and smothered as they slept.

Webb says the state has a duty to do all it can to prevent tragedies like those. But Christian says it’s important to put the threat into perspective.

“Maine just passed last year a constitutional carry law. You can carry a firearm without a permit. But you’re going to tell me I can’t have a gecko?” he says.

And Christian says people are far more likely to be bitten, and perhaps killed, by the family dog than by a properly handled snake. And, he says, it’s also a matter of liberty.

“This is America, land of the free, home of the brave. Why should they be restricting what pet I can have?” he says.

“I just absolutely disagree with that type of a statement, because that is such a selfish attitude,” says Katie Hansberry from Humane Society of the United States.

Hansberry says the new laws don’t go far enough in some ways, but they are a step in the right direction. Owning a boa constrictor, she says, is not a constitutional right.

“We have to be taking both the public safety aspect and the animal welfare concerns into consideration,” she says.

There’s a lot of work yet to be done on the regulations. A committee is set to meet in the coming days to work on the classification lists and debate over which animals should be on which list. A final rule isn’t expected until early 2017, and it still needs to clear another round of public hearing.

One thing on which both sides agree, and for which neither has a solution, is that whatever rules are adopted will be a challenge to enforce. After all, a king cobra is just a mouse click away.