What a polarizing animal the python has become.
Within the portion of our country that is paying attention we are divided into two distinct groups. One one side we have reptile owners from every walk of life; blue collar, white collar, broke-as-a-joke and stinking rich. Some of these reptile owners have a single python while others have many and breed them for profit. And we have owners who fit everywhere in-between. Their levels of personal responsibility are as diverse as they are. I’m sure there are some who have no business owning a reptile. The overwhelming majority, however, are quite responsible. They respect their animals, take care of them and work to ensure that they don’t impose on the rights of others who are not as enthusiastic about snakes. And yes, many of them actually love their snakes in the way that the average person loves their dog or cat. No, pythons are not as affectionate and attentive as my Weimaraner (not by a long shot) but they do have personalities. Each snake is unique. And if you were to spend some time with them you would also come to realize that truth.
On the other side of this debate is a small, well-positioned group of misinformed individuals who are calling for a federal ban on pythons; not Burmese pythons …all pythons. Maybe. Nobody on this side seems to be python savvy enough to know that there are actually different kinds of pythons with the overwhelming majority of them being quite tiny compared to the sinister Burmese. I’m not entirely sure where they stand on other types of pythons and I don’t think they know either.
Eradicating the existence of pet pythons in America is such an easy thing to stand for, isn’t it? Pythons are huge, menacing, people-eating machines that are actively slithering north from Southern Florida toward the back yards of the Washington DC suburbs where they will stalk your pets and hunt your children! Well, that’s the way the media tells it, at least. The truth in this debate is not so newsworthy so the media (with the help of bad info from supposedly scientific organizations) is fabricating the truth to better their ratings. And why not? Ratings equal dollars. From what I gather chaos, revolution, murder, drug overdosing Kings of Pop, financial downturns, forest fires, celebrity clothing choices, car crashes and Burmese pythons are the things that sell newspapers and ad space. From the Discovery Channel and the History Channel to a few dozen newspaper columnists around the country and all the way up to Senator Bill Nelson, who is a living, breathing example of misinformation incarnate, people who know absolutely nothing about pythons are calling for their nationwide ban. Their numbers are small but, as I wrote earlier, they are well positioned in the media and are able amplify their noise. The original rallying cry was the establishment of a population of Burmese pythons in the Florida Everglades. An unfounded fear regarding their ability to migrate north has generated a small amount of hysteria and rather than taking the time to find the truth they have planted their flag and are trying to rally troops to support a ban. Senator Nelson has to support this ban in order to get money from the Humane Society of the United States so I can at least give him credit for being a true politician and supporting the voice with the fattest wallet. The newpaper boys and girls advocating a ban are just parroting things they heard someone else say. I seriously doubt they have any real opinion of their own. So I forgive them. They are puppets of the media juggernaut and know not what they do.
Two groups of people; one that understands pythons and is asking, “Really? Seriously?”, and one that seems to have gotten their undergrad degree in large constrictors by watching Ice Cube and Jennifer Lopez in 1997’s Anaconda. Their masters thesis was complete as the credits rolled on Samuel Jackson’s Snakes on a Plane. Armed with that level of education about the true nature of snakes they could have done themselves a favor by hiring Mr. Jackon as their spokesperson and could have used this as their slogan:
The call for a ban on pythons has no real merit. It is based on irrational fear and misinformation. And Senator Nelson embodied the desire to play on people’s fear when he unrolled a stretched out python skin during a Senate hearing in early July 2009. He wants to protect the Florida Everglades …or so he says. How does banning pythons in Seattle protect the Florida Everglades? The truth is that he wants special interest money from the HSUS and other organizations who want to ban the ownership of exotic animals. And the Burmese python is a great entry point; a way to get a better foothold on the banning process.
Just how many Burmese pythons are there in the Florida Everglades? I have heard numbers as low as a few thousand all the way up to multiple hundreds of thousands. People who don’t support a ban like the lower number while proponents of the ban like the big one. The real number: unknown.
How did Burmese pythons get into the Everglades? I do not doubt for a single second that at some point in the past some knucklehead released a snake into the wild that should not have been released. But it is not a verifiable fact that the current Everglades population comes from a released pet (as the media loves to suggest). Defenders of python freedom point to Hurricane Andrew as the culprit because it caused a massive release of non-native species into the Everglades. The truth is that nobody will ever know for sure. We would do a lot better pointing our attention at eliminating the Burmese python from the area rather than playing blame games. If you need volunteers to go down and collect them, call me. I’m in. I can also rally dozens, if not hundreds, of other snake enthusiasts who will agree that a mass collection effort will be a wonderful pastime.
I continue to be disappointed by the media’s propensity to hop on to the coat tails of the side of an argument that gets the most press. I understand why they do it but it still disappoints. It also diminishes my ability to trust everything else they say or print. If they so eloquently lie to the public about pythons how much truth is there in their reporting on fossil beds in Montana? And oh what a wonderful thing the Burmese pythons is shaping up to be. It’s a win-win for the media. They get to sell a lie that invokes fear and then clean up on the ad revenue sold because of increased readership/web traffic.
…and the things you’ll learn.
Way back in high school I took biology (we all did). We talked about Gregor Mendel and genetics. The girl who sat behind me was gorgeous. I spent most of my time talking to her rather than trying to learn about genetics. My eyes are not blue and discussing the fact that I am het for blue eyes was less interesting than her.
In college I took courses in biology, physiology, epidemiology, genetics, chemistry and biochemistry. None of it seemed like it would ever be relevant (to me) in the real world. I began with the mindset that I was there to ‘check a box’ (e.g. get a diploma). Pass the tests, move along; that was my initial perspective. By the time I graduated from college I knew I was wrong. I had become a reptile breeder (albeit a small one). The ball python jubilee was still almost a decade away so the more exciting genetics considerations at the time were the albino and anerythrystic genes (yes, I know there was other stuff going on, too). Much of the awesomeness we know today in the genetics of burmese pythons, reticulated pythons, ball pythons, blood pythons, boa constrictors, etc. was still a long way off.
After college I enrolled in graduate school courses. I wanted more information. I took graduate level courses in herpetology and genetics. By this time I had been breeding a variety of different snakes (colubrids, boas & pythons) for a few years. Technically, this makes me a herpetoculturist, not a herpetologist. While the difference in spelling is subtle, the meaning is not. So in my herpetology course I was an immediate outsider. My classmates were interested in counting differences in subcaudal scales on snakes obtained from the top and bottom of some far away mountain. I was interested in how to breed them. The course did not include a section on husbandry and breeding, which I understand but still missed. Strangely, herpetoculture and herpetology don’t mix like you might think. This particular group of herpetology students did not embrace the idea of breeding reptiles for profit. Capitalism and academia are often at odds with each other.
I am not suggesting that all my schooling made me a good reptile breeder. While it certainly didn’t hurt me I suggest it provided me slim to no advantage over most of my reptile breeding peers. Pretty much all of my friends who breed snakes arrived at this particular location (e.g. reptile breeder) via different paths. Some of us began as car mechanics while others were general contractors, stock brokers, longshoreman, pharmacologists and information technology professionals. And virtually all of them have as much usable knowledge about genetics as I do. That impresses me. It doesn’t take college or graduate courses to learn how to do any of this. It does, however, take motivation and a desire to learn. And it takes a lot of ‘doing’. The more I do this the better I get. Yeah, yeah, we all love reptiles but it’s the attachment of dollar signs that really gets a lot of us motivated to figure this stuff out. Visit any reptile forum and you will read everyday people talking about Punnett Squares, dihybrid crosses, genes, alleles and loci (locus) just as naturally as they talk about cooking with a microwave oven. It just goes to show the chinese proverb, “What I hear I forget, what I see I remember, what I do I understand” is as true today as it was 2,500 or so years ago when something like it was first written.
My whole point is this: We are a community that has become functional (if not proficient) in a field that until a few years ago was reserved for academics. The past 10-15 years in the reptile industry have been a whirlwind. We have become better at herpetoculture, breeding and genetics. Rather than having a bunch of snakes in glass aquariums we have applied science and capitalism to reptile husbandry. I’m glad to be part of that.
…And then there was H.R. 669. While not the first (or last) assault on our rights to own, breed, sell, trade and transport reptiles, I witnessed two things happen as a result of its introduction:
- We galvanized as a community in a way I honestly didn’t think possible. From the largest breeders to the guy with a single pet reptile I saw people get fired up and say, “What do you need me to do to help fight this?” People quickly became willing soldiers, ready to fight for their right to own reptiles. That impressed me. Using the Internet as our primary vehicle (forums, Twitter, email, web sites, etc.) we all worked to get the word out and get others motivated. The axe has not fallen on H.R. 669 but, to steal from a famous story, ‘Horton heard a Who’ by the time 4/23/09 came around.
- We got also got an unexpected education through this ordeal (not unlike the genetics education we have all received over the past 10 years). I met more than a few reptile people who got caught up on all the stuff they missed in high school about how our government runs. How many of you reptile fanatics out there now have a much better understanding of how things work in the House of Representatives? Maybe you didn’t put it all together but there are a lot of us who are much more acquainted with how the process works. And if H.R. 669 ever makes it out of the House we’re going to all get a lot smarter about how things work in the Senate. We’ve got to be educated, organized, and vigilant if we’re going to win this. People who used to say, “I don’t vote.”, are beginning to realize that their voice, when combined with others who share their beliefs, actually does count.
In one form or another, being in the reptile business is an education…