Saturday, February 25, 2012

Creature Feature: Burmese Python - Part 1.

Anybody watching this blog for more than a few weeks knows that I am a snake fanatic. So, of course, I have my own opinions about the latest update to the Lacey Act. As per the revision to the Act, one of the most popular snakes ever, the Burmese python (P. molurus bivittatus), is prohibited from crossing state lines. I personally think it sucks, but also see where the ban is coming from.

But this is not about me. This is about facts. It's about time I spilled the beans about one of my favorite snakes ever in as unbiased a manner as I possibly can.

Burmese pythons are the most notorious and popular giant pythons in existence. They are native to South-Southeast Asia. They can get up to 20 feet long, making them the largest subspecies of Indian python, and have more girth to them than retics. Burmese pythons are usually the go-to "big snake" due to their size and gentle temperament. When someone mentions the word "python," Burmese are the ones that usually come to mind.

If you have ever seen a giant snake on TV or in a photograph, there is a very high chance it was a Burmese python. (Interestingly, Harry Potter's Nagini is an exception; the last time I saw her, she was a retic.)  Burms are the giant snake of choice for many model shoots, TV shows, and art projects. They're big, but are mostly docile.  Unless you happen to smell like a rabbit or otherwise be very stupid, there is a slim chance that a Burmese python will bite you. The people who keep Burmese pythons usually love them to death. (Don't take that literally.)

Burmese pythons are usually the first big snake everyone gets. They may get up to 20 feet, but most stop at around 10-12, which is a bit more manageable. Retics have a (now mostly undeserved) reputation for being aggressive; anacondas are aggro and have hard husbandry requirements. Burmese pythons are easy to keep and, usually, as docile as kittens. Feed and breed them right and you might even be able to make a small profit off of them. If ball pythons are the general ideal pet snake, then Burmese pythons are the ideal big snake.

The leucistic Burmese - so rare it was once called mythical. Then it got proven to be the super form of a hypo. Yes, I know that's probably all Greek to you. It IS Greek.

Therein lies the problem: Many Burmese python owners are irresponsible in one way or another. If all of them kept their Burmese pythons in nice, custom-designed cages, or even secure sweater boxes, that would be great. This is one of those cases where irresponsibility can cost you dearly. Here are the top three reasons why Burmese pythons - snakes that deserve at least as much respect as any large dog or wildcat - tend to wind up with bad owners.

1. People simply don't do their homework. Burmese python babies are adorable, somewhat cheap, and overall a tempting impulse buy. That mouse-eating baby will grow up into a 10-12 foot serpent that can easily swallow a chicken whole. People who do not know crap about Burmese pythons usually wind up either giving their pets to a zoo/rescue or just plain releasing them. Bad situation.

Well, the author thinks they're cute...

2. There is also the simple case of biting off more than one can chew. Some people may know how big Burmese pythons get, but might not be able to take care of them in the long run. Big snakes make big messes, need big cages, and eat big food. How many people do you suppose can afford that for 20-25 years? I have asked people who either have Burms or know about their husbandry; they are costly to keep (especially if you go all-out) and require two people to handle safely. In other words, you will probably have to find a snake-tolerant roommate/lover if you intend to handle big snakes.

3. Sellers of Burmese pythons know full well that they are selling monster snakes, and fail to ask whether the customer knows how big Burms get in hopes of making a sale. Some people can start off just fine with Burmese pythons; others, not so much. A responsible snake owner should at least ask about husbandry requirements unless they have had that same species before. "How big does it get?" should be the next question.

Put it this way: If you do not know your stuff before getting a Burmese python, there is a very good chance your house will be on the news. Escaped snakes get ratings. Burmese pythons have been known to eat neighborhood pets. In one recent instance, a Burm killed the owner's daughter because the owner had a blanket as a cover on the cage. Burmese pythons can be awesome snakes, but you really have to know what you're doing. Ill-aimed bites from these snakes can lead to stitches.

Recently, Burmese pythons have been spotted in the Florida Everglades. This was largely due to a hurricane causing mass-escapes of Burmese pythons from personal collections. (Read: Not ALL of theme were released deliberately.) There, Burms have been not only eating wildlife in an already-fragile ecosystem, but have also been completing with alligators as the apex predator. Florida has all the reason in the world to ban the Burmese python. Here's a quick rundown as to why:

1. Burmese pythons compete for prey with native American alligators. Since alligators are among the most popular residents of Florida, not to mention part of the fragile Everglades ecosystem, any threat to their well-being is taken seriously.

The classic "exploding snake" pic, illustrating the point quite nicely.

2. Burmese pythons have an extra edge over alligators: They can very easily outbreed them. A Burmese python clutch can contain over 80 eggs. In nature, the ones who breed the most usually survive, so there is a very high chance that we will be seeing a lot of pythons. Sorry, the 'gator will probably lose.

3. See the ways that Burmese pythons can get out or otherwise be troublesome up above. No offense to all of you responsible keepers, but some not-so-hardcore snake lovers just want a big python because it's cool.

4. The reptile breeders kiiiinda brought this one upon themselves by having one of the largest reptile conventions in Florida. To be fair, Southern states tend to have extremely loose pet laws, so both parties are to blame.

But wait, the Lacey Act covers rest of the country, too. Isn't that a little harsh? Yes and no. My Environmental Sustainability teacher had a good explanation as to why the Burm got the Lacey Axe.

A caraBurm!

First of all, yes, Burmese Pythons could probably only survive in Florida. It just so happens that Florida has the perfect environment for them - hot and humid, just like Southeast Asia. I have heard some horror stories about Burms possibly making their way north due to either hibernation capabilities or global warming, but those are both more or less speculation. I have heard studies going either way. For now, treat it as mostly Florida's problem.

Even after the Lacey Axe, it would still theoretically be possible to smuggle a Burmese python from another state  into Florida. I have heard something about all Burmese pythons in Florida needing to be registered, otherwise the owner will be in big trouble. I would imagine that, if any Burms escaped in Florida, things would also get pretty hairy for that person. Avoid Florida like the plague, Burm fans.

Python owners believe that the update to the Lacey Act will be the end of the reptile trade as we know it. That is not true. You will still be allowed to keep your snakes. You will definitely still be allowed to trade within your state. Even if you do try to trade in other states, this act is all but impossible to enforce with snakes (as opposed to large mammals, which require huge trucks for transport).  The only thing it is really stopping you from doing business is sending Burmese pythons through the mail. Will it cripple the trade? Sure. Stop it? Certainly not. Still a waste of taxpayer dollars? Most likely.

Reptile keepers have the deck stacked against them when it comes to legislation. A lot of people fear snakes.  Every time a giant snake owner screws up, it makes the responsible owners look even worse. That is what leads to legislation like this. Education is key.

As for my personal thoughts on the Lacey Axe? Yes, the ban sucks, but there are worse bills out there. Worry more about the government tracking your every waking move and probably some sleeping moves, too. It will be a lot easier for them to catch you with giant snakes if they have cameras everywhere. The giant snake laws are just a distraction. Nowhere in the Constitution does it mention giant snakes. Worry about things like free speech first.

(Mmm...still so much I wanted to add.) 

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