Alice Cobb is a petite woman, probably in her mid 50s, with close-cropped red hair. She doesn't look like someone who would be into snakes, but she's sitting at a table at the Central Florida Fairgrounds with an array of pythons for sale around her.
Seven years ago, Cobb was on the other side of the counter, a mom who begrudgingly agreed to attend Orlando's very first Repticon – a convention where collectors of exotic reptiles gather to buy, sell and trade animals – with her daughter, Lindsey. After witnessing baby pythons hatching from their eggs and holding a few adult specimens herself, however, Cobb was just as captivated as her daughter. One pet python for Lindsey eventually became 195 "breeder" pythons for a small family business. "You would think that the only people interested in snakes are those who ride motorcycles, wear leather and have tattoos," she says. "But it's changed. It's a different world than it was 10 years ago."
The Cobb family was one of 75 vendors at the most recent Repticon, which drew about 2,500 people to the Central Florida Fairgrounds over the Jan. 15 weekend, a five-fold increase in attendance from the Repticon the Cobbs attended in 2003. It's but one reminder of the explosive growth of the reptile trade since it began back in the 1970s. Then, it was a niche business for eccentric hobbyists; now, it's a $1.4 billion industry. Though the majority of the trade consists of relatively small animals, like leopard geckos, ball pythons and pond turtles, it also includes some very large, powerful snakes such as the boa constrictor, the green anaconda and the Burmese python. The latter, which can grow to more than 15 feet long and weigh up to 200 pounds, has appeared not only in homes, but in the Florida wilderness with increasing frequency during the past decade, both in the waters of the Everglades and the woods of Central Florida.
After a 2-year-old girl was strangled by her mother's boyfriend's pet python in Sumter County in July 2009, what was once a minor headache for the reptile industry – the unintended consequences of selling the world's biggest snakes to the average Joe – became a major issue. The Humane Society of the United States suggested a boycott of the entire reptile trade in September of that year, the state of Florida banned possession of the Burmese python and six other large snakes the following summer, and now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is set to propose a sweeping import and transport ban on the Burmese python and eight other species of the largest non-native snakes. To those in the reptile business, the laws seem like undeserved punishment, and they're fighting back with what little political muscle they have.
"Obviously it's getting worse [for us], because the regulations are getting worse," says Joe Fauci, a Tampa-based importer who one colleague calls "the godfather" of the reptile industry. "They're taking away our rights."
As a high schooler in the early '70s, Fauci volunteered with an exotic animal importer in Tampa, Ray Singleton, who occasionally gave Fauci reptiles and other tropical animals as compensation for his help. At the age of 15, Fauci had converted half of his mother's beauty shop into a "reptile room" and built a giant outdoor cage for his collection of capuchin monkeys. But, he says, "It didn't take long to know that you couldn't keep many monkeys living in the city."
So he focused solely on reptiles. Soon after graduating high school in 1972, he was invited by his friend's wealthy cousin to the Cayos Cochinos islands off the northern coast of Honduras. There, he encountered the "Hog Island Boa" – a name that may never have come into being had Fauci not collected more than 30 of the snakes, put them in a "pretty big" suitcase and brought them back to Miami to sell to a business called The Shed. "Back in the '70s, that's how you did a lot of stuff," he says. "You checked [animals] in your luggage."
Fauci used the proceeds of his snake sales to help pay for his education at the University of South Florida. Getting his degree took seven years because he alternated his semesters with other far-flung journeys to collect more reptiles, which helped lay the foundation of what is today a sizable genetic bank of exotic species within the United States. After graduating from college in 1979, Fauci taught high school science for five years, but quit to focus on his growing business, the Southeast Reptile Exchange. More than two decades later, with the economic recession and increasing regulation squeezing his trade, those boom days seem further away than ever. "I don't know how much future there is in the reptile business," he says.
When Fauci is asked about regulating large snakes in particular, he suggests that banning a Burmese python is like banning a car for its role in an accident. "I can count the people that have died [from snake attacks] on one hand," he says. "Thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of these giant snakes have been kept in this country for years without any incident."
Bob Reed, a biologist working for the United States Geological Survey in Fort Collins, Colo., agrees that the threat to humans from large snakes is minimal. What he's more concerned about is the snakes' impact on ecosystems in the United States, and specifically, South Florida. Reed has studied the Burmese python in the Everglades extensively and hypothesizes that the snake is behind the disappearance of animals such as marsh rabbits, raccoons and round-tailed muskrats from the park. "[The snakes are] eating just about every bird and mammal that they can fit in their mouth," Reed says, adding that a Burmese python has also been known to take down a white-tailed deer and a frigate bird, which "virtually never lands on the mainland."
Reed co-authored a report in 2009 called "Giant Constrictors: Biological and Management Profiles and an Establishment Risk Assessment for Nine Large Species of Pythons, Anacondas and the Boa Constrictor." (Constrictor snakes earn their title from squeezing their prey to death.) The report says that the Burmese python and eight other non-native snakes, which have established themselves throughout South Florida, are an "exceptional threat to the integrity of native ecosystems."
When it comes to the most notorious of the bunch, the Burmese python, Reed says it's notoriously difficult to count how many of them may be lurking in the Everglades, since only a small fraction of the park is accessible to humans. He adds that snakes, as a matter of evolutionary fitness, are animals that are difficult to detect. "Over and over again people get fooled by the idea that if we can't find animals, there must not be very many of them," he says. (Estimates of python population have run as high as 140,000 in media reports, though that number has been critiqued extensively by both scientists and those in the reptile trade. In 2010, 322 Burmese pythons were removed from the Everglades National Park by park staff.)
The idea of massive pythons terrorizing the Everglades was ripe fodder for an entertainment industry that produced movies like Anaconda and Snakes on a Plane, and for a culture obsessed with photos of engorged snakes (one photo widely circulated over the Internet and featured on www.snopes.com as a "real photo" features a snake that has burst after trying to ingest an entire alligator).
In February 2010, the National Geographic channel ran an hour-long special called Python Wars that detailed scientists' planned "counteroffensive" against the Burmese python. In July, the channel unveiled an entire series called Python Hunters, focusing on the workers who purge the Everglades of the invasive snake.
This draws Reed to the one point that he and reptile enthusiasts can agree on: "Most of the TV coverage has been overly sensationalistic," he says. "It's stressed aspects of the issue that are either unlikely or not all that important."
But his study also had a more serious effect: It spurred the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to indicate it would ask the Department of the Interior to list the nine snakes defined in the study as "injurious wildlife species" in the Federal Register, which would make importing or transporting the snakes between states illegal. Because an estimated one million Americans own large constrictor snakes in this country, the listing would be the first time since the implementation of the Lacey Act in 1900 that an animal widely held by the American public would be federally listed as "injurious." Being listed in the Federal Register would not prohibit ownership of the snakes, nor breeding them, but it's likely that other states could enact laws similar to the one in Florida, which was enacted last summer and bans personal possession of the seven large python species and the green anaconda. (People who owned the snakes before the ban was put into place can keep their animals but may not obtain more.)
Joe Fauci thinks that the federal bill, if passed, will eventually kill not only the trade of large snakes, but the snakes themselves. "Once they cut out the commercial value, people will stop raising them, and soon, these things will vanish," he says.
Breeder Chad Snellgrove of Plant City, who brought a selection of his ball pythons to Repticon, agrees. He says that if the value of a live snake is taken away, then poor people in exporting countries will return to killing the snakes for profit. "Instead of selling these [snakes] as pets," he says, "they'd be making boots out of 'em." Snellgrove also says that the trade of captive snakes ensures that rare species of snakes live on, even if their habitats do not. "Even if they go extinct in the wild, we would still have them in captivity and could release them back into the wild if we had to," he says.
In the early days of the reptile trade, more animals were being imported than exported, but today, the situation has been reversed. Many exotic snakes are now easier to find at reptile conventions than in their native habitats. As deforestation and pollution increasingly threaten more habitats, many snake breeders have begun to view themselves as much more than just people with animals for sale. "We're trying to save these species – that's the reality of it," says amateur herpetologist Forrest Fanning. (Herpetology is the study of reptiles, which are colloquially referred to in the trade as "herps." Those who breed, sell, buy or take an interest in reptiles are called "herpers.")
Andrew Wyatt, president of the United States Association of Reptile Keepers, the reptile industry's chief lobby, is less concerned with the proposed ban to import the snakes – "You can get higher-quality ones bred right here in the United States," he says – but is instead concerned about the regulation's larger implications for the industry. He argues that this is just the beginning of a campaign to rid the country of foreign reptiles, spearheaded by xenophobic nonprofits and enabled by federal regulators who "cross-pollinate" with the advocacy groups. "The big NGOs are trying to set a precedent that will change the way America looks at anything non-native to the United States," he says. "They have this ideal of returning things to the way they were 200 years ago."
Though Wyatt says the sales of the nine large snakes combined only comprise about 10 percent of the total reptile market, he still regards the proposal as "the biggest threat to our industry right now," and says he is devoting half of the organization's $300,000 budget to fighting the rule change.
Since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the possible listing of the nine snakes as "injurious" in March of last year, the agency has received more than 50,000 citizen comments, according to Ken Warren, a spokesman for the agency. "We are in the process of rigorously reviewing all the comments, all the inputs and all the scientific data," Warren says, adding that the agency hopes to make a recommendation within the next few months.
In the case of the pythons in the Everglades, it's a matter of dispute as to where they came from – Wyatt and others in the reptile industry believe it was Hurricane Andrew in 1992 that scattered exotic pets throughout the area; Reed's colleagues think the snakes were released in the area by humans in 1985.
But Reed also says his hypothesis matters little in the grand scheme of things. "We will never know for sure how the snakes became established," he says. "But regardless of the proximate reasons, we do know the ultimate reason – we imported these animals for the U.S. pet trade."
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.