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Reptile industry sees python bill as threat

BRADENTON — Florida Sen. Bill Nelson’s efforts to make it illegal to import and trade nine dangerous snakes, including Burmese pythons, isn’t sitting well with those in the reptile industry.

Nelson introduced the bill to target pythons, later adding species of anacondas and boa constrictors the U.S. Geological Survey considers dangerous. The bill’s intent, he has said, is to protect U.S. wildlife and natural resources, as well as to address the concern over pet snakes being released in the Everglades.

But reptile breeders and sellers argue that the bill will severely impact their business.

Myakka City resident David Barkasy predicts it will cause his reptile wholesale business to decline. Barkasy’s company, Silver City Serpentarium Inc., is a wholesaler of pythons, boa constrictors and other reptiles to distributors, pet shops and breeders.

Barkasy estimates pythons make up 6 percent of sales at Silver City Serpentarium, and boa constrictors make up 4 percent of his company’s sales.

“Seeing that we’re down 25 percent for the year because of the recession, you add another 6 to 10 percent and that’s a lot of money,” said Barkasy, who said he averages about $300,000 in annual sales. “Everything in that stock we wouldn’t be able to sell. It would either be euthanized or kept until it died of old age.”

Susie Perez Quinn, a legislative aide to Nelson, said the cost to the environment outweighs the impact to the reptile industry.

“If you take the impact on the environment and the impact to taxpayers and the millions that will be spent to restore an ecosystem like the Everglades, you can’t compare the two,” Perez Quinn said.

The bill cleared a Senate panel Dec. 10, setting it up for a full Senate vote.

Nelson wrote the bill after federal park officials raised concern over pet owners releasing the pythons and other species in the Everglades.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates Burmese pythons, which can grow to 20 feet long and 200 pounds, have a population in the tens of thousands in South Florida.

“As stewards of our country’s vast public lands and natural resources, we have to deal with the threats posed by invasive species,” Nelson said in a statement.

The Animal Rights Foundation of Florida says the bill will help protect endangered species in South Florida.

“All these snakes that are being released in the Everglades are reproducing in the Everglades and they’re catching and killing a lot of the endangered species that do live and belong there,” said Don Anthony, spokesman for the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida.

Anthony said the bill also will prevent the dangerous snakes from ending up with irresponsible pet owners.

In July, a 2-year-old girl in Sumter County was killed in her crib when an 8-foot Burmese python escaped from its glass container and strangled her. Anthony said the python bill could help prevent such incidents in the future.

“What kind of life is it for a huge snake like that to live in a little glass box?” Anthony said.

“These are wild and exotic animals that belong in their natural habitat.”

At Bayshore Pets in Bradenton, the pet shop’s reptile handler Mike Smith said the bill will impact out-of-state boa constrictor sales.

“It would negatively impact us,” Smith said. “I would be upset about that if that snake is included on the ban. It’s a popular exotic snake.”

The U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers says Bill S373 will “destroy” the reptile industry if it is passed. Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Fla., has filed a snake bill similar to Nelson’s in the U.S. House, which went through subcommittee hearings Nov. 6.

“It’s going to destroy about one-third of the reptile industry, which is about a $3 billion a year industry,” said Andrew Wyatt, president of the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers, a North Carolina-based trade group with about 12,000 members nationwide.

“This bill doesn’t even address the issue of Burmese pythons in the Everglades. It’s not addressing the issues of feral pythons in the Everglades.”

Reptile breeder Michael Cole, owner of Ballroom Pythons South in Central Florida, estimates the bill will cost his business $250,000 a year if it passes. In addition, Cole said he fears the bill will cause more people to release the pythons and other snakes.

“If you can’t sell the animals you can produce,” Cole said, “then you can’t do anything with them.”

Grace Gagliano, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 2620.