State Politics

Bill bans sale, trade of ‘exotic’ reptiles

TALLAHASSEE — A far-reaching measure to block the sale and trade of Burmese pythons and other exotic reptiles in Florida cleared the Legislature on Wednesday and headed to the governor for his signature.

Although few would contest that the presence of Burmese python and Nile Monitor lizard have disrupted the ecosystem as they’ve taken hold in Florida’s subtropical climate, some still question whether the bill has overstepped an entirely different boundary.

“The consensus among scientists was that a much better proposal is to institute assessment and screening and advocate the responsible disposal of pets, which Florida already has,” said Frank Mazzotti, a wildlife scientist for the University of Florida. “If you are going to ban snakes, why not ban all invasive species?”

The bill, originally sponsored by Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat, and Rep. Trudi Williams, a Fort Myers Republican, blocks the breeding, sale and trade of pythons and other “reptiles of concern” in the state. Other reptiles include the Nile Monitor lizard, the African Rock python and the anaconda.

Throughout the legislative process, the bill led to some of the session’s campiest moments — a committee hissing “yes” to show their approval and Sobel giving out toy snakes.

But the measure underscored a long-standing concern about the presence of pythons, which have swallowed alligators whole and put a kink in the Everglades’ natural food chain. The worry was amplified after an incident last summer in which a pet Burmese python killed a little girl in Sumter County.

Still, there has been only hesitant support from some wildlife experts, who think the the bill may not accomplish much because the Burmese python and the Nile Monitor lizard have an established population in Florida.

Scott Hardin, the exotic species guru at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said he worried that an all-out ban might drive the reptile industry to stop cooperating with the state and sell the species illegally.

The industry has largely been compliant with restrictions on the “reptiles of concern” since a 2005 law mandated that they be microchipped and that owners pay a $100 licensing fee.

This week, the commission drafted a provision to protect the industry. It would allow the sale of the creatures from breeder to breeder or to interested buyers who live outside Florida. The provision would also mandate that those breeders would keep the animals in high-security quarters.

It was unclear if the provisions would conflict with the bill, but Hardin added the plan would be in line with the general idea of keeping potentially dangerous animals out of the hands of pet owners.

The agency’s stance disappointed the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, who lobbied for the bill, said Nick Atwood, the group’s spokesman.

He said the reptile industry is the root of the problem, beginning from the days when breeders saw their cages ransacked during Hurricane Andrew and unintentionally loosed the population into the Everglades.

Sobel has framed the bill, which is awaiting approval by Gov. Charlie Crist, as a first step in ridding invasive creatures from the state. While it might be too late to curtail the Burmese python population, she said the ban will prevent other reptiles — such as the African Rock python or the anaconda — from making the state home.

“We should not only react to problem with species when they are already here. By then it can be too late,” Sobel said.