In Support of Keeping Large Boids in the Public Sector – by Tony Jones


Albino Reticulated Python - Every home should have one!

PRK readers may have seen the recent news reports about a Bristol couple who are mourning the loss of their cat after it was eaten by a neighbour’s Burmese Python, sparking renewed calls for large boids to be included in the Dangerous Wild Animals act. Wilbur, the four year old tabby strayed into a nearby garden belonging to Darren Bishop where Squash, the 13 foot Burmese Python was basking.  The cat’s owners Martin and Helen Wadey heard “blood-chilling cries” but were unable to rescue Wilbur.  A microchip scanner was used to confirm Wilbur was inside the snake.

Mrs Wadey, 41, told a local reporter: “We do not want Wilbur’s death to be in vain. We want those sorts of snakes to be licensed and for owners to be prosecuted if they leave them unattended as well as having to inform people living nearby that they own one.”

The consumption of Wilbur is a sad and regrettable incident but it is unlikely to generate such an amendment to the act and there is little evidence to support new legislation.  The Wadley’s have started a petition to include pythons in the Dangerous Wild Animals act but Chris Newman from the Federation of British Herpetoculturists thinks such an amendment is unlikely.  “Pythons have been kept in Britain for almost 200 years and there has never been a recorded case of a human fatality or serious injury.  I think we need to keep a little perspective.”

Chris went on to say “The 2006 Animal Welfare Act outlines a duty of care responsibility for pet owners to ensure their animals are not subjected to pain or suffering.  Unfortunately cat owners often allow their pets to roam free despite the risks posed by roads or other animals. This is a sad and unfortunate incident, but responsibility lays with the cat owners, not Mr Bishop.”

Mr Bishop said he was sad that the Wadeys had lost their cat but that he had every right to take his snake into his garden.  “I also absolutely refuse to restrict my pet from my garden so that other people’s pets can use it.

It is estimated that there are 100,000 large constrictors in the UK.

Poor news reporting and bias usually accompany any incident involving a large snake but the facts are usually less sensational and this case is no exception.  Nevertheless, it is important that owners of large boids continue to act responsibly and manage risks, however remote.  Large pythons and boas certainly have the POTENTIAL to be dangerous, but statistically, reptiles are considered to be the second safest pet, after fish.

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The government’s Home Accident Surveillance System (HASS) in 2002 recorded accidents that caused injuries serious enough to warrant a visit to hospital.  The report included several interesting accounts regarding injuries involving reptiles, including that of a gardener who trod on a rake that was initially thought to be a snake and another featuring a finger that had been cut with scissors being used to collect dandelion leaves for their pet iguana.  Both of these were recorded as ‘reptile related’ injuries.

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Home Accident Surveillance Scheme (2002)

Animal Home Accidents National est
Dog 3125 64,063
Cat 732 15,006
Equine 169 3,465
Reptile 16 328

The most common cause of bites and constrictions by large boids is the unintentionally conditioned feeding response.  This occurs when routine maintenance patterns encourage the snake to associate the opening of their tank with the receipt of food.  For example, a newly purchased baby python will be handled frequently by their enthusiastic new owner until, perhaps, the novelty wears off and the snake grows larger.  When handling becomes sporadic and encounters are more likely to be to offer food, the snake can sometimes presume every encounter to be a feeding opportunity and react accordingly.  If the keeper introduces their hand into the enclosure before the snake realises that it is not feeding time, a bite and constriction can occur.  Although these incidents are invariably painful and bloody, they rarely result in more than a minor injury.  The guidelines below outline safe handling practices for large boids and include tips on avoiding conditioned feeding responses.

Python breeder Gareth Baylis breeds several species of large boid and has bred all four giant species, namely The Burmese Python (Python molurus ), the African Rock Python  (P.  sebae),  the Reticulated Python (Python reticulatus), and the Green Anaconda (Eunectes marinus).

Gareth says “I’m very aware of how fast a hungry python can strike and take precautions to avoid getting bitten.  I never feed my snakes in their home vivarium and always make first contact with a long stick or snake hook.  I’ve also got a clear plastic shield that is shaped like a dustbin lid that I use to cover the snake before I put a hand into the vivarium.  This means I can deflect a strike and keep my hands out of the firing line.  Once the snake is aware that it is not feeding time they’re invariably fine, but I don’t take chances.”

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It is estimated (HASS) that 65,000 people seek hospital treatment for dog attacks each year

Of these a 1,000 will require surgery

100 will have serious permanent disfigurement

3-5 will die as a result of the attack

60%+ of these are likely to be children

Over the past 100 years there has not been a  single death from an attack by a pet reptile

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TYPES OF ACCIDENTAL DEATHS, USA 2005
(MVA = Motor Vehicle Accident)

(1) Motor vehicle (MVA) 37.5%

(2) Poisoning 19.5%

(3) Falls 16.3%

(4) Drowning 3.0%

(5) Fires, Burns,Smoke 2.6%

(6) Medical/Surgical Complication 2.2%

(7) Forces of nature 1.8%

(8) Firearms discharge 0.7%

Other (transport) 2.6%

Other (non-transport) 13.9%

Conclusion.

The loss of a pet is always distressing and particularly when the death is untimely or due to accident.  I think we can all sympathise with the cat owners outlined in the story above, but there is undoubtedly a need for perspective and a proportional response.  The risks involved in the keeping of large boids are minimal and no legislation is required to ensure the safety of keepers or the general public.  If we look to the risks involved in the keeping of animals, reptiles are a long way down the list of dangerous pets.  Similarly, if we look at the common causes of death and injury in our everyday lives we can see that there are many greater risks than keeping large snakes.  It could be argued that any legislation that aims to safeguard people against death or injury should be focussed on activities that are statistically more dangerous.  To legislate against a risk as negligible as herpetoculture is entirely unnecessary. The code of practice for keeping large boids has is printed below and is made public here for the first time.  Feedback and recommendations are welcomed and should be forwarded to Chris Newman at XXXXXXX.com

The author would like to thank Chris Newman and the Federation of British Herpetoculturists and would urge all reptile keepers to support the organisation.  The federation aims to protect the interests of UK herpers.  Their website can be found at www.f-b-h.co.uk.

Federation of British Herpetoculturists

Code of Practice for Keeping Large Boids –

Responsibility of the Keeper

Before Purchase

3.1     Before acquiring a large constrictor of any age prospective purchasers are encouraged to familiarise themselves with this code of practice.

3.2     Before acquiring a large constrictor of any age a prospective owner should ensure that they are able to meet basic husbandry requirements throughout a potential lifespan in excess of 20 years. This includes potential housing requirements as well as the cost of food, heating, veterinary care and other expenses.

3.3     The purchase of a large constrictor of any age for ownership by a minor is not recommended without the consent of a parent who is willing to assume all responsibility for proper housing, maintenance and supervision when handling.

3.4     As with any other animals such as dogs, owners of large constrictors should consider that they can be liable for the medical costs of treating injuries as well as additional financial damages for traumas or damage caused by their animals to themselves or the general public including personal and material costs.

Veterinary Care

3.5     A keeper should identify a suitable veterinary surgeon (with expertise in the treatment of large constrictors) at the earliest opportunity, to ensure there is no delay in obtaining treatment, should a medical condition arise.

Housing

3.6     Large constrictors should be housed in suitably sized secure accommodation that cannot be accidentally opened from the outside or by the occupants within.

3.7     Large room-sized enclosures should be modified to prevent snake escapes and with a door which should be kept shut or locked when not occupied by the owners with a sign to indicate what is contained in the room. We recommend ‘Large Snake Within’.

Handling

3.8     When handling a sub-adult or adult large constrictor it is recommended that another individual be at hand. The probability of any serious problem occurring when handling such snakes is very remote but it is recommended that herpetoculturists, out of responsibility to themselves, to family members and to other herpetoculturists, should handle large constrictors in a manner that significantly prevents the likelihood of any accident or incident or danger to the public.

3.9     A snake hook is useful for removing a large constrictor from an enclosure (such as to place it in another container whilst cleaning) and can be used to ‘stroke’ the snake before handling to help ensure that the snake knows food is not on offer, thereby avoiding a feeding response. (see section on feeding).

3.10   It is the right of the general public not to be exposed unexpectedly to snakes such as large constrictors and, it is recommended that snakes not be openly displayed in a public setting outside of proper and established forums for such practices such as herpetological shows, educational displays, pet stores and presentations, and other special displays whereby members of the public are forewarned that a snake(s) maybe displayed in the open.

3.11   As when handling any animal, proper hygiene should be observed. Anyone handling a large constrictor, or an item of food for the snake, should not eat, drink or smoke whilst doing so. Following a handling or enclosure maintenance session, hands should be cleaned with a suitable antiseptic agent. A keeper who has handled an item of food for the snake should wash their hands thoroughly before then handling a large constrictor. A suitable agent should also be used to bathe any minor cut or abrasion caused in the rare event of accidental bite.

Transporting

3.12   It is recommended that large constrictors be transported in a manner that precludes escape. Whilst there are several methods for achieving this we recommend that they be transported in a cloth bag, free of holes or tears, sturdy enough to prevent escape but with a weave that allows adequate air flow. Care should be taken not to allow too much room in the bag; a snug fit is better and will stop the snake from becoming stressed and trying to escape. The bag should be sealed in a manner which prevents escape, placed inside a box or similar container which is marked as to its contents and sealed or locked shut. The box should have holes for aeration and be insulated from the elements (not too cold or too warm). An alternative is to ‘double bag’ the snake (place the original sealed bag into another bag, which is also then sealed). In this instance extra care must be taken to ensure adequate air flow.

3.13   Airlines should be consulted as to their requirements when shipping snakes by air (see IATA regulations). Additionally, this should be taken into consideration when transporting snakes by courier or other means of transport.

Feeding

3.14   Keepers should avoid conditioning a large constrictor to expect food whenever it detects a human presence, whether when the keeper opens the enclosure or is simply present in the same room. Regular handling and cleaning in between feeds will alleviate a conditioned feeding response.

3.15 Where possible the keeper should not allow the snake to snatch prey items when offered, but place them in the enclosure where they will be found. In the event that a more direct approach is needed this should be done using long forceps, never by hand. This method should also be used when removing an uneaten food item.

4. Further Information

This code of practice is not intended to be a complete care guide. We recommend that further source of information should be acquired.

We recommend for further reading you ask your local Herp supplier for suitable books and internet information sources or contact your local Herp Group. For details of FBH Affiliated Reptile and Amphibian Societies and Groups check www.f-b-h.co.uk.

5. Conclusion

Captive large constrictors have an extremely low behavioural propensity to constrict humans.  There has never been a report of a serious incident in the UK, and of those that have been recorded (in the USA), the vast majority have involved irresponsible husbandry practices. Considering the tens of thousands of large constrictors kept in the UK, and considering the much more threatening dangers which are generally accepted as a normal part of every day life, the potential danger presented by large constrictors pales into insignificance.

Published – Practical Reptile Keeping Dec 2009

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~ by Tony's Desk on January 22, 2010.

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