As the director of the Center for Snake Conservation, I am often asked what I think about captive snakes or people having snakes as pets. My answer is simple—captive snakes help promote snake conservation therefore I am all for it. Well, the real answer is not that simple at all. The pet trade in snakes has both negative and positive traits and unfortunately the negative traits are often quoted or discussed. One must understand that the negative often comes from a few individuals breaking laws, destroying habitat to collect snakes, and using/caring for their snakes inappropriately (scaring a child or riding a bike with a boa constrictor as a few examples).
I was one of the lucky ones growing up. I grew up in Georgia and had a backyard full of Dekay’s snakes, gartersnakes, and even a watersnake or two. I also had a very tolerant mother who would let me catch snakes, bring them home, and keep them. I kept ratsnakes and kingsnakes longer term than the smaller stinky snakes. In fact, one of my kingsnakes actually prevented my room from being completely ransacked by a burglar in the house. You could see the burglar’s progress through the room until he hit the snake cage…he clearly got out of the room immediately once he (or she) saw the snake.
I also have a brother who is ten years older than me. This is a huge benefit to an up and coming herpetologist since he could drive, catch the bigger snakes I was afraid of, and teach me what he was learning from his graduate studies at UGA. My brother gave me my first copy of Their Blood Runs Cold by Dr. J. Whitfield (Whit) Gibbons when I was 12 years old. This made a huge impression on me and I wanted to start catching every herp right then and there after readings Whit book (I later was lucky enough to study under Whit at SREL—talk about a dream come true). I was a snake kid and love to keep them as pets. Being a kid who was enthusiastic about snakes, I was ignorant to Georgia law which protects all non-venomous snakes.
I wish every child can have the same experiences with snakes that I had growing up. What does this mean for the CSC and its position on captive snakes? It means that we support a Responsible and Legal Pet Trade. Just like with dogs, there are snake breeders and collectors out there who do not care what they sell (think puppy mills for snakes). These breeders and collectors are just bad humans and would exploit any animal or person to make a few dollars. The CSC would like to see their establishments shut down. However, the MAJORITY of snake breeders are responsible and legal. They have legitimate businesses breeding and selling snakes. The CSC only asks that captive snakes remain captive and are not released into areas which may have unforeseen consequences such as those caused by brown tree snakes on Guam, watersnakes in California, and pythons in Florida. The captive snake is a huge help to the CSC mission to implement positive change in human attitudes towards snakes. I receive many, many comments during CSC educational presentations about a friend’s snake that help change and correct the misconceptions that surround snakes.
Recreational collection of snakes is often a sore point with snake conservationists with many opposing any and all snake collection from the wild. However, the facts show that for most snake species, collection from the wild will not affect snake populations. Roads kill more snakes annually than the number of snakes removed by collectors. For example, in one day last week, I counted 5 dead baby bullsnakes along a 1 mile stretch of road. No collector can have that sort of impact on snakes no matter how good they are (unless of course they are using the road to collect the snakes but I will still attribute the loss of the snake to the road). Recreational collection to keep snakes as a pet educates people who may otherwise have never seen or held a snake. This form of hands on education is worth the loss of an individual or two (or ten) from the wild populations. Snakes are rarely collected for commercial purposes in the United States anymore although this is a threat in parts of Asia. Almost all snakes in the pet trade are breed specifically for this purpose and this business is no different than the dog, cat, bird, hamster, gerbil, fish, etc. business. As humans, we enjoy having pets and the CSC does not intend to ever attempt to stop people from having captive snakes.