RAMBLINGS, RUMINATIONS AND GRIPES
I will use this space to say whatever the heck I feel like at the time. Today I am feeling somewhat melancholy. It is 103 degrees outside, snakes are laying eggs, others are feeding and I frankly don't feel like doing very much. Even Fred doesn't want to go outside to run around on a day like this.
Specific topics are linked. General ramblings follow the links. More will be added when the mood strikes.
Too Many Laws, But WHo Really Cares?
The herp market
State and Federal Animal Law Enforcement.
Although far from ancient, I have been around a lot longer than many of the people keeping herps these days. I have seen a lot of changes: in reptile keeping, the law, values, morals and ethics.
With the advances in herpetoculture and the variety of herps available, I am pleased. When I started keeping herps, very little was known about husbandry, herp medicine, population variations, sexing herps and such. We have come a long way and most of the advances have been good. Although many herps are still imported, most of the commercially lucrative species are being bred in good quantities. Many of the prices are down to reasonable levels, and some of the prices on cb animals make it considerably cheaper to buy one than to collect one.
Many of us, however, do continue to collect. Why do we do this, when the chances of finding a snake that we want to keep in our collection are very slim? Because we enjoy being out there!! Many of us enjoy the solitude. We enjoy hooking up with friends from years past and meeting new herpers. We keep hoping for that one snake that will blow your mind.
It is unfortunate that a few unscrupulous individuals are making it difficult for the majority to enjoy themselves. There are snake thieves out there. There are hunters who have no respect for others and will do anything to find a herp. There are the commercial hunters, many of whom make a good living raping the native populations while doing nothing to replenish the populations or to breed the animals in captivity. An old-timer was recently heard bemoaning the lack of collared lizards. He said that he has been shipping about 10,000 of them a year for many years, but now he is having trouble finding ANY of them. He is sure that he had nothing to do with the decline in the populations.
Because a few individuals do not properly care for their animals, or allow large constrictors to roam the neighborhood, locals ordinances are passed. Because a few individuals would rather suck prairie dogs out of holes, gas rattlesnakes from dens, sell thousands of turtles for food in Japan, laws are passed to protect the populations. Unfortunately, these laws affect the hobbyists and avocational collectors as well as the pillagers.
It is time for the herp community, as well as groups of people keeping other exotic animals, to start policing themselves. Let others know about the pet stores which misrepresent animals and tell their customers that iguanas take no special conditions or care. Get out the word about the breeders who have communicable diseases in their collections. Get out the word about the dealers who keep screwing the buyers. Drop a dime on the people you know who are actively and severely breaking laws, such as the "rattlesnake king" from Pennsylvania who keeps collecting timbers even though they are protected.
I am impressed by some of the new colors and patterns of herps available, now that they are being bred in quantities. I am NOT too crazy about crossing species and genera. Many of these mutts will hit the market as pure. Down the road, it will be difficult to tell what is pure and what is not on many species. Diamond pythons are not that common and not that easy to raise and breed. Many of the beautiful jungle carpet/diamond crosses will pass into the hands of the unscrupulous. Eventually they will be hitting the market as pure diamonds, when they may be only 3/4 or 7/8 diamond.
Like many herpers, I cannot resist checking out a newly discovered pet store. I do not think that pet stores should sell cats and dogs. People can get better quality cheaper from breeders. They can get mutt cats and dogs from the pound and save a life.
I have on only a few occasions been satisfied with any pet store which sells herps. There are a few which specialize in reptiles which are good, but most of them, particularly the chains, are not all that good. First of all, most of the employees don't know much about many of the animals which they are selling. Often they supply misinformation. In my earlier days I purchased a snake from a pet store. It was sold as a "South American something-or-other." When I checked it out, it turned out to be a brown water snake, Natrix (Nerodia) taxispilota. I have several times found boas with mouth rot. I have notified the store personnel, who have removed the animals to the back room and promised to fix them up. Usually they were back on display as soon as I left the store.
Pet stores usually charge through the nose for rodents. Often they will convince their customers that the snakes will not eat thawed rodents, that they will eat only live. Sometimes this is true, often it is not. Why don't these places carry frozen mice which are easier to keep than live mice, and a whole lot less smelly. They could also sell them at a reasonable price so that the snake owners could afford to feed their snakes a sufficient amount.
Often reticulate and Burmese pythons are sold as babies, and no mention is made of the fact that these snakes will grow huge and cost a lot to house and feed. Iguanas are sold in vast quantities because they are CHEAP. Most people are not told that they require special conditions and food. As a result, many iguanas die, many others are given away and others are turned loose.
Pet stores are fine for buying fish and fish supplies. Some are good with birds. I have no problem with the concept of pet stores, just with the prices, quality of animals and ethics. The same snakes can be purchased cheaper and in better condition from private breeders. The private breeders are also more likely to give good information on the animals. Cats and dogs should be obtained from private breeders or the pound. There are many good bird breeders around the country.
THE REPTILE MARKET
The reptile market is an interesting market. In recent years it has been a developing market. Every year new species and new colors and patterns are produced. Many species have become protected from or limited on export. On many of them, when supply of wild caught specimens became limited, breeding took over to supply the demand. In the 70's and early 80's it was mainly North American colubrids and a few pythons which were being bred in large quantaties. Now almost any marketable species is being bred.
Every year I lose money on the snakes. I spend a lot of time driving around, looking for specimens to photograph and the occasional nice specimen to pick up for the collection. I lose snakes to escape. Snakes die. They reproduce. They are acquired, they are traded, they are sold. I drive thousands of miles to various expos, mainly to look around and visit. It would be nice to make a profit, but it is not the focus of my collection.
I hear many herpers complaining about the falling prices of the herps which they are trying to sell. This is merely a matter of supply and demand. Overproduction results in falling prices. All too often they complain that the snakes which they purchased for $1000 are down to $250 by the time they are producing any. It makes me wonder if they originally got the snakes because they liked them, or because they saw them as a way to make some money.
The numerous magazines and expos specializing in herps, plus all of the information available on the internet, have made hobbyists much more aware of the qualities of herps, as well as the prices. They have also made more and more people aware of what is available. The variety is amazing. They have also made people more prone to shop around, looking for the most for their money.
I have species bring a high price, then drop drastically when they were bred in great quantaties. This cycle will continue. At present, it is a down cycle for most of the herp market. A few hard to breed species, or species new to the market, are still bringing high prices, but many of them are down considerably. Although this drastically reduces the value of my collection, I have no problem with it. Many of the prices are way too high anyway.
If I have babies of species which are common, I will sell them for whatever I can get or give them to someone who will appreciate them. If I have something that is very rare or one something which no one else has, I will sell them for as much as I can get. That is the nature of marketing.
Don't try to judge the market 4-5 years from now. Get animals that appeal to you, animals which you will enjoy. If you are lucky, you may make your money back on them. If not, at least you have animals that you want.
TOO MANY LAWS, BUT WHO REALLY CARES?
In recent years the reptile and amphibian enthusiasts have become very noticeable. The herptile market in both imported and wildcaught animals has become a mega-million dollar industry. Governments are beginning to take notice.
Each year new laws, ordinances and regulations are proposed and/or passed, some dealing with exotic animals in general, some with reptiles specifically. Is a seven foot python dangerous to man? Are salamanders dangerous to man? Is an iguana a threat to the neighborhood? I don't think so, but many towns, counties and states do seem to think so. Handguns are OK. Attack dogs are OK. Amphibians are DANGEROUS. Hawaii is scared stiff of non-native herps (they have only one native snake) getting loose on the islands, yet they have banned the export of the non-native Jackson's Chameleon. Go figure!
It is getting harder and harder to find a place to live where a herpetoculturist is not being regulated out of at least some of his/her animals. While there are some kooks, nuts and sleazeballs in the hobby, the vast majority are nice, decent, responsible, average citizens. Our pets do not run out in the street and demolish a young girl walking home from school. They do not drive through a neighborhood indiscriminately spraying bullets into houses. However, many people have an aversion to reptiles. They should be educated, not pitied.
There have been several organizations started to fight unfair laws dealing with herps, but after the fight at hand they have passed into oblivion. Apathy is going to kill the hobby. NRAAC is a group which was started by a handful of people to fight unfair laws and law enforcement dealing with herptiles. They are doing a hell of a good job with limited resources. However, many of the hobbyists and, most shamefully, the dealers offer only lip service, if any support at all. These people need to wake up. If someone making six figures from the sale of reptiles is not willing to donate the proceeds from the sale of a few animals to a group trying to protect their ability to do business, they need a swift kick in the butt and their heads pulled out of the sand.
WAKE UP PEOPLE!!! If you do not band together now you are going to be shut down within a few years. Even if you hide in a "safe" state such as Montana or Wyoming, your market is going to disappear. You are running out of places to ship your product. Cites permits are damned near impossible to get without thinking a year in advance. States are passing laws. Towns are passing laws. Countries are passing laws. Shipping requirements are getting tougher. If you don't act now, you are dead meat. Get with it. NRAAC is not perfect, but it is the best protection available. We don't have Charleton Heston to speak for us, but we do have a voice. Get behind that voice and support it.
State and Federal Animal Law Enforcement.
In concept, I am in favor of both federal and state agencies to protect wildlife. Without them, the unscrupulous would still be fishing with dynamite, blasting hillsides to see what herps rolled down with the talus, pouring noxious chemicals into wildlife burrows and comitting other heinous acts.
They do good work on catching smugglers, even if they do miss a lot of them. The state folks, at least in some states, do a good job on catching those who prey on protected species. In many instances they protect the wildlife from over collection by people who would rather rape native populations than work for a living.
However, much of what they do, and want to do, is bad. Much of what they do, and want to do, is WRONG.
In Arizona it is legal to collect and keep most species if you live there, but not to sell or trade the offspring. Why is this? Allowing the state residents to sell captive born animals would not impact the populations, since there is a posession limit in effect, and it would aid in keeping collectiong down. This law makes no sense to me, since it is still legal for out-of-state residents to collect the animals and remove them from the state, breed them and sell the offspring.
Kansas has recently banned the collection and sale of native herps. Will this really make much difference? They alread had laws on the books to keep residents from over-collecting.
Texas wants to require a commercial dealers license for anyone dealing in native animals. This is fine, if the animals are being taken from the wild. Why do they concern themselves with captive born herps, when there is no control on taking them from the wild? Power? Money? A need to beef up the new non-game department?
Many states are passing laws based on the species level, which makes it illegal to keep many non-native animals. Why is this? Makes no sense to me.
The national F&W services have gotten a lot of press on some of their sting operations. In the early 80's it was the Atlanta snake scam. They didn't do much to stop smuggling or the take of protected species, but they did nail a lot of generally innocent people by methods which bordered on entrapment.
Recently it was "Operation Rock Cut." This was a farce. They spent a couple of years setting it up, and I don't think anyone involved in it was convicted. The agent in charge did a hell of a lot of illegal things. I was told that he brought a protected rattlesnake back from AZ, without any permits. The "ringleader" was a trusting guy who was living in Lajitas and was completely taken in by Chris Scott, who offered to pay for a trip to AZ, and then suggested some illegal actions.
The "press release" article which appeared in national periodicals was a masterpiece of lies. There was barely a trace of truth in it. Why do they feel the need to massage their egos, rather than do their job properly and fairly?
I know of several instances where state and/or federal F&W agents have shown up at the homes of decent people, wearing flack vests and carrying automatic weapons. Is this really necessary to bust a school teacher or a cop, particularly when the supposed viloation is probably bogus? Get with it guys - herpers are not in the same class with drug dealers.
The various fish and wildlife departments need to get their acts together. They need to be sinsible and reasonable. They need to start considering the citizens who pay their salaries.
Why is it so hard to get CITES paperwork? In most countries it takes a few days. In Germany it took me four days to get export CITES THROUGH THE MAIL!! Germany has four offices to deal with this. Why do we have only one understaffed office? Why can't the regional offices handle this?
***NOTE: I am told by a friend from Germany that things have changed over there, and that it is now much harder to get things done with permits.
I have been trying to get information from the feds on what paperwork and permits are required to export and import reptiles. I have been shunted from pillar to post and, when information does arrive, it is not what I have asked for. What the hell is their purpose, if not to help the public?
Call many state offices of fish and game to ask for information, and often you will be given bad information, or passed around until you give up in disgust. In Texas, the laws on collecting herps are so obscure (if they exist at all) that you will get totally different information depending on what part of the state you live in. The crackdown on road cruising in Texas was the result of one individual who took over as a regional director. He didn't like herpers, so he tried to shut them down. Never mind that the head of enforcement had said that what we were doing was legal.
Many times when ticketed herpers have gone to talk to the judge, they were told there wasn't a chance of discussing it. I have the feeling that the TPWD officials have been talking to the judges, something which is VERY illegal. Of course, we don't have guns as do the people shooting deer year 'round. I know of people who trap quail out of season, shoot deer out of season, fish for the purpose of selling those fish, but the state seems to be more interested in nailing the herpers than the big offenders. I guess it is because we are easy to spot, move when the temperatures have dropped to a decent level and don't shoot back.
Come on, guys. Stop trying to get press notice and start doing your jobs fairly. There are plenty of serious violators out there who are going uncaught. Why bother with entrapping the little guys who are basically honest and care for the animals? Why do you seem to care more for busting a kid bringing a snake back from vacation than you do about busting drug runners? I realize that drugs are not within the purview of F&G, but they work for the same people - US.
Part two: Same tune, different song.
I applaud the government each time they bust a major smuggling ring. I appreciate their efforts to protect the wild populations of animals. However, I get the feeling that they are bored and want more to do. Even a government entity has a need to protect and justify its existence. Five years of undercover work to bust Anson Wong and two minor players is hardly justification for the massive budget of USF&WS.
For most of my life I have had respect for the law and have tried to stay withing its framework. Lately I have been developing the mind set of an anarchist. I have no objections to sensible laws, but I do have an objection to laws which make all pay for the sins of a few.
In recent years more and more laws have been passed on both federal and state levels to limit the trade in animals. Many of these laws have been written specifically with herptiles in mind. For some of them, there is a reason but, even where there was a reason they laws often usurp more rights from the individuals than is necessary.
I see a trend, and it makes me uncomfortable. The way things are going, we are going to have fifty states, each with their own confusing laws and, on top of that, we are going to have federal laws, international laws, shipping laws and many other laws. It isn't going to be hard for even the most law-abiding to break a law without knowing it. The courts will tell you that ignorance of the law is no excuse, but it would take a very large law firm specializing in wildlife law to be able to keep up with the laws, much less understand them.
On top of that, trying to get straight answers and good information from the state and federal wildlife organizations is a difficult thing to do. Folks, THESE PEOPLE WORK FOR US!! I don't know about you, but if I had an employee working for me whose main purpose was to make life more difficult for me, or to shut me down, he would not be working for me for very long.
Those who are reptile hobbyists, importers, breeders, dealers, whatever, have had it pretty good over the years. Now we are big, we are successful, we are getting a return on our investments and the various governments have taken notice. Have you noticed that, whenever there is a bust, they always give the dollar figures of the animals, usually a very inflated value? Have you noticed that the general tenor of the press releases makes it seem to the public that the herp community is composed mainly of people who will do anything for a buck and don't care about the animals?
I care about my animals. I am concerned with populations in the wild. I can't do anything about poachers in Africa, natives eating Fly River turtles in New Guinea or people selling herps in the street in Latin America. I can do something about illegal dealers by not purchasing from them and even by aiding the government in closing them down. I am willing to work with the various wildlife departments, but I would like them to work with me, too.
A prime example.
Recently Texas Parks and Wildlife Department created a new non-game department. There was a need for this department. Many people have been taking massive quantities of native animals from the state for financial gain. Turtles, prairie dogs, rattlesnakes - all were legal to take with possession of nothing more than a hunting license. TPWD wanted to know how many of these animals were being taken, and what impact there was on populations. Unfortunately, their biologists don't have much information of this type. How easy is it to collect data on subterranean animals which are crepuscular or nocturnal in their activities? They hired John Herron to head up the non-game department. They hired him from Kansas, a state which has pretty well shut down trade, collection and ownership of native animals.
Mr. Herron attended several public meetings, telling the attendees that he was interested in collecting data on the numbers of animals taken from the wild over a period of years to see if there was any impact on populations. Many suggestions were offered from the herp community, as well as those making money from taking and selling large quantities of native animals from the wild, and from the backers of rattlesnake roundups. He apparently had already formed his regulations and was going through the motions of public hearings to appease the commissioners, for the regulations reflect none of the input.
What the regulations do is to put severe restraints on trade in captive born animals while exempting some of the more blatant killers and takers of native animals. The information TPWD will collect will be minimal. Had they stuck to what they told the public, that they merely wanted to know how many animals were being taken from the wild each year, I would have no problem with the proposals. However, this was not the case. The proposals are a first step in seriously curtailing the trade in exotic animals.
Colorado has passed laws shutting down the trade in native herps. They have done it on the species level, so that almost any snakes found in the U.S. are now illegal to trade in Colorado.
Arizona allows anyone from out of state to come in and take non-protected species and do what they want with them, while the residents cannot dispose of offspring other than by giving them away. Isn't one of the best ways to protect an animal by allowing people to breed them in captivity and sell captive born offspring? Even stodgy Australia is coming to this conclusion.
We live in a free-market society. Most of us are not criminals. Most of us do not take animals illegally. Most of us just want to be left alone. The governments aren't cracking down on folks breeding budgies or finches, so why are they after us? I would really like to know.