By Alex Butler
Snakes were slung over visitors’ shoulders while chameleons clung to people’s hands nearby. These were common sights at Repticon’s stop at the Florida State Fairgrounds on Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 27 and 28. However, reptile conventions and captive breeding may end up being as rare as some of the animals being sold.
On Thursday, Feb. 25, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) passed a new reptile ban on the breeding and selling of 16 reptiles including invasive iguanas, Burmese pythons, and tegus. The new restrictions were met with disagreements between breeders, scientists, and government.
“It’s all lobbyists and bull–,” said 17-year-old Ian Dunshee who has been working with reptiles for eight years at Aquatic N Exotic.
FWC held a commission meeting that was open to the public to discuss the new reptile restrictions.
Stakeholders were able to call in to share their opinions. However, according to Dunshee, many reptile breeders never got to share theirs.
“[My coworker] was disconnected twice during the meeting on the vote… we were trying to speak and got cut off short… when lobbyists and government tried to speak, you’d hear them clearly.”
Anthony Caporale, owner of Rat Pack Feeders and Reptiles, shared a similar experience.
“We were told each caller would get three minutes to talk…the first seven callers [from the government] spoke for over 6 minutes,” said Caporale. “Ours were in line for six hours and got cut off.”
Caporale has been working with and breeding reptiles for 25 years. For him, it’s more than just a restriction dealing with the environment; it’s personal.
“If you’re going to put me in jail for having these animals then put me in jail,” said Caporale. “This is how I feed my family.”
The updates to the reptile restrictions allow owners of the newly banned species to keep the animals they currently have as long as they are not buying, inheriting, or selling those species.
While the new restrictions may seem like a personal attack for some, the state of certain Florida ecosystems may rely on it.
“Invasive species by definition have a negative impact,” said University of Tampa Biology professor Ron Rozar. “For instance, if we have a snake, let’s say it eats a rat, now that’s not available for a native snake so there’s more competition.”
Currently, removal programs such as FWC’s python patrol are in effect. The Python Patrol program is equipped with trained volunteers that find and euthanize invasive Burmese pythons.
When working as a regional federal program director in the Florida Keys, Rozar dealt with pythons and tegus. He also took part in removing pythons from the ecosystems.
“All the pythons that have been pulled out of Everglades National park… you’ll see every bird species, every mammal species, and even a few reptile species [in their stomach],” said Rozar. “We’ve documented particularly vulnerable species already declining in populations and we can attribute that to Burmese pythons.”
According to an article by the Miami Herald, the estimated python population in the Everglades was between 100,000 and 300,000 snakes in 2020.
Oftentimes, that snake population is attributed to released reptiles that served as pets.
“The way you lose an animal, you’d have to be an idiot,” said Caporale. “I’ve never lost an animal… and we [breeders] invest thousands of dollars into them, why would we release them.”
Reptile buyers have told Rozar in confidence that they have released pythons into the Everglades. Stating reasons like, “My fiancé isn’t comfortable around a large snake” and “Well I recently had a kid.”
Even as buying and breeding invasive reptiles is regulated, it may cause harm in more ways than one.
Caporale said, “You’re turning a reptile breeder into a drug dealer. Now everyone who wants to do this makes it a black market.”
Dunshee has already experienced declines in business as more regulations have been passed over the years.
“The tables used to be filled with glass [reptile enclosures] and now there’s hardly any,” said Dunshee. “It’s caused prices to go up… a couple of us are planning on moving to Michigan, we just can’t be here anymore, we have thousands of dollars invested into this.”
A statement by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) said, “The most severe declines in native species have occurred… where pythons have been established the longest. The mammals that have declined most significantly have been regularly found in the stomachs of Burmese Pythons.”
According to Rozar, invasive reptiles such as pythons and tegus could also spread north as temperatures increase from climate change. Effectively restricting their populations has been difficult due to hard to access areas and fluctuating funding.
“We need to be an ally to them [FWC] more than anything,” said Caporale. “This community could bind together and eradicate that population.”
To view the updates regarding high risk reptiles, visit: https://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/nonnatives/public-workshops/draft-rules/