Burmese Pythons: Myths, Rumors, and Misunderstandings

Are you afraid of snakes?

If you said “yes,” then you share a trait with 51% of people in the United States. According to a national poll, more people fear snakes than speaking in public, heights, small spaces, even death itself!1

This may not be a surprise, but what is hard to believe is how advocacy groups and the media use this fear to get you to believe all sorts of things.

Especially about snakes.

I don’t blame them. Scary stories about pythons ensnaring their owners from a shower curtain or urban legends about big snakes measuring themselves against a toddler to size them up for a meal all make good copy. Who’s going to question these stories? Fear can make the most far-fetched situations seem plausible.

But that’s okay. The fact that you’re reading this means that you’re willing to listen. People have been interacting with snakes for decades in this nation, even with snakes as large and exotic as Burmese Pythons. We're here to clear up some of this misdirection that, however innocent in its inception, has led to some widely held myths that simply don’t hold up under scrutiny.

Myths, Rumors and Misunderstandings (and explanations of why they are!)

Burmese Pythons are dangerous animals.

They’re no more dangerous than any other animal. In fact: horses are responsible for the deaths of over 400 people each year. 800,000 people are bitten by dogs so severely that they need to go to the hospital. Yet in the last three decades, large constricting snakes (pythons and boas) were responsible for only 0.5 deaths each year.2

Even if they’re not dangerous, they’re wild animals and should be left in the jungle.


EVERY domesticated animal was once a wild animal. The word domesticated means they’ve been bred to interact well with humans. There have been decades of selective breeding in captivity to achieve the same end with Burmese Pythons.

But surely they’re impractical pets.

Impracticality is in the eye of the beholder. Owning a Great Dane is, perhaps, more impractical than a goldfish, but that shouldn’t preclude anyone from owning one given that they understand precisely what they’re getting into.  Snakes are sedentary animals. Their living space requirements are minimal compared to mammals and, given the size of the snake, they can be fed anywhere from once a week to once a month.

Burmese Pythons are overpopulating the Florida Everglades.

One study by a group of scientists tagged a number of pythons and found that 90% of them died in the unusually cold winter of January 2010. 3 So once again, the word “overpopulation” is somewhat subjective. Given the fact that Burms don’t belong in the American wilderness, even one python could be considered overpopulous. But the implication is unsustainable and uncontrollable growth, and this simply hasn’t been the case.

Irresponsible pet owners have been releasing pythons into the Everglades for years!

Almost every python found in the Florida wild has been found to have similar genetic traits. One study concludes that these animals all came from the same breeding pool. It’s not widely known that in 1994 Hurricane Andrew destroyed one of the largest reptile  breeding and research facilities in the state, located right next to the Everglades, allowing a large number of exotic reptiles into the wild.4 Perhaps a few people throughout the years have released their pets into the wetlands, but the problem  has been blown out of proportion for the sake of headlines.

The pythons have ravaged the wildlife in the Everglades. They’re killing off endangered species!


The original report indicated that there were more  snakes present in one area than in years past and that there were less small mammals (raccoons, squirrels, etc). However, correlation is not causation. A paper has been written to challenge this claim, stating that many of these mammals have had their habitat destroyed through the growing sugar cane industry or the ever expanding infrastructure.5

But it’s hard to lay blame on hard-working Americans or sacrifice the creation of  jobs for wildlife. On the other hand, it’s very easy - satisfying even - to blame big, scary snakes and the “weirdos” who own them.

Even so, I still don’t think anyone should own a large snake as a pet.

You are entitled to your opinion. However, this nation was built on the premise that each individual has the right to say, own, or do anything so long as it doesn’t interfere with the rights of others.

The Georgia Reptile Society also contends that caring for these snakes in captivity has a profound effect on the conservation of a species as a whole. To put it another way: McDonald’s isn’t going to let cows go extinct so long as they have a stock in their survival. Well, reptile breeders often have emotional stock invested in their animals just like any other pet owner. Burmese pythons are a threatened species in their native habitats, but captive  breeding is a deliberate effort in keeping this species from vanishing.

You see, animals like Burmese Pythons get a bad rap because they resonate so widely in the public psyche as “dangerous.” Many animal rights groups with a lot of political pull have placed themselves in direct opposition of the existence of exotic snakes in this country for reasons that range from the misguided to the dishonest. It’s only by meeting a snake face to face that you can tell whether or not all the hype is true.

The Georgia Reptile Society doesn’t expect everyone to love snakes like we do. However, we wish to impart a sense of tolerance towards these animals that are so misunderstood. They are beautiful creatures that deserve our respect and protection. And for those who wish to keep these animals as pets, as long as they are responsible, there is nothing unsafe about it!

 

References:

1. http://www.gallup.com/poll/1891/snakes-top-list-americans-fears.asp

2. Death Records provided by NEISS, pet population compiled by AVMA

3. http://usark.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Animal%20Related%20Fatalities.pdf

4. http://usark.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/FloridaBurmGenetics.pdf

5. http://usark.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Barker_Burmese-MammalDeclineENP_BCHS47-4.pdf


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Copyright 2013 Georgia Reptile Society.