20 July 2012

In Support of Keeping Large Boids

By Tony Jones

Readers may have seen the 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.

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.

Home Accident Surveillance Scheme (2002)

AnimalHome AccidentsNational est
Dog312564,063
Cat73215,006
Equine1693,465
Reptile16328

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."

  • 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

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%
  9. Other (transport) 2.6%
  10. 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 available here.

First published: Practical Reptile Keeping Magazine 2011


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