Why I don’t keep venomous snakes

Temple Viper

I’ve since heard from the owner of the Gaboon viper that was seized in Toronto last week, who wrote to explain the situation from their point of view and their background and philosophy with respect to venomous snake keeping. I wrote back to say good luck sorting everything out, but also that I didn’t agree with keeping venomous snakes in an apartment in a large city.

Even though I think venomous snakes are very interesting, and have several friends and acquaintances who keep venomous snakes (“hot” snakes or “hots,” in herpers’ jargon), I will never keep any myself. Here are my reasons why.

1. They’re illegal. I try to stay on the right side of the law as much as possible. In Quebec, venomous snakes are illegal across the province; elsewhere in Canada, they may be subject to prohibitions at the municipal level; I can’t think of a major city that doesn’t ban them.

As a result, when people keep venomous snakes in defiance of the law, they have to be ridiculously secretive about it. They tend to be very coy about revealing their addresses or indeed the exact numbers and species they keep. They also tend to live in one of those few municipalities where venomous snakes aren’t banned, and to keep quiet about it for fear that they will be banned as soon as their presence is discovered. And they tend to socialize mostly with other venomous snake keepers, because anyone who knows what you keep and where you live is a security risk — someone who could rat you out later on if your relationship turns sour. Hanging out with people who also keep hots ensures trust in a mutually assured destruction kind of way.

If a venomous snake collection is discovered, as my correspondent found out, it’s guaranteed to get media attention. Technically, you’re in less legal trouble than if the authorities caught you with a grow op or a meth lab, but that’s not nearly as newsworthy, in a man-bites-dog sense, as someone who keeps cobras or puff adders in a small apartment. Those who claim that there’s no such thing as bad press has never found themselves tut-tutted on the national news because their saw-scaled viper got loose. And, by the way, I’ve observed that the people who tend to get into this kind of trouble do not do well with the media. (I have a media background, and even I wouldn’t be able to brazen my way out of this sort of thing.)

A substantial part of the enjoyment I get from snake-keeping is being able to share what I learn — to blog about them, to write articles, to post photos. I couldn’t do that nearly as easily if the snakes I kept were venomous. I’d certainly have to do it anonymously, or be invisible to my community. So there’s no point in doing so, from that point of view.

2. They’re fucking dangerous. I know, I know: duh. But it bears repeating and emphasizing, because I think a lot of people haven’t quite internalized just how dangerous they are. Like many exotic animals, venomous snakes can lull you into a false sense of security — by which I mean that because they don’t try to kill you at every opportunity, it’s possible for a beginning keeper to go some time before getting into trouble. You can make a mistake a dozen times before that same mistake gets you bitten (or, again to use the lingo, “tagged”). As any experienced hot keeper will tell you, it’s not a matter of if, but when. If you keep hots, you will, at some point, get bitten.

Then what? Antivenom costs thousands of dollars per vial, and it can take dozens of vials to treat a particularly nasty bite. And each vial has an expiry date, so this is an ongoing expenditure. This assumes, as well, that an effective antivenom exists for the weirdo exotic hot snake you keep: African bush vipers (Atheris), for example, have none, and antivenoms for other species aren’t necessarily effective.

You also have to own your own antivenom, because you can’t expect your local hospital to keep exotic antivenoms for snakes found halfway around the world. In Canada, the only hospitals to keep antivenom in stock are those where rattlesnakes are found; they’re meant for people who get tagged by a massasauga at the cottage, not people who had an oopsie with their pet fer-de-lance. So unless you have your own, they have to fly it in from another location, and try, in the meantime, to prevent you from dying on them. This is exciting enough with neurotoxic venom, which shuts down your autonomic systems and puts you on a ventilator; it’s a lot more fun with hemotoxic venom, which melts the flesh off your bones.

And then, when you’ve fully recovered, you discover that your health insurance, public or otherwise, doesn’t cover some or all of your medical costs (such as, for example, that $25,000 in antivenom). And that doesn’t even cover the liability you face if your snake bites someone else. (Which happens more often than you might think: “Hey, check out my viper!” NOM! “Oh, shit!”)

Me, I’m kind of averse to pain, mutilation, death, spending tens thousands of dollars on antivenom, and getting sued for every penny I own.

3. I don’t need to do it. A lot of snake keepers have this funny idea that keeping hots is something you graduate to — that keeping non-venomous snakes is only something you do for practice until you get to the main event. This is not helped by certain hot keepers who act like they’re God’s gift, lording it over the rest of us chickenshits who stick to colubrids and pythons.

Seriously, guys: you’re not helping the rest of us. Bad enough that the first question we always get is whether what we keep is poisonous. (Answer: “Of course not. We’re crazy, not stupid.”) It’s not fun having to reassure friends, landlords, building inspectors, town councillors and the like that everything we have is safe, friendly and tame — and that that’s all we’re interested in.

Honestly, we need to get over this fascination with deadly snakes simply because they are deadly. There are plenty of interesting snakes out there that not only can’t hurt you, they wouldn’t want to if they could. There are snakes out there that are the tamest animals you could ever encounter in the wild. The fact that they’re tame and safe does not make them uninteresting. But, unfortunately, the people making wildlife documentaries don’t seem to agree — and I have to admit that a snake just sitting there, hanging out, doesn’t make for great television. But you know what else makes for great television? Awesome explosions (see also: half of the Discovery Channel’s prime time programming). Thing is, I don’t necessarily want some of that in my spare bedroom. See what I mean?

If you get off on facing death, I’d rather you do something else. Get a motorcycle or something.

Now, as I said earlier, I have several friends and acquaintances who keep venomous snakes. What do I have to say about that?

I’m reassured by the fact that the hot keepers I know well are extremely responsible and careful about it — not least because any mistake they make could be terminal for them, and make things difficult for their friends. While they’d be the first to advocate a permit system like Florida’s, they self-regulate as best as they can. Experienced keepers mentor the beginners to make sure they learn the proper procedures, which include the right way to use hooks, grab sticks, restraining tubes and trap boxes, and proper caging and security (i.e., “an escape-proof cage in an escape-proof room,” as one put it).

The problem is that not everyone gets into this mentoring system. Experienced hot keepers will be the first to tell you that it’s too damn easy to get a deadly snake. A few years ago, when I was paying closer attention to such things, I knew where to go and who to talk to if I wanted to buy a cobra, mamba or bushmaster. Young hotshots who don’t want to learn from their elders, or who aren’t willing to wait, don’t have to. The mentoring system only works if the experienced hot keepers are the gatekeepers who can determine who gets access to the hots. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. It’s more democratic — who appointed these guys as arbiters of who does and doesn’t play with deadly snakes? — but it means that a lot of dolts get in over their heads.

In the absence of a permit system for venomous snake keeping that is legally enforceable, our choice is between unfettered access, mitigated somewhat by municipal ordinances, and a complete and total ban. Truth be told, there isn’t much political capital to be had in creating a permit system — there just aren’t enough people doing it. (What can I say? More people smoke pot than keep copperheads.) But enough people do it that occasionally one of them, whether they’re a n00b or someone a bit more experienced and responsible — which, to be fair, is what my correspondent sounds like — gets in the news.