Saturday, July 07, 2001

Deadly vipers gaining in popularity

By Roger Alford
The Associated Press

        SLADE, Ky. — Some people who want fearsome pets are passing on pit bulls, opting instead for pit vipers and other deadly snakes that are readily available on the Internet.

        A snake expert from eastern Kentucky is finding that the buyers often get more than they bargained for.

        Jim Harrison chuckles when he tells of the man who ordered a 10-foot black mamba, which later got loose in his apartment. Mr. Harrison captured the venomous creature for the man.

        Such calls are coming more often as people purchase deadly snakes through unregulated sales, he says.

        Mr. Harrison, who operates the Kentucky Reptile Zoo at Slade, warns that people may be flirting with death when they order the exotic snakes.

        “One drop of venom from the black mamba could kill probably 200 people,” Mr. Harrison said. “They are the most notorious and dangerous snakes in the world.”

        Because Kentucky doesn't regulate ownership of venomous snakes, no estimates exist on their numbers. Some Kentucky counties, including Jefferson County, have local laws that restrict ownership, but most do not.

        Sgt. Ann Camp, an animal-control officer in Jefferson County, said she receives few complaints about captive snakes.

        “That's not to say we don't have them here,” she said. “We can't go out and check every house.”

        About 10 percent of the snakes at the reptile zoo in Slade came from homes where they wore out their welcomes. At prices ranging from $35 for a baby copperhead to $500 for a mature mamba, sales of poisonous snakes are proliferating on the Web. The going price for a cobra is about $150.

        “Owning these snakes becomes almost like ego gratification for some people,” Mr. Harrison said. “The easy availability of an animal doesn't mean it's a good thing to have.”

        Fascination with snakes draws about 50,000 people a year to the reptile zoo, which houses about 1,000 snakes from around the world, from giant pythons to pygmy rattlers. The zoo is one of few in the world that displays all four varieties of the mamba.

        William Bird, a herpetologist at the Louisville Zoo, said TV shows have added to the growing interest in snakes. Mr. Bird said interest in snakes and other reptiles skyrocketed after the Crocodile Hunter show began airing on the Discovery Channel.

        Children often ask Mr. Bird why he doesn't handle snakes like the people on TV do.

        “Television has basically turned these animals into toys,” Mr. Harrison said. “People think they can go out and pick them up and play with them.”

        Mr. Bird said Mr. Harrison, who has been bitten 14 times, knows what he's talking about when he warns people against buying venomous snakes to keep at home. Two of his snake bites were from cobras that nearly killed him despite quick injections of antivenin.

        “He knows what he's doing, and he's still bitten,” Mr. Bird said. “If you handle these animals, you will be bitten. That's just the way it is. People who buy these snakes don't only put themselves at risk. They put everyone who lives around them at risk. Snakes are master escape artists.”

        The escape of a spitting cobra in Moody, Ala., last month has had that city in an uproar ever since. With the snake still on the loose, the police department is providing traps to frightened residents and has announced a plan to airlift bite victims for medical treatment.

        An average of two people a year, Mr. Bird said, are bitten by exotic venomous snakes in Kentucky and Indiana.

        “Hospitals generally have antivenin serum for native snake bites, but exotics no one is prepared for. For some of these snakes there is no antivenin.”


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