Venomous Reptiles and the Private Keeper

Venomous reptiles and the private keeper

(Photo courtesy: Beanie Villermin) Photo demonstrates a "lock-box" which is a safe method of containing this black mamba inside of its enclosure

(Photo courtesy: Beanie Villermin)
Photo demonstrates a “lock-box” which is a safe method of containing this black mamba inside of its enclosure

A very “hot” topic in the world of reptile keepers, are the captive husbandry and collection of venomous reptiles by the private sector. As more and more regulation of the private sector continues to emerge, venomous reptile keepers tend to be almost always first to be added to the chopping block. Let’s face facts, even of those of the general public who are okay with non-venomous reptiles, venomous reptiles tend to still create some unease. The reason for this is simple…many venomous reptiles are capable of delivering a single bite, which can result in death of the recipient. That thought process creates a deep-seated fear in many people, which results in theirwillingness to support bans of their private possession. In their minds, it only makes sense. However, these individuals fail to understand the whole picture. Their fear enables them to only look at the scenario with a narrow scope of vision.

It must be said, first and foremost, that private keeping of venomous reptiles should not be a decision to be taken lightly by anyone considering the task. It requires at the very least, advanced knowledge of reptile husbandry and handling to adequately prepare you for the behavior of the venomous reptile in question. In addition to the prerequisite experience, it also requires access to proper tools (hooks, tongs, shields, and securely lockable caging), secure building/room as a secondary barrier to prevent escape, and a contingency plan for the unfortunate event of getting bit. Part of that contingency plan means knowing which hospital carries the antivenom for the species you’re keeping, as well as having access to a proper bite treatment protocol drafted by a medical professional well versed in toxicology and animal venoms.

While the above listed necessities of venomous reptile keepers don’t necessarily come easily or quickly to everyone, there are those who CAN and DO possess them. Of course, this brings those who do not have said experience or even an interest, to question why someone would want to keep venomous reptiles in the first place. The answer to that is likely a little different for everyone. While it comes as no surprise that there are some who jump into keeping venomous reptiles for the “thrill”, there are many who truly have an intense interest and appreciation for them. For some, a snake is a snake. For others, venomous reptiles represent a new level of beauty and biological genius. However, there’s another element to be considered.

Venoms of different organisms from around the globe have been found to provide a number of medicinal benefits. For instance, a protein found in the venom of the Dusky Pygmy Rattlesnake (Sistrurus miliarius barbouri), has been used for well over a decade in a heart attack response medication known as Eptifibatide. This is far from being the only example, but the point remains that venoms have proven effective in treating a fairly sizeable number of human afflictions. The question that now begs to be answered is, how does one come across acquiring venom to use in medical research? Well, that’s where all of the “oddballs” who enjoy keeping and working with venomous reptiles come into play. Many think that zoos would be the primary contributors for this purpose. The truth of the matter is that most zoos do not have wide enough species availability nor the quantity needed in order to provide sufficient venom quantities to laboratories. The focus of zoos are for species conservation and research. Aside from a sample from a rare species, they do not have the manpower, housing space or the desire to subject their keepers to the risk of being bitten for this line of work.  The researchers themselves rarely house specimens of their own, as most of them are purely researchers and are not well versed or experienced in either reptile husbandry or safe venomous reptile handling.

While it’s true that not all venomous reptile keepers help provide venom to laboratories (that requires a whole new level of housing facility and equipment), many do still provide captive bred specimens to some of these milking facilities. Some of these facilities breed their own as well, but where do you expect that these individuals gained the experience and knowledge of captive production of these animals, had they not been able to work with them on a private basis?  There are no colleges that teach venomous reptile husbandry and handling. While there are some training courses sparingly available, most of them are operated by private keepers with many years of experience and the facilities to maintain them. Some zoological institutions may send their employees to professional seminars designed to teach venomous reptile handling and safety, yet these only serve zoo purposes which as we stated above usually don’t contribute a great deal to medical science in regards to large quantities of venom.

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Photo courtesy of Tim Cole of Austin Reptile Service displaying proper caging standards of venomous reptiles.

Again, we are back to the private keeper. No industry is perfect. Mistakes can be made, but for the majority of venomous reptile keepers, their responsibilities are taken seriously and precautions are taken to ensure that their charges are maintained as safely and professional as humanly possible. Venomous reptiles do not have any magical powers. They’re not really capable of any amazing feats that others snakes aren’t capable of. They don’t teleport, they don’t breathe fire and they won’t huff and puff and blow your house down. They can still be maintained securely using many of the same cages that non-venomous reptiles can. However, as a safety precaution, venomous reptile keeps keep their charges in LOCKED cages so that only they may have access to them and the enclosures are built from solid, not easily broken materials to ensure the animal cannot exploit weaknesses in the structure to escape.

Just as you would very angrily protest being banned from driving your automobile due to the actions of another driver, banning responsible private venomous reptile keepers due to the actions of a couple irresponsible keepers is wrong.  The responsible keepers may very well help contribute to ensuring that your loved ones may receive access to a life-saving medication that their animals may help to develop. Again, we don’t encourage rushing into keeping venomous reptiles for the average keeper.  In the wrong hands, they can be dangerous…but primarily to the keeper themselves. In the right hands, they can be valuable and life-saving animals. Do you want to be the person who decides that the next potential person providing valuable to medical research laboratories is not fit to keep these animals because of your personal fear? Is it worth it to potentially impact the future of medical science, simply because others don’t have the same appreciation for these animals as another? That is truly what this boils down to. While we make no claim that everyone involved in keeping venomous reptiles does so because of their interest in venom production, it is not our place to make that judgment call. Those who make mistakes and put others at risk should be held accountable, no different than if they had performed the deed themselves. Until that time, freedom should always win.

As a recap, these are the measures taken by any responsible venomous reptile keeper:

  • Secure, escape proof room or building that is locked to prevent access to people who shouldn’t have access.
  • Each enclosure containing a venomous reptile should have signage stating that a venomous reptile is contained within the enclosure and what species it is. Also, the type of antivenom used for treatment is a recommended thing to include on the information tag.
  • Each handler should have a secondary containment system for housing the animals while they perform enclosure maintenance (cleaning, providing fresh water, changing heat bulbs, etc.) that is escape proof and easy to manipulate the animal in. A lock-top trash can works fine and is commonly used in AZA accredited zoological institutions.
  • The keeper should have knowledge of where their closest source of antivenom for the species they are keeping is located, as well as a bite treatment protocol designed for the individual species in question. Sometimes, these treatments and antivenoms used can be “polyvalents” which treat multiple species. Much like Crofab does for native US rattlesnakes, cottonmouths and copperheads.

For an idea of what actual venom extraction laboratories do, check out two of the largest extraction laboratories in the nation: The Kentucky Reptile Zoo in Slade, KY and the Reptile Discovery Center in DeLand, FL.

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