Adult female Northern African Rock Python (Python sebae). The animal lives in captivity.

Adult female Northern African Rock Python (Python sebae). The animal lives in captivity.

Finding homes for snakes gets harder

Maple Ridge vet rethinks adopting out large reptiles

A Maple Ridge vet who treats exotic animals may stop adopting out large snakes and reptiles following the deaths of two young boys in New Brunswick.

“It’s something I’m going to have to reconsider,” said Dr. Adrian Walton, a veterinarian at Dewdney Animal Hospital.

He has found homes for 20 snakes since B.C. banned many exotic species three years ago.

Walton hasn’t had many pleasant encounters with African rock pythons, the species of snake which strangled the brothers Sunday while they slept.

“Rock pythons can be more than a little bit grumpy, unfortunately,” he says.

He’s only treated a rock python twice in Maple Ridge, but frequently worked with them while in the United States.

“My first experience with an African rock python was an 18-footer that required seven or eight people to move it from one cage to another. That was not a pleasant snake,” he adds.

The African rock python is popular with reptile enthusiasts. They can bought online for $100 or $200 or at a reptile show across the border and smuggled into the province.

People are allowed to have larger snakes as pets in B.C., but owners need to have permission.

There are 61 registered python owners in B.C., according to the  Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations. That includes 40 kept as pets, 16 for commercial filming, four at zoos or aquariums and one for research.

Walton believes it’s important to distinguish between the owners – experts like him who keep reptiles and find them incredibly interesting, and others who want a big snake to make them, in his words, look tough.

“The tough guy image is a joke. I can handle up to a 12-foot python, but I also collect Star Wars figures,” says Walton.

Although he is an expert at handling reptiles and has a permit, he rarely brings them home.

He has housed Nile monitor lizards at his family home in the past three years but they are kept in secure cages in a locked room.

With a five-year-old daughter at home and another child on the way, if Walton must care for a rescue snake, he’ll only take home one that’s shorter than two metres. He wouldn’t bring home a rock python, a snake that can easily overwhelm its handler.

“Nothing that could potentially harm my family comes home,” he says.

Snakes, however, rarely kill people. Since 1990, 12 people have died from constrictor snake-related incidents in the United States (17 deaths since 1978). To Walton’s knowledge, there have been none in Canada before the Cambellton, N.B. tragedy.

“Compare that to the 20-plus people a year that are killed by horses. This is extraordinarily rare,” he said.

Walton adds most python owners know how to care for the snakes, but the enclosures they are kept in are usually too small.

“You need to devote a whole room of your house to this animal. The standard rule of care is the length of the animal dictates the width and length of the enclosure.”

Although he’s found good homes for the snakes who’ve been abandoned by their owners, Walton is now a little uncomfortable with people keeping them as pets, even those with expertise.

He’s still caring for a six-foot long albino Burmese python that was found in Chilliwack in June.

The snakes and reptiles that don’t find homes get euthanized.

“I try to make sure I get qualified people to look after them,” he said.

“It’s going to be an interesting experience down the road. Do I give these snakes up to people?”

Penalties for breeding or releasing a controlled alien species into the wild range from fines of $2,500 to  $250,000 or two years in prison.

Owning a reptile that’s on the controlled species list without a permit could land you a $100,000 fine and one year in prison.