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Dangerous snake laws need constricting

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By Josh Loeb and Shanin Leeming

Reptile welfare experts, including the British Veterinary Zoological Society (BVZS), want laws on keeping dangerous snakes tightened up, arguing that it is often impossible to provide such animals with veterinary care.

Their call follows a Vet Record investigation that found several venomous snake species being advertised for sale by pet shops (see opposite page).

King cobras, gaboon vipers, pit vipers and rattlesnakes – all capable of causing death through venom – are among the snakes being sold perfectly legally to collectors by shops located on English high streets.

Under the Dangerous Wild Animals (DWA) Act, it is not illegal to sell venomous snakes to people who do not have a licence to keep them – the legal onus is, instead, on the purchaser to have obtained a DWA licence from their local authority.

The RSPCA says it is concerned that DWA licences may sometimes be issued retrospectively by councils, thus enabling reptile collectors to obtain venomous snakes before they become licensed.

Some vets are also of the view that the practicalities of dealing with such dangerous animals mean it is often impossible to provide for their welfare needs. Veterinary Public Health Association council member Mike Jessop, who carries out pet shop inspections on behalf of several local authorities and has a professional interest in ‘non traditional’ pets, said: ‘In this day and age, veterinary medicine is not done by a single vet, it’s done by veterinary teams. So, you not only need a vet who’s prepared to deal with venomous snakes, you need a veterinary team that’s prepared to allow them into the building and able to handle them – because if they require treatment, the snakes would need to recover from anaesthetic and might need hospitalisation afterwards.

‘The issue therefore goes beyond just finding a vet who’s happy to deal with a venomous snake – it’s a case of finding a vet who’s prepared to allow them, under their insurance, onto veterinary premises. I can think of only about three such vets in the whole country. And yet these pet shops selling venomous snakes keep popping up.’

Reptile welfare biologist Clifford Warwick said he was amazed that venomous species were in stock on UK high streets.

If a health problem is identified in a dangerous snake, how many vets will be keen to see it?

‘If a health problem is identified in a dangerous snake, which itself depends greatly on the knowledge base of the keeper, how many vets will be keen to see it?’ he asked.

BVZS president Peter Kettlewell said: ‘It is currently legal for venomous snakes, and other dangerous animals, to be sold in the UK, without the need for a DWA licence. There are also no legal controls when venomous snakes are purchased in EU countries and brought into the UK.

‘Legally, a DWA licence is only required for animals held by private individuals once they are in the UK. Pet shops are currently excluded from the requirements of the DWA Act and are therefore able to keep dangerous species without a DWA licence. BVZS strongly believes the legislation should be changed to prevent this.’

Kettlewell added that, once venomous snakes are in private possession, access to appropriate veterinary care is ‘limited, as there are few vets willing and/or able to treat highly venomous snakes due to the human risks involved in handling such species.’

Any vets thinking of treating such species are advised by the BVZS to check their insurance cover accordingly.

‘The husbandry of reptiles is challenging, and even commonly kept reptile species kept in people’s homes are given inadequate care – as shown by the high proportion of reptiles presented to veterinary practices with husbandry-related diseases,’ Kettlewell said. ‘Providing good husbandry would be made more difficult in the case of venomous animals due to the challenges in handling and managing them safely.

‘BVZS believes that the keeping of dangerous species by private individuals is likely to compromise both animal welfare and human safety, and as such, the selling of such species to private individuals should be carefully regulated and restricted.’

The RSPCA this week told Vet Record that it is ‘deeply concerned’ about the number of venomous snakes being kept as pets, describing the DWA as ‘weakly drafted and poorly enforced’.

According to the charity, many owners ‘either don’t bother to get a licence or aren’t aware they need one, and are therefore escaping inspections.’

The Pet Industry Federation was approached but did not provide any comment.

The BVA is currently reviewing its position on non-traditional pets.

Vet Record asked several exotics vets this week whether they would deal with venomous snakes. Many said they would not, citing health and safety issues and a lack of access to antivenom.

What species have been found for sale legally in the UK?

King cobra (Ophiophagus hannah): The longest venomous snake in the world, the king cobra is known for its hood and can theoretically deliver enough neurotoxins in a single bite to kill several people. There are also reports of the species having delivered enough venom through its fangs to kill an elephant. Although naturally shy, the snake becomes fiercely aggressive when cornered. If a person is bitten, death can occur within as little as 30 minutes. In 2011, a snake keeper died from a king cobra bite in the UK. Zookeeper and TV presenter Mark O’Shea was also bitten by one at West Midland Safari Park.

Gaboon viper (Bitis gabonica): This viper is generally placid and there have been few documented cases of it biting people. However, the amount of venom this species produces can be more than enough to kill a person. Two years ago a case was reported in which a pet gaboon viper in South Korea bit its owner. The man’s life was saved after doctors administered a large dose of antivenom.

Sri Lankan pit viper (Trimeresurus trigonocephalus): Fatalities have not been recorded from bites from this species. However, human bite victims have been known to exhibit excessive limb swelling, haemorrhagic blisters and regional lymphadenopathy.

Neo-tropical rattlesnake: This name actually covers a group of related snake species, some of which have different venoms and so different clinical effects. One of the most common is the South American rattlesnake (Crotalus durissus). Its venom can cause kidney failure, which is secondary to muscle breakdown products clogging up the kidneys, but it seems the main ‘systemic’ effect of the venom is paralysis which, if severe, includes respiratory paralysis leading to death.

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