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A Florida bill to increase penalties over releasing or selling venomous reptiles now exempts natives

 This juvenile Florida Cottonmouth was captured, tagged, and released as part of a University of Central Florida research project.
Daniel Parker
This juvenile Florida Cottonmouth was captured, tagged, and released as part of a University of Central Florida research project.

Companion bills moving through the Florida Legislature would increase penalties for the illegal selling or releasing of venomous reptiles, but advocates recently pushed for an amendment to exempt native species.

Daniel Parker, the director of media for the United States Association of Reptile Keepers Florida, said the original wording of the legislation would have made the releasing of live, native venomous snakes for conservation, humane relocation, or research a third-degree felony. It’s a misdemeanor under current law to release or sell nonnative venomous reptiles.

“If somebody has a snake in their yard, say a rattlesnake, an experienced person can come remove that and release it nearby. And this a lot of times will keep the snake from getting killed," Parker said. "So, we're really concerned about the maybe unintentional impacts that the law would have on native venomous snakes.”

Without experienced relocators, Parker said residents trying to do it themselves would be at risk.

“A very high percentage of the venomous snake bites that happen are from people intentionally trying to kill snakes or handle them. Completely accidental bites are pretty rare,” Parker said.

 Eastern coral snake, one of six venomous snakes native to Florida.
Eastern coral snake, one of six venomous snakes native to Florida.

A variety of conservation groups and academic institutions — including Florida Gulf Coast University, University of Central Florida, Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, Ashton Biodiversity Research and Preservation Institute, The Rattlesnake Conservancy, Bear Warriors United, and USARK FL — expressed concern about this legislation.

After receiving a flurry of phone calls from concerned citizens, House bill sponsor Rep. Shane Abbott (R-DeFuniak Springs) told the association that the measures would be amended to exclude native species, according to Parker.

“This amendment was very important, because otherwise the language of the bill would have endangered research," Parker said. "I've done a lot of venomous snake research with University of Central Florida. And because I'm a licensed handler of venomous snakes, and keeper of venomous snakes, I'm allowed to do this research.”

"We might trap venomous snakes or catch them, tag them and release them so we can see where they're going, where they're moving. We might implant a transmitter and follow the snake around in the woods to see what its home range is like. So, there are a lot of reasons why you would want to release a venomous snake for research."

HB 1161 and SB 1266 were written by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Although, the agency declined to comment on why this legislation is needed at this time, Parker made an educated guess.

“They wrote the language, they announced it as a legislative initiative, and they lobbied for it right before they announced the Operation Viper, which was a two-year investigation that they did,” Parker said.

“They made some busts on people who were allegedly illegally selling venomous snakes. So, under the current law, those are violations are just misdemeanors. And actually, there were no felonies issued in this investigation related to animal violations.”

Parker believes that Operation Viper created an opportunity in the future to issue felony penalties rather than just misdemeanors.

The House bill is currently in front of the full chamber, the Senate bill needs to go through one more committee before moving to the full Senate.

Rep. Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Copyright 2023 WUSF 89.7. To see more, visit WUSF 89.7.

Jessica Meszaros is a reporter and host of All Things Consideredfor WGCU News.
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