Deadly snakes including King cobras, rattlesnakes and pit vipers are being sold openly at pet shops, posing a risk to public safety, vets and experts warn.
Current laws in the UK mean no licence is needed to buy snakes that’s capable of killing with just a single bite.
King cobras, gaboon vipers, pit vipers and rattlesnakes are all capable of causing death through venom.
But they’re among the creatures being sold perfectly legally to collectors by shops located on English high streets, an investigation by the journal Vet Record found.
These creatures are difficult for owners to manage at home and even vets lack the required expertise to treat them in the UK.
A king cobra snake, the world’s longest venomous snake.In 2011, a snake keeper, Luke Yeomans of Nottinghamshire, died of a king cobra bite
Now animal 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.
THE KING COBRA: A PRIMER
The king cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) is one of the most venomous snakes – and the world’s longest venomous snake.
Adult cobras reach lengths of 13 feet.
It is native to forests from India through Southeast Asia.
King cobras are shy and avoid humans when possible but are fearsome when provoked.
It will also flare out its iconic hood and emit a hiss that sounds almost like ‘a growling dog’.
Source: National Geographic
Limiting the trade of exotic animals could also help avoid another viral pandemic akin to the current coronavirus crisis, which is thought to have originated from an animal market.
‘BVZS believes that both 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,’ said BVZS president Peter Kettlewell.
Kettlewell also said that there aren’t any legal controls when it comes to purchasing venomous snakes in EU countries and bringing them into the UK.
Dangerous reptile species are given inadequate care, he added, as shown by high rates of those that are given to veterinary practices with diseases.
Many vets are not able to treat dangerous snakes, as it puts themselves and their staff at risk, as well as the animal.
Under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act (DWA) it’s legal to sell venomous snakes to people who don’t have a licence to keep them.
The legal responsibility goes to the new owners who are expected to register with their local councils.
But DWA licences can be issued retrospectively by councils, enabling reptile collectors to obtain venomous snakes before they become licensed, the RSPCA said.
A Southwestern speckled rattlesnake (Crotalus mitchelli pyrrhus), which is of the wider group of rattlesnakes.
The animal charity says 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.
Vet Record identified six high street stockists via an online search selling snakes –perfectly legally under current laws.
Rainforest Exotics in Ross-on-Wye was advertising king cobras, while Wight vipers on the Isle of Wight was advertising a Sri Lankan Pit Viper.
A gaboon viper, a species said to be ‘extremely venomous’, was advertised on the listings website Preloved by Staffordshire pet shop The Unconventional Menagerie.
Other businesses included Rattlesnake Canyon, which said it ‘can provide customers with a variety of animals including DWA animals’.
A gaboon viper (Bitis gabonica), an extremely venomous snake that has fangs up to 2 inches in length. A gaboon viper was advertised on the listings website Preloved by Staffordshire pet shop The Unconventional Menagerie
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, which itself depends greatly on the knowledge base of the keeper, how many vets will be keen to see it?,’ he said.
Snakes openly on sale included the king cobra – a snake that can kill, as shown in 2011 when snake keeper Luke Yeomans of Nottinghamshire died of a king cobra bite.
Others on sale included the Sri Lankan pit viper, the neo-tropical rattlesnake and the gaboon viper.
Vet Record argues that public attention following the coronavirus outbreak on the sale of exotic animals in Wuhan raises questions about the public health risks associated with the exotic animal trade in the UK, and the potential for diseases to jump species to humans.
‘If we want fewer exotic diseases to be imported into the UK going forward, perhaps we should rethink the keeping of exotic pets,’ it said.
At the last election, the three main political parties all included pledges to ban pet primates as part of their manifestos.
The Vet Record in an editorial said that at the past election, all three agreed it was time to ban the sale of monkeys in the UK, citing welfare concerns.
It said that ‘you could reasonably argue that venomous snakes are prime candidates for being next in line’.