The General Assembly Must Amend Existing Law and Ban or Regulate Non-Native Venomous Snakes in NC

In 2017, the North Carolina General Assembly directed the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources and N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission to 1) jointly study and develop a list of potential designated representatives for the storage and safekeeping of reptiles regulated under G.S. Chapter 14 Article 55, and 2) study and develop recommendations for potential procedural and policy changes to improve the regulation of certain reptiles pursuant to Article 55 of Chapter 14. Although the report was prepared and submitted on December 31, 2017, over three years have passed and the General Assembly has failed to amend the law.

The report stated that in 1949 when Article 55 was passed, the law was designed to prevent the unsafe handling of native venomous snakes in public spaces during religious events. The report noted: “With current technology, it is now possible to order a variety of potentially dangerous animals from all over the globe and have them shipped to one’s door.”

The report noted the significant danger inherent in the easy procurement of non-native venomous snakes. (1) The increasing number of people improperly keeping these snakes leads to increased violations of the law and (2) the need for the investigation and involvement by NC Museum of Natural Sciences, NC Zoo employees, and law enforcement officers who must handle and transport these dangerous snakes. The investigatory personnel is then put at risk for venomous snake bites by non-native snakes for which there is no locally available antivenom.1

The current NC law requires only that venomous snakes must be housed in a sturdy and secure enclosure. Enclosures must be designed to be escape-proof and bite-proof, have an operable lock, and be properly labeled. (NCGS § 14-417). If the snake escapes, the owner must notify the local law enforcement immediately. Violation results in a Class 2 Misdemeanor. If the snake harms or kills a person outside of the possessor’s family, the penalty is an A1 misdemeanor. If the possessor intentionally releases the venomous snake, the penalty is an A1 misdemeanor.

Other states typically favor either a complete ban on ownership of non-native venomous snakes or legal possession with a permit or license. North Carolina has no state prohibition and leaves it up to the individual counties to ban the snakes. Only North Carolina and several other unregulated states have no pre-requisites or limitations to non-venomous snake ownership.2

The General Assembly must immediately act to amend the existing law on possession of non-native venomous snakes. Without a doubt, the safest course of action for the public as well as for the enforcement personnel is a complete ban on possession of non-native venomous snakes.

Alternatively, should the General Assembly refuse to ban these “pets,” at a minimum, the 2017 report’s recommendations must be considered as well as the imposition of a permit or license requirement with periodic inspections, felony penalties for death or injury due to an escaped snake, substantial fines and restitution for all costs incurred in the capture, care, and boarding of the snake while civil and or criminal charges are pending. Additionally, the law should mandate humane enclosures and require training as a prerequisite to the issuance of any permit or license.

Permit or License Requirements
Under Tennessee law, venomous snakes are deemed “inherently dangerous” and permit applicants must have at least two years experience in the handling or care of the Class I species for which the applicant is applying, or, in the alternative, must take a written examination, developed and administered by the agency, evidencing basic knowledge of the habits and requirements, in regard to proper diet, health care, exercise needs and housing of the species to be covered by the permit, and has a protocol in place should the venomous snake escape. The possessor must live on-site or have a resident caretaker and the property size must be no less than one acre for a personal possession permit and three (3) acres for a commercial propagator facility permit, and may not be located in a multi-unit dwelling or trailer park. (Tenn. Code Annot. § 70-4-401, §70-4-403, and §70-4-404)

In Florida, permit applicants must provide a complete inventory of reptiles, have at least 1,000 hours of experience for each family of venomous reptiles requested, maintain an incident/disaster plan and a venomous reptile bite protocol, and provide at least two references, one of whom must have a venomous reptile permit. Those seeking the license must pay a fee of $100 and also have a bond of $10,000.

Periodic Inspections of Permitted Snakes
Florida law forbids possession of venomous snakes unless the owner has obtained a special permit or license from the Fish and Wildlife Commission. The commission conducts periodic inspections to determine whether the snakes are securely and properly penned. (F.S.A. 379.372(1)). Failure to abide by the regulations results in revocation of the permit or license, a violation of the criminal statute, and an assessment of the costs associated with or incurred due to the capture, transport, boarding, veterinary care are due upon the finding of guilt of any criminal or civil violation of the law. (F.S.A. 379.401).

Humane Enclosure Restrictions
Indiana law requires that a venomous snake of less than 6’ long be allocated an enclosure not less than 1.5 times the length of the snake and snakes 6’ long and above be allocated an enclosure of at least 2 times the length of the snake. Additional requirements for cage materials, features, and locks are specified in the statute. (312 Ind. Admin. Code 9-11-13.5.)

In summary, the NC General Assembly must act immediately to protect the public from these dangerous reptiles by enacting a complete ban on non-native venomous snakes. If the legislature refuses to ban the snakes, they must ensure public safety by considering the concerns enunciated in the 2017 REPORT TO THE NORTH CAROLINA ENVIRONMENTAL REVIEW COMMISSION ON CHAPTER 14, ARTICLE 55 OF THE NORTH CAROLINA GENERAL STATUTES: SUBMITTED JOINTLY BY THE NORTH CAROLINA DEPARTMENT OF NATURAL AND CULTURAL RESOURCES AND NORTH CAROLINA WILDLIFE RESOURCES COMMISSION as well as requiring a strict permit or licensing protocol with periodic, random inspections, require humane enclosures, hold possessors of snakes to best practices for snake maintenance and handling and increase civil and criminal penalties for violations of the law.

No longer can public safety be jeopardized by persons such as Christopher Gifford, owner of 75 snakes and the recently escaped venomous spitting Zebra Cobra. One needs only to watch one of Mr. Gifford’s TikToc videos to recognize the inherent danger of permitting non-native venomous snakes to be possessed by the public.

1 “A point of major concern to the agencies and individuals involved in Article 55 violations over the years has been the quantity and variety of venomous snakes encountered that has no locally available antivenom (often not even available in nearby states). This increases the agencies’ concern about the safety and welfare of their employees and the public.” (Id., at p.7)
2 Nebraska, New Mexico, South Carolina, and Wisconsin also have no requirements.