Despite expected opposition from the state reptile keeper community, legislation advanced to a full House committee recently that would enhance penalties for illegally handling venomous reptiles.
“The increase in penalties serves as an effort to prevent the illegal trafficking of venomous reptiles, protect Florida’s environment and protect public safety,” DeFuniak Springs Republican Rep. Shane Abbott said to the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee.
HB 1161 sets the penalties for knowingly releasing, or letting escape through gross negligence, a nonnative reptile of concern to a Level Three violation. Knowingly releasing or letting escape through gross negligence a venomous reptile would be a Level Four violation.
Level Four violations are punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 and/or a term of imprisonment of no longer than five years. Level Three violations can result in a fine of up to $1,000 and a term of imprisonment of up to a year, if it’s the first such violation within the last 10 years.
If it’s a Level Three violation within 10 years of a similar or worse violation, the penalties also include a $750 mandatory minimum fine and revocation of the offender’s license or permit.
The current law isn’t doing the trick, Abbott said, when the bill came up in the House Agriculture, Conservation and Resiliency Subcommittee.
“The risk is worth the reward in this situation,” Abbott said at the time. “If the risk of importing, or buying or selling illegal venomous reptiles only comes with a small probation or a small fine, the reward outweighs it because many of these things are worth thousands of dollars.”
Reptile keepers are worried a lack of specification for nonnative species, along with allowances for studies of the snakes in the wild, or trapping and relocation of venomous reptiles, could halt needed work or put people with the best of intentions on the wrong side of the law.
“If applied in the way it is read, any permittee would not be able to legally capture and relocate or release captured study animals,” said Tony Daly-Crews, founder of the Rattlesnake Conservancy.
Advocates noted prior fieldwork conducted on venomous snakes by Stetson University and the University of Central Florida (UCF).
“Venomous snakes play a valuable role in the ecology of Florida’s last remaining wild regions,” said Daniel Parker, an environmental scientist and formerly of UCF. “Research on the ecology of native venomous snake species is necessary to understand the ecosystem as a whole. Without exceptions in the language of the bill, that valuable research is threatened.”
The subcommittee unanimously passed the bill, which now awaits action in the House Infrastructure Strategies Committee.