Despite an aggressive lobbying effort by state reptile keepers, a new set of laws will go into effect increasing penalties for illegal handling of venomous reptiles, thanks to the signature of Gov. Ron DeSantis.
HB 1161, which 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.
Florida’s six native venomous reptiles are all snakes — the pygmy rattlesnake, the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, the timber rattlesnake, cottonmouths, copperheads and the eastern coral snake.
Timber rattlesnakes and copperheads are found only in the Panhandle, while the other snakes are seen throughout the state, except for some places in the Keys.
Reptile keepers expressed concern that lack of a nonnative specification with the venomous reptile language would put needed work at risk. That led to subsequent amendments to both the Senate bill (SB 1266) and the House version to include that language.
The bills also come during tensions between the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and the reptile keeper community, following the killing of nearly three dozen pythons and a pet boa constrictor on April 6.
However, a reptile keepers’ organization came out against the legislation, especially regarding the term gross negligence.
“This is a bill that gives more power to FWC’s law enforcement and prosecutors,” Daniel Parker of the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers Florida told the Senate Committee on Rules.
“Whatever its intent, we believe the original language of this bill would’ve led to the deaths of native snakes as it criminalized their humane relocation, which is why we supported the amendment that specified that only nonnative species would be subject to increased penalties.”
The issue of gross negligence also prompted a question on the House floor.
“Gross negligence would be mishandling or misappropriation of how you store those animals in a way that would allow them to get free,” DeFuniak Springs Republican Rep. Shane Abbott said before HB 1161 passed the House.
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 prison term 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.
“Newer invasive reptiles tend to be large-bodied lizards and snakes,” according to a House staff analysis.
“They are relatively early maturing prolific breeders, are predators of vertebrate prey, and thrive in a wide range of habitats. These newer invasive reptiles were mostly introduced through the pet trade and included the Burmese python, black spiny-tailed iguana, Argentine black and white tegu, and Nile monitor.”
Should you have reason to seek out and acquire a venomous reptile, there is a permitting process in place through the FWC. To qualify, applicants must be at least 18 years old and hold no violations of wildlife or animal crimes including no violations of animal importation laws within the past three years.
People also need at least one year of “substantial practical experience” caring for creatures in the same biological family as the species listed in the application.
Additional permits are required to import nonnative venomous reptiles and the selling of any venomous reptile.