DUNEDIN — A proposed ban thought to be aimed at protecting city residents from an infestation of large constrictor snakes, like Burmese pythons and anacondas that have devastated animal populations across the Everglades, has riled critics across the nation.
Dunedin has always prohibited venomous snakes.
But while reviewing city ordinance language for updates or additions, a citizens advisory group called the Charter Review Committee recommended adding a clause prohibiting constrictor snakes more than 4 feet long.
More than 200 pet lovers, reptile store owners and animal advocacy groups from Washington, D.C., to California have emailed the city, saying the proposal stands to discriminate against 3-pound children's pets, such as corn snakes, which can harm nothing larger than a small rat.
They also fear the potential ban would lead to the release or euthanization of healthy animals that can't be given away, ruin some business owners' livelihoods or eventually be extended to other harmless animals.
Adding the restriction, they said, would violate Florida's Constitution, which already regulates large, dangerous snakes through licensing, disaster plans and more. Only the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has authority to write laws regarding native and nonnative wildlife, though a spokesman said the city might be able to exert some control through zoning.
"A constrictor snake of 4, 5, 6, or even 7 or 8 feet long is no more capable of inflicting harm to humans than a chihuahua," wrote Zachary Whitman, who identified himself as a veterinarian and wildlife biologist, joining pleas from groups such as the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council and the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers (which rallied dozens of critics to email the city en masse). "Please drop this silly piece of legislation."
The outcry has given pause to city commissioners, who were poised to approve the ordinance change on second reading last week.
Instead, leaders postponed the item to Thursday while City Attorney Tom Trask investigates the proposal's legal standing and merits.
Committee members who voted to recommend the ban to commissioners either could not recall the June 2013 discussion or could not be reached for comment.
Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski she didn't "think it was anything someone put a lot of thought into," but rather pitched casually in reaction to news reports.
"I think everybody has got the 30-foot things that are in the Everglades in their minds," echoed city planning director Greg Rice. He said that his own son has owned a "gentle" pet ball python that was longer than 4 feet, yet fit in the palm of his hand.
Commissioners received at least one letter supporting the ban, from Susan Hish, who said, "We have all seen the terrible consequences" of "large, potentially dangerous" constrictor snakes on the environment, owners and their families: "Not to mention the cruelty of keeping an exotic animal closed up. Please don't be influenced by those that their only motivation is money-making."
But in response to Commissioner Bruce Livingston's questions regarding how many locals had voiced worry, Rice said he has heard from several, including one snake owner who researched Dunedin laws before moving here.
Yet another told city commissioners during their meeting last week that he often sells snakes, which can live up to 20 years, to children as their first pet because they're so easy to care for.
"We might be outlawing a lot of normal pets for a lot of normal people and kids, and that hadn't really registered with me," Rice said. "And then the question of … how in the world would we enforce that? A sheriff isn't going to go into someone's house without a warrant. Do we really want to have warrants for little pet snakes? No. So, I think there's more to this that we need to look at."
Contact Keyonna Summers at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153. Follow @KeyonnaSummers.