‘Snakes on a Plane’ Bill Relaxing Serpent Travel Restrictions Questioned

By Alissa Tabirian | July 26, 2013 | 11:07 AM EDT

162-lb. Burmese python captured in Everglades National Park (AP photo)

(CNSNews.com) – Giant slithering snakes were center stage at a House subcommittee hearing Thursday as members of Congress consider new legislation that addresses the economic impact of invasive species such as pythons and anacondas, and how to keep these “escape artists” on planes that land in the U.S. and its territories.

“Economic damage from invasive species in the United States is estimated at $137 billion per year,” said Rep. Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam), citing the island’s destructive snake population as an example of nature gone wrong.

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“After Guam’s experience with the brown tree snake, and actor Samuel L. Jackson’s equally horrific movie, I for one have had enough of ‘Snakes on a Plane’,” Bordallo said, expressing concern that the Expedited Departure of Certain Snake Species Act (H.R. 2158) introduced by Committee Chairman Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) in May would exempt these snakes “from Lacey Act interstate commerce restrictions if the snakes are being shipped to a destination outside the United States.”

Last year, four constrictors, including Burmese pythons, were identified as “injurious” to humans, resulting in restrictions under the Lacey Act on imports, exports, and interstate travel of these snakes and other wildlife in order to prevent the trafficking and “spread of invasive, or non-native, species.”

Referring to the environmental challenges Guam already faces, Bordallo stated, “On behalf of Guam, I must say that the brown tree snake is really quite enough without the addition of 18-foot-long, 200-pound pythons, and I am sure that Chairman Fleming does not want ravenous giant snakes slithering freely around Louisiana, either.”

The discussion then turned to the process and risks of removing injurious snakes from the U.S. Scott Hardin, executive director of the Florida Reptile and Amphibian Association and representing the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, noted that reptile breeders are currently unable to export their snakes under Lacey Act guidelines because aircraft carrying serpents generally make intermediate stops in U.S. territory.

“Are other species of snakes being shipped today on planes?” Fleming asked Hardin.

“Quite a few, yes,” Hardin replied.

“Are you aware that . . . a handful of Burmese pythons have escaped from a plane in the United States?” Fleming continued.

“No, sir, I’m not aware of anything and it would surprise me considering the extreme security measures the exporters take,” Hardin said.

Bordallo then addressed her concerns over incidents of escape among large constrictor snakes and requested that the witnesses consider baseline requirements for escape-proof containers.

“Is escape of the injurious snakes . . . a real concern?” she asked.

“It’s one of the concerns that the agency has about this particular species of constrictor snakes . . . we call them escape artists,” responded Stephen Guertin, deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Bordallo highlighted the undesirable consequences for tourism “if word gets out that we have these deadly snakes” in Hawaii and Guam, where the escaped snakes could potentially thrive and breed.

“Can these snakes survive outside of Florida, or the Everglades for that matter, and why?” asked Fleming.

“An individual snake could survive, absolutely . . . The picture has changed so much, that we are not dealing in large numbers with normal snakes with great chance of survival. We’re talking about snakes that aren’t likely to be released, we’re talking about snakes that have a far less chance of survival, even in a fairly hospitable climate,” Hardin reassured the committee.

“Do we see any way that these snakes can end up on Guam?” Fleming then asked.

“There would not be any intermediate flights stopping in Guam to the destinations the markets exist in,” Hardin responded.

The hearing closed with additional comments regarding snakes on passenger airplanes, as Guertin noted that Sunday morning flights offer greater capacity for wildlife transportation.

Fleming jokingly suggested that passengers avoid Sunday morning flights “if you are traveling and you fear snakes.”

“It might be helpful if Hollywood would produce fewer movies in which serpents get loose on airplanes. That might help the debate some, I think,” he added.