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2x BC Press: Pet snake the centre of debate

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Posted by Wes von Papineäu on October 27, 2001 at 04:37:07:

CAPITAL NEWS (Kelowna, British Columbia) 26 October 01 Pet snake the centre of debate (Marshall Jones)
Burmese python has owners in hot water with social services and the focus of a widening debate about whether or not such exotic animals should be house pets in a home with children.
When properly cared for, the safety concerns surrounding an adult Burmese python such as Kelowna’s now controversial Boaz Pythonomus is roughly akin to cooking a breast of chicken, experts say.
Burmese pythons are usually slow-moving snakes known for being docile and easily tamed— all characteristics that make it of all snakes, the best one to keep as a pet.
The most serious concern for people is not its ability to constrict or bite—it’s salmonella, the same bacteria found in poultry.
However, salmonella poisoning is one of the reasons why social services showed up twice on Thursday at the home of Kerry-Ann and Daniel Koop, owners of a five-metre long Burmese python that is a family pet for them and their nine children.
The first visit Thursday afternoon was played out in front of the media, but social services returned with police later last night armed with a court order to remove the children from the Koops’ home if so deemed necessary for their protection from the snake.
Christian Bilou, a herpetologist and herpetoculturist with Reptile Rescue Alberta, says he was outraged at what he called the ignorant reaction of the social services branch in Kelowna, to demand that a snake be removed from someone’s home without investigation.
“It is ridiculous. I will admit that a large snake is potentially dangerous but so is a lawn mower or a dog or a cat,” he said.
“Why would she be singled out when there are so many more dangerous things out there.”
The numbers of fatalities or injuries attributed to snakes is minimal, he said, despite his estimates of 300 to 500 of these snakes in Alberta alone.
He said to his knowledge, all case studies in which people were killed by large snakes included common factors, chief among them involves alcohol use and stupid decisions by owners.
The one common variable among all deaths involves a snake being able to freely roam through the home unattended.
Inside the Koops’ home, they have built an enclosure off their living room with glass sliding doors.
It has a lock and a motion detector to alert them to anyone getting in or out.
She says the snake is never let out unless enough people are there to put it back in.
Dr. Linda Kaplan, a veterinarian at Jade Bay animal hospital in Winfield, has a particular interest in snakes and they make up a large part of her practice.
Burmese pythons are becoming increasingly common, she says, and with good reason.
“They are easy to handle and a lot of them have been in captivity since hatching,” she said. “Most of them have been handled a lot and have bonded with the people they live with.”
Kaplan is quick to caution that, like any animal, they can be unpredictable.
She says the greatest fear we have of snakes has nothing to do with the creatures at all.
“I think what you are seeing is a good example of a really primal fear that a lot of us are programmed with as children,” she said.
“It all goes back to the bible and the snake as bad guy. But in this day and age, with a little understanding and an owner who is well-educated on care and handling, there is very little risk.”
Since the Koops have had Boaz, Kerry-Ann has used it for that very purpose: education. The snake is taken to elementary schools, raffles, church functions and anywhere else she is asked.
Darren Wishlow, a biology 11 teacher at Kelowna Secondary school, says he was shocked to learn that anyone was concerned about safety around an animal that has been part of his lesson plan for four years.
“It has been the best tool in my years of teaching,” he said.
“It is amazing how many kids who have ideas of snakes learn that those ideas are wrong when they see one, that they are not slimy and scary.”
He said he has seen 30 kindergarten kids rolling over it and never saw one of the snake’s easily recognizable signs of aggression through feeding response or from fear, the only two reasons they attack.
“When I first talked to her she told me it has a personality and I couldn’t understand that,” he said.
“But after dealing with her over the years you can see the personality the snake has.
“It is very friendly; we’ll have anywhere from 20 kids touching it at one time and it seeks the attention of the people.”
Ultimatum upsetting to mother
A Kelowna mother of nine children and one controversial Burmese python is debating with the Ministry for Children and Families about which is more dangerous to her family: the snake or social services.
After Sunday’s Capital News Close-Up on how human values are imposed on animals as exemplified through Kerry-Ann and Daniel Koop’s five-metre constrictor named Boaz, dozens of phone calls were made to the ministry demanding investigation into what they assumed was a dangerous situation for her young children.
But without so much as a phone call to anyone else to determine the potential for real danger as opposed to hype, ministry officials told Koop on Wednesday that either her snake had to go or her children will be taken away.
On Thursday, social services, the SPCA and the RCMP arrived at her door to make good on their promise.
But at the last minute, social services told her she could keep her pet as long as it remained in its enclosure.
“This is ridiculous,” Koop said.
“Boaz has never hurt anyone. A child is more at risk around dogs or cats or even horses.
“Would anyone call social services if they saw my kids in a picture with a horse?”
The Capital News has had as much reaction to its front-page photograph of two of her children with the snake as it had about the story. Most of the concerns expressed were wild exaggerations about snakes.
The actions of social services were also called exaggerated by Koop considering they knew she has had the snake for at least two years as this wasn’t the first time neighbours objected to a snake living in the same home as people.
After a full investigation, Koop was told in writing that the snake could stay as long as it wasn’t out of its enclosure unsupervised.
She has also taken the snake to several schools in the Okanagan.
Koop said she has no idea what has changed within the ministry to evoke this reaction beyond the flood of worried phone calls.
John Bower, the Ministry for Children and Families supervisor who signed her letter and this week demanded the snake’s removal, refused to comment.
Marisa Adair, spokesperson for the ministry, said an investigation would have to include input from experts in the field, including the SPCA.
Boaz was dropped on the Koop’s doorstep in February 1997 by its former owners.
Koop says it was suffering from pneumonia, abuse and neglect, weighing just 32 kilograms.
She inquired about leaving it with the SPCA but was told it would be euthanized immediately.
Koop decided to rescue it instead. Now it weighs 65 kilograms and stretches five metres long.

CAPITAL NEWS (Kelowna, British Columbia) 22 October 01 Scales of injustice (Marshall Jones)
Photo: Kerry-Ann koop tried feeding her snake carrion but he wouldn't go for it. When challenged about it she said "You try stuffing dead meat down a 140-pound snake's throat. I'm not going to." photo: Gordon Bazzana
Awakened from its slumber, Boaz unwillingly succumbs to the demands of his owner.
He is heaved in three shifts into the busy living room of Kerry-Ann and Daniel Koop, slowly working himself into full slither.
In his company are an 18-month-old girl and three-year-old boy who delight in crawling around him, or her, no one really knows.
Grace hops over him, hops on him, offers her hand with a giggle to the gentle air-lick of Boaz’s forked tongue. Hezekiah lets himself get wrapped up and drives his Hot Wheels digger along 17-feet of moving road.
There is little that is unsettling about this giant Burmese Python, unless you count 2,000 years of ignorant cultural programming of a snake as a symbol of all things sinister and evil.
He is sleek and clean with no odour, makes no noise. The snake is docile and slow-moving, though reserving the ability to be quite the opposite. In fact, after less than half an hour of playtime, his shy nature wins over and he goes to his room, a separate enclosure in a corner of the family living room. When he decides to go, there is no one who can convince him otherwise.
His only bothersome trait hasn’t occurred in over six months; the last time he ate a meal.
Surely no one would begrudge a snake his subsistence, but here’s the catch: he will only eat rabbits.
What’s more, he will only eat the live ones he catches in his jaws, whereupon he will wrap his powerfully muscular frame around to squeeze the life out of it. Then he will swallow it whole.
The first time Kerry-Ann successfully fed him, back in February, 1997, Boaz proved to be a picky eater. “I tried a freshly-killed rabbit and that didn’t work,” Koop says. “Then I put in the live rabbit and he caught it in mid-air. It freaked me out but I guess he was really hungry.”
The snake was dropped off on her door one night by its former owner. Koop had responded to a classified ad from someone wanting to give away the then-14-footer because it was getting too big and they were becoming afraid of it.
Although she says she made no commitments but nevertheless there it was on her doorstep in sub-zero temperatures. It weighed 77 pounds when it should have been 125 pounds. The snake showed signs of abuse, starvation and obvious neglect from someone willing to leave it outside in a Canadian winter.
The Koop’s took it in and nursed it back to health. Now it devours about nine rabbits a year.
Kelowna SPCA manager Russ Forand has, as one might expect a man in his possession to have, a deep respect and fondness for animals.
The cages of adoptable animals at the SPCA are filled with typical pets: happy puppies, cute kittens. And rabbits.
Snakes are a rarity at the SPCA though it gets calls for iguanas roughly a dozen times a year for which they have a list of possible homes.
But not for snakes. No one can say for sure if they have ever had one before. Nevertheless, Forand says he won’t even come close to helping Koop feed her snake, even if that means it will starve to death.
“I have never been asked the question before,” Forand said. “I don’t discount that the snake needs something to eat but there is other places she can get a rabbit. It just won’t be from us.”
Only Koop didn’t expect the SPCA to be a breeding farm for snake food.
She asked, and the SPCA promptly refused, to lend her a bunny so she could use some of its fur and scent to ween Boaz off of rabbits and onto kids, er, goat kids.
As snakes grow, they begin to require larger foods and the baby goats are a natural progression because there is a steady cheap supply of them.
But the SPCA wouldn’t go near it. “I couldn’t fathom lending her a rabbit for that purpose,” Forand says. “I don’t think that’s the business we are in.”
Koop got the same reaction from The Responsible Animal Care Society (TRACS); a second group with a mandate to protect animals that don’t often include the scaly, predatory kind.
Koop accuses them of applying a double-standard, of being anti-snake, if you will. “God designed him, not me. If they have a problem with how he eats, they should take it up with him,” says Koop, who counts herself among the ultra-animal-lovers of the world.
Having grown up on a farm, she says she has a better understanding of the circle of life. She has even raised “pet” bunnies and “snake food” bunnies.
Sinikka Crossland is an active member of TRACS. She is a vegan, has put in countless volunteer hours rescuing prairie foals from slaughter and wears her passion on her sleeve when she protests against the rodeo.
So it wasn’t easy for her to come to a conclusion about Boaz—but she did.
“To me it comes down to numbers,” she says. “I would have to say the lives of nine rabbits are more important than the life of one python.”
To deny the snake is to kill the snake and when that snake is in a human environment that is a choice that must be made by humans.
That’s the problem with righteousness—circumstances always come along to challenge it. The question of whether to aid and abet the serpent in doing the only thing it really does strikes deep into the heart of an animal lover.
On one hand, the snake required rescue, deserves protection, is a threatened species in the jungles of South America and certainly didn’t ask to be in this predicament.
It is defenseless and is also a human pet. Yet to survive it must eat the meek.
Crossland, too, refused to loan Koop a rabbit even if just to spare it the emotional harm of knowing the snake exists.
“I will be damned if I am going to lend out a rabbit for that purpose. I have more respect for my rabbits than that,” she said. “That rabbit would be so terrified.”
For the record, this discussion is moot because Koop was able to get a rabbit elsewhere.
So far, though, Boaz hasn’t gone for the goat in rabbit’s clothing. But the reactions from two of Kelowna’s bastions of animal protection shows the role of perception in the human-value hierarchy imposed on the animal kingdom.
So far, the score is herbivorous, furry, cuddly critters one; fanged, slithery serpents none. Dogs and cats are obvious carnivores enjoying the other end of a double-standard, albeit they are companions no longer devouring recognizable animals and the food they eat comes from animals killed for human consumption.
That makes it easier, but it doesn’t explain it any better.
That is how Christine Schramm reconciles it because there is no other way of getting around it.
She runs the Rainforest Reptile Refuge in Surrey. It started in 1986 much the same way Boaz came to the Koops only she now has roughly 400 surrendered reptiles of all different species.
She is also a vegan and refuses to wear even leather or wool.
“I wish they would all eat tofu,” Schramm says. “But this is what we are stuck with. It bothers us to have to feed animals meat but that is the only option they have.”
At the refuge, which is a public society, they raise some rats and mice and often chickens and other animals are donated.
But she and her husband Clarence refuse to kill them.
“We had a few live chickens donated once and we just couldn’t kill them. We ended up giving them to another no-kill animal sanctuary. They are someone else’s pets now,” she says with a laugh.
It is not the issue of feeding a snake for Schramm, it’s feeding it live animals that concerns her.
She says every snake that she has will take dead animals which is also preferrable in terms of cost, health of the snake and in reducing the stress upon the prey.
Koop is convinced that if Boaz wouldn’t take dead meat when she first got him, he isn’t going to. “Besides, you come over here and stuff dead meat down a 140-pound snake’s throat. I’m not going to,” said Kerry-Ann.
Schramm offered help in training Boaz, but Christian Bilou, a herpetologist and director of Reptile Rescue Alberta, said some snakes quite rightfully just won’t be swayed.
Normally, Burmese pythons aren’t among them, but Boaz fed that way for many years.
“Some individual snakes, and some species, will refuse pre-killed food items which is not terribly surprising because in the wild, snakes rarely eat carrion,” Bilou said.
There is common ground amongst all parties, however.
Koop, the SPCA and TRACS all say that B.C. needs laws to control and stop the breeding and trade of exotic animals.
Alberta has some laws and Saskatchewan has the most strict conditions in the country but B.C. has none.
That may be because the trade in exotic animals is the hottest thing going in the pet industry.
“The big picture here is the fact that this snake had to be rescued in the first place,” said Crossland of TRACS. “These animals don’t belong here, they should be in a jungle. There has to be laws against this.”
That is the sole mission behind Schramm’s reptile refuge.
Some reports peg the number of exotic animals passing through the Port of Vancouver at 16,000 per year and that doesn’t include breeding within the province.
Schramm says every year she gets dozens of calls from people who didn’t expect their corn snake to live for 25 years, didn’t expect their iguana to get aggressive or their snake to weigh 200 pounds.
Often they are just bored or the animal has been wounded and they won’t take care of it, she said.
“If it wasn’t for the pet industry we wouldn’t be doing this,” she said. “But it’s also supply and demand and if people didn’t have to have that snake they saw in the window then none of the rabbits would have to suffer for it.”
On that issue, there is no debate.

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