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Houston, we have a problem........Press item

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Posted by Todd Evans on August 31, 2001 at 10:52:49:

Report urges ban on reptiles as pets
Humane Society cites danger, salmonella risk

Friday, August 31, 2001

By Jonathan D. Silver, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Even as police continue to investigate the death of Amber Mountain, the Westmoreland County girl who was asphyxiated by her family's pet snake last week, a new report questions whether people should keep such animals in their homes.

Although it is estimated that 9 million reptiles and amphibians are owned in the U.S. as part of a growing $2 billion-a-year industry, the Humane Society of the United States is calling for an end to the reptile trade.

"The Humane Society of the United States is deeply concerned about this trend, because of the inhumane treatment of animals; the conservation problems; and the threat to human health, agricultural animals and wildlife," the group wrote in a soon-to-be-published report titled "Reptiles as Pets: An Examination of the Trade in Live Reptiles in the United States."

The society is keeping up with the Amber Mountain case. Amber, of Irwin, was rushed to the hospital Aug. 22 after her family's 10-foot Burmese python wrapped itself around the girl's neck, according to what her mother told police. She died one week ago of compression of the neck and chest.

The python was one of five exotic snakes owned by the family. Irwin Police Chief John Karasek said the snake apparently escaped from its tank, which was usually kept in the parents' bedroom.

"The death of Amber Mountain is a tragedy," Humane Society spokeswoman Rachel Querry wrote in a letter accompanying a copy of the report sent to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

"The fact that her death was apparently caused by her family's pet reptile makes this story a cautionary tale for any other family that has pet pythons and for anyone considering purchasing one as a pet. But other reptiles also pose risks to humans, particularly children."

All reptiles carry salmonella bacteria, the society said. Each year, 93,000 people in the U.S. contract salmonella infections from contact with a pet reptile or contaminated surfaces. About 20 of them die each year, the society estimates.

In its 146-page report, filled with tables and pictures, the society declares reptiles should not kept as pets.

People who already own reptiles should properly care for them and follow handling guidelines established by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the society said. If they can't, the society suggests either having the pets euthanized by a veterinarian or giving them to an animal control center.

"While recognizing that there are many individuals who are able to provide expert levels of care to captive reptiles, the Humane Society of the United States recommends that reptiles not be kept as pets by the general public, not be given away as prizes or gifts and not be kept in day-care centers, at schools, at fairs, or at other places where they might be handled by the public, particularly children," the society concluded.

Dolly Ellerbrock, president of the Pittsburgh Herpetological Society, was surprised by the report's conclusions.

"I think they better rethink this, and I know there are going to be people who will be outraged about this," Ellerbrock said.

The report disputes the pet industry's "marketing ploy" that reptiles are easier to care for than dogs or cats. The truth is just the opposite, the society said.

"In fact, providing proper care for reptiles is very difficult," according to the report. "There are hundreds of species being traded, and each has its own particular husbandry requirements, which, for many species, are not even known."

In its chapter on retail pet stores, the report notes that large reptiles, such as Burmese pythons, can cause serious harm to their owners.

The report mentioned a 19-year-old New York man who was killed several years ago when his 13-foot Burmese python "apparently mistook his owner for a food item."

More than 7,000 Burmese pythons were imported to the U.S. in 1997, the report said.

"There are many documented attacks of Burmese pythons killing people by coiling around them and asphyxiating them," according to the report.

In the aftermath of Amber's death, Karasek, the Irwin police chief, intends to ask council to consider an ordinance requiring that all exotic pets in the borough be registered with police, fire and ambulance personnel.

"It's after the fact, yes," said Karasek. "But now we must consider what could happen to others, such as emergency personnel, when they enter homes with exotic animals."


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