Who's allowed to sell a venomous snake, and why would you ever buy one?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Oct. 3 2007 5:56 PM

Venomous Snakes for Sale

Who's allowed to sell a deadly animal, and why would you ever buy one?

A green mamba snake. Click image to expand.
How can you buy a green mamba snake?

A U.S. grand jury indicted a Las Vegas man last Friday for attempting to sell venomous reptiles over the Internet. While searching his home, U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents seized cobras, rattlesnakes, and even seven Eastern green mambas. Is it ever legal to sell a deadly snake?

Yes. In most places, it's not a criminal activity to sell venomous, or "hot," snakes over the Internet, but you do need a government permit. There aren't any federal laws regulating the hot-snake trade; each state controls these transactions through their wildlife or agriculture divisions. (Prospective snake buyers must obtain a similar permit to keep the animals.) State regulations vary widely. Massachusetts, for example, prohibits the sale or husbandry of hot snakes. Other states, including Nevada, grant licenses to sellers and buyers according to their ability to properly handle and house the snakes. (Applicants must demonstrate knowledge of various techniques, like how to use snake hooks, tongs, and other restraints.)


Some federal oversight for the animal trade comes through the Endangered Species Act. You're not allowed to engage in any activity that might harm an animal that appears on the official list; selling an endangered animal for profit usually qualifies as exploitation. As of the writing of this column, no venomous snakes have been designated as endangered species. (Two kinds of hot snakes have been given "threatened" status—the New Mexican ridge-nosed rattlesnake and the Aruba Island rattlesnake; others, like the Eastern diamondback rattler and the Eastern coral snake, qualify for state endangered species lists). The federal government can also control wildlife trade through the Lacey Act, which prohibits the interstate trafficking of animals that have been obtained in violation of state laws.

Bonus Explainer: Who would want to buy a deadly snake, anyway? Researchers, businessmen, educators, and hobbyists. Herpetologists keep these snakes for behavioral, biological, and veterinary research that can assist in conservation efforts. Commercial snake-keepers also buy deadly species to harvest venom. (Medical labs study its painkilling properties and other medical benefits.) Wildlife educators use venomous snakes in public demonstrations about snake safety and identification in the wild. And of course, some hot snake husbandry is motivated by a morbid fascination with the dangerous animals, or the desire to show off.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Robbie Keszey of Glades Herp Farm and Chad Minter, author of Venomous Snakes of the Southeast.

Morgan Smith, a former Slate intern, is a law student in Austin, Texas.



Don’t Expect Adrian Peterson to Go to Prison

In much of America, beating your children is perfectly legal. 

Ken Burns on Why Teddy Roosevelt Would Never Get Elected in 2014

Cops Briefly Detain Django Unchained Actress Because They Thought She Was a Prostitute

Minimalist Cocktail Posters Make Mixing Drinks a Cinch

How the Apple Watch Will Annoy Us

A glowing screen attached to someone else’s wrist is shinier than all but the blingiest of jewels.


Rainbow Parties and Sex Bracelets

Where teenage sex rumors come from—and why they’re bad for parents and kids.


You Had to Be There

What we can learn from things that used to be funny.

Legendary Critic Greil Marcus Measures and Maps Rock History Through 10 Unlikely Songs

Catfish Creator Nev Schulman’s Book Is Just Like Him: Self-Deluded and Completely Infectious

Sept. 12 2014 5:54 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Sept. 14 2014 2:37 PM When Abuse Is Not Abuse Don’t expect Adrian Peterson to go to prison. In much of America, beating your kids is perfectly legal. 
Sept. 12 2014 5:54 PM Olive Garden Has Been Committing a Culinary Crime Against Humanity
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 13 2014 8:38 AM “You’re More Than Just a Number” Goucher College goes transcript-free in admissions.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 12 2014 4:05 PM Life as an NFL Wife: “He's the Star. Keep Him Happy.”
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 12 2014 5:55 PM “Do You Know What Porn Is?” Conversations with Dahlia Lithwick’s 11-year-old son.
Brow Beat
Sept. 14 2014 7:10 PM Watch Michael Winslow Perform Every Part of “Whole Lotta Love” With Just His Voice
Future Tense
Sept. 12 2014 3:53 PM We Need to Pass Legislation on Artificial Intelligence Early and Often
  Health & Science
New Scientist
Sept. 14 2014 8:38 AM Scientific Misconduct Should Be a Crime It’s as bad as fraud or theft, only potentially more dangerous.
Sports Nut
Sept. 12 2014 4:36 PM “There’s No Tolerance for That” Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh say they don’t abide domestic abuse. So why do the Seahawks and 49ers have a combined six players accused of violence against women?