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