A bill authored by Senator John Tassoni (D-Dist. 22, Smithfield) would outlaw the ownership of alligators, crocodiles, pythons and boa constrictors in the state of Rhode Island. Tassoni said the introduction of this bill comes in response to the discovery of nearly 40 snakes (at least five of which were venomous) in a Pawtucket home earlier this month.
"I've been talking with the RISPCA about problems they've been having," said Tassoni yesterday.
"I did address Mr. Tassoni and request he do something [about] the ongoing problem," said Dr. E.J. Finocchio, president of the RI Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Tassoni said his legislation was also inspired by the capture of an alligator last summer that had been released into the wild.
"Alligators get so big people don't know how to care for them," he said. "It's detrimental to society."
The Pawtucket man who was harboring nearly 40 snakes also had a de-scented skunk in his possession.
"There are lots of crazy things going on," said Tassoni.
Tassoni is a self-described animal lover who has introduced other bills in the Senate that tackle issues like animal abuse, birds psittacosis (an infection that can be transmitted to humans) and devocalization of dogs and cats. Tassoni said he regrets having to suggest a law that would affect so many because of the actions of a few.
"There's no bigger animal lover in the Senate than myself. I understand the issue. It's unfortunate some bad apples who don't understand the law have to ruin it for everyone else," he said.
Jason Oneppo, a reptile lover and former employee at Tuffy's Aquarium in Warwick and Warehouse Aquarium in Johnston, said the state has not done enough research to put forth this legislation.
"They're basing it on an incident of possession of poisonous snakes, which are already illegal," said Oneppo. "Passing this law will do nothing to stop people like that."
The legislation proposes a minimum $1,000 fine for those found to be in possession of the reptiles mentioned.
"One of the things the state doesn't understand is that there are thousands of these animals currently in captivity in the state," said Oneppo.
The legislation does not have a clause that would grandfather current owners of these animals.
Oneppo wonders what the RISPCA will do with animals currently in captivity once they are outlawed. He also wonders how the law will be enforced.
"It would be a big financial strain for the state," he said. "There are better ways for the state to spend its time and money."
Currently, reptiles like boas and crocodilia require a permit from the Department of Environmental Management, and the state must approve owner knowledge and the facility the animal is to be kept in.
"I'm in full agreement with current laws put forth," said Oneppo.
Oneppo said that people who are looking to own reptiles should do their research and understand the species they are thinking about purchasing.
"Snakes are long-term pets, relatively low maintenance and they can be excellent, rewarding pets," he said. However, he wouldn't recommend large reptiles for a home with small children.
Oneppo said that for large snakes, caretakers would need a cage measuring a minimum of 10 feet by 5 feet. For crocodiles, even the dwarf species that grow to about 4 feet in length, a cage 12 feet long would be necessary.
"I would venture to say you can go into a pet store where these types of animals are available and pick up an animal that needs a permit even if you don't have one," said Finocchio. He added that he is sure there are also "very responsible" reptile vendors in the state, too.
Finocchio said he is sure that pet stores and breeders will be opponents of the bill.
"I'm sure they're going to oppose this legislation because it's business," he said. "I have to look out for the welfare of these animals, not the almighty dollar."
According to Finocchio, 346 exotic animals came into the RISPCA's possession last year, due to both turn-ins and confiscations. Once RISPCA has the animal, Finocchio says they try to find a suitable home for it. However, this is not always an easy task, and sometimes the animals are euthanized.
"Ninety percent of all reptiles brought into the U.S. perish after one year," said Finocchio.
The major problem is that people cannot provide a proper environment for the reptiles.
"People try to set up pseudo environments for animals that do not mimic their natural habitats," he said. "Think about it; if you take an animal from the subtropics ... that's difficult to duplicate."
Although Tassoni's proposed legislation would only ban pythons, boas, crocodiles and alligators, Finocchio is in favor of eventually outlawing all reptiles.
"I'd personally like to see most reptiles banned," he said. "I don't want to be a Scrooge, but these animals do not provide what a dog, cat, rabbit or sheep can give to a person."
Finocchio called larger reptiles "dangerous."
But Oneppo argued that common pets like dogs could sometimes be more dangerous than snakes.
"I've never walked down the street and been bitten by a snake," he said. Dogs have bitten Oneppo on three occasions.
For now, Finocchio said he would like to concentrate mostly on banning members of the crocodile order.
"I would like to see crocodilia eliminated completely," he said. RISPCA came into possession of four alligators in the last year.
Tassoni said he is unsure when the bill would be heard, but it is likely to go before the Senate after the February recess.