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by Whit Gibbons

August 18, 2013

Two boys in Canada were reportedly killed recently by a large escaped python that had entered a room where they were sleeping. Exactly how regulations about keeping giant snakes as pets or releasing them into the wild will ultimately be structured in Canada and the United States remains to be seen. But don't think that the laws will necessarily ensure prevention of such regrettable incidents in the future. Laws, after all, are made by politicians. And politicians often have agendas, hidden and otherwise, and sometimes, apparently, just don't think things through.

Georgia may not have the strangest state wildlife law to be found around the country, but it has one that really needs to change. To keep or transport native species of lizards or snakes is illegal. But wait, we have an exception. Georgia law allows an individual to keep venomous snakes. Yes, it is perfectly legal to keep a rattlesnake or copperhead in your living room, but not if a harmless garter snake is in the cage with it. What kind of misguided foolishness is this?

Of no surprise, Georgia is not alone in having odd wildlife laws. In California you can catch and possess "any number of live frogs to use in frog-jumping contests," but if a frog dies "it ... may not be eaten or otherwise used for any purpose." Not sure what other "purpose" one might have in mind for a dead frog, but maybe California legislators know something the rest of us don't. Also, how many frog-jumping contests does the Golden State have outside of the Jumping Frog Jubilee in Calaveras County? State legislators apparently repealed another law about wildlife - one that prohibited the capture of diamondback terrapins. Too bad, because that was a law all Californians would have found easy to obey. Diamondback terrapins are found only in salt marshes and estuaries along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

Other quirky or inexplicable state laws may also have been repealed in moments of legislative sanity, but many odd laws are still on the books. Kansas will let you possess up to five reptiles or amphibians without a permit, and a list of 14 permissible capture techniques for amphibians is given. Firearms are allowed, with the exception of "fully automatic weapons." Talk about taking the sport out of frog hunting. But they have not taken all the fun out of frog hunting. You are still allowed to use deadfalls, crossbows, poisonous gas, and dogs. I wonder how many dogs return safely from frog-hunting expeditions in Kansas.

Hawaii has no native terrestrial reptiles and amphibians. So, rather than list species that are illegal to catch, Hawaii lists hundreds that cannot be brought in without permits. Possessing any snake in Hawaii is illegal, with one exception. Zoos are permitted to have two of each nonvenomous species. But both must be males! No fun being a snake in Hawaii.

Reptiles and amphibians have clearly been an afterthought for many state legislatures. And some laws have clearly been passed for a particular situation that was important to one lawmaker and inconsequential to others. Sometimes laws are written in a certain way simply for convenience. For example, Alaska has lots of hunting and fishing laws in place. Thus, to make things simple, a law was passed that all Alaskan amphibians are by definition "fish," even when they live on land. Under that regulation, taking a toad from Juneau to Fairbanks would require an Alaskan fish transport permit. Meanwhile, Louisiana must think alligators are mammals. No alligator skin may be sold without a fur buyer's license or tanned without a fur dealer's license.

Despite the absurdity of some laws, many state regulations do indeed protect wildlife while letting people acquire and keep animals, including having them as pets. Let's hope that when regulations about keeping giant pythons as pets are put in place - as they surely will be - the lawmakers use some plain old common sense.

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