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Herps In The News Local or national articles where reptiles or amphibians have made it into the news media. Please cite sources.

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Old 10-17-2019, 08:15 PM   #1
Fauna in the News

At least the judge got it right.


How a toothless county pet ordinance could get its bite back

October 16, 2019

Mark Twain once compared using the right word and using a slightly different word as the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning, but for one county resident it meant being cleared of misdemeanor charges for owning eight rattlesnakes.

In June, Matthew R. Miller, 45, of the 3600 block of Thurston Road, was found not guilty in Chesterfield County General District Court after his attorney argued that the County Code prohibits the ownership of “poisonous” snakes, and that Miller’s eight western diamondback rattlesnakes are technically venomous, not poisonous.

The case now has the Board of Supervisors considering a change to the County Code that would prohibit the keeping of venomous snakes or other venomous animals as pets.

The difference? The term venomous applies to organisms that bite or sting to inject their toxins, whereas the term poisonous refers to organisms that release their toxins when eaten, such as a poison dart frog or hemlock.

Steven Ayers, assistant supervisors of Chesterfield’s Animal Services Unit, says the ruling was unexpected.

“We’ve used this code many times, at least three times that I know of in my 14 years here, and we’ve never had this come up,” he says. “This is the first time that the judge ruled in this way.”

Following a tip, Ayers says Animal Services first visited Miller’s residence years ago, but found no venomous snakes in his home at that time. Around March 2018, Ayers says he received another tip, and an officer sent to investigate was denied entry to Miller’s home.

After further investigation, Animal Services found that Miller had posted several photos of western diamondbacks and other venomous snakes on his Facebook page, as well as an ad for the snakes on the website Fauna Classifieds, an online marketplace for buying, selling and trading animals.

After Ayers obtained a search warrant and the western diamondback rattlesnakes – the species considered responsible for the greatest number of snakebites in America – were removed from his home, Miller was charged under the “Wild or Exotic Animals” section of the County Code. On June 12, Miller’s lawyer, Ernest Gates of the Midlothian law firm CowanGates, argued successfully against the charges. The snakes have been returned to Miller.

Josh Loren, assistant commonwealth’s attorney, represented Chesterfield in the case.

“I argued that the intent was there, and the statute was valid, and the judge didn’t see it that way,” Loren says. “There is purely a technical difference between poisonous and venomous.”

Via email, Gates said that “Miller was found not guilty because the law that he was being prosecuted under was flawed.” Efforts to reach Miller were unsuccessful.

Now the Board of Supervisors is considering a change to the County Code, and is holding a public hearing on the matter at its meeting on Oct. 23.

“The ordinance amendment is being proposed to ensure there is no confusion,” says Mike Kozak, senior assistant county attorney for Chesterfield.

Ayers says ordinances prohibiting the owning of venomous animals exist for the public good.

“If the animal happened to get loose, it would be a safety issue for the neighborhood, and then if [law] enforcement or EMS is trying to go into a residence, and they don’t know these snakes are in there … it could be a whole issue.”

He adds that animal bite issues like these have come up before in Chesterfield, referencing the 2012 death of Jack Redmond, 70, who was found dead in his basement after being bitten by a Chinese palm viper, one of 24 venomous snakes in his animal collection.

“We’ve had people get bitten, and we don’t find them [for a while],” Ayers says. “One person passed away a couple years ago. We’ve had people getting bitten and had to get body parts, fingers, amputated.”

The bottom line, Ayers says, is that venomous animals aren’t to be messed with.

“These [are] very dangerous animals,” Ayers says. “If someone isn’t aware of what they’re getting into, or just not aware of how to handle this type of animal, it could be very dangerous.”
Old 10-18-2019, 10:34 AM   #2
Donald C
Interesting that they would mention the death of Jack Redmond. Had some friends that knew him and ended up with animals from his collection. From my understanding, Redmond's death was a case of "suicide by snakebite" and can't really be used effectively to make the argument Ayers is making.

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