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Owning exotic pets gets pricier in Delaware
Snakes, other out-of-the-ordinary critters will require permit fees
DOVER -- Life for Delawareans who own exotic animals is about to get a bit more complicated and a lot more regulated.
State Agriculture Department officials, who have been working on a set of comprehensive regulations governing exotic animals for more than a year, say the new rules will be better for the animals and for the public.
But for people like Terry Rogers, a Millsboro-area resident who rescues snakes whose owners no longer want them, the new rules mean more paperwork and an added expense he can ill afford.
Rogers currently has 18 snakes -- each of which will require a $25 permit that must be renewed every three years. Every new snake he acquires will require another permit and another $25.
"I don't mind buying a permit every three years if it was a single permit to cover all my reptiles. I can't afford a permit for each one," said Rogers, who is disabled and lives on a fixed income.
Rogers and others also say the new regulations may force some people to give up their exotic pets -- and that many will disobey the rules and get their pets on the Internet or the black market.
"There's going to be a lot more people trying to get rid of their snakes. There's one on [craigslist.com] already. [The owner] is trying to get rid of it," Rogers said.
The new rules, which were published Thursday in the state's register of regulations and take effect 10 days later, cover a wide range of wild animals -- practically everything from aardvarks to zebras. Any wild mammal, hybrid of a wild mammal and any reptile not native to Delaware is defined as exotic.
Venomous snakes, which already are illegal to possess, will continue to be outlawed. So will Gila monsters and beaded lizards -- both of which have poisonous bites -- as will Komodo dragons, ferocious lizards that can grow to 10 feet in length, weigh 300 pounds and sometimes eat humans.
Other lizards are permitted, but controlled. For instance, Nile monitors and other monitor lizards can be owned with a permit, but the new regulations prohibit permit holders from breeding them.
Nile monitors, which can grow to 5 feet in length and have sharp claws for tearing at their prey, are generally considered a poor choice for a pet. But on Jan. 16, 2002, New Castle County police found 42-year-old Ron Huff dead inside his Newark apartment with several of the Nile monitor lizards he collected on top of his body, which had been partially consumed.
The new rules also cover any exotic herbivore that weighs more than 30 pounds, although State Veterinarian Heather L. Hirst said domesticated exotics such as llamas and alpacas are considered livestock and will not be affected.
Some exotic mammals commonly kept as pets are exempt from the new rules, including chinchillas, gerbils, guinea pigs and hamsters. Reptiles that are exempt include bearded dragons, chameleons and iguanas.
Although most snakes are covered by the regulations, some are singled out for special treatment.
People will be able to get permits for so-called "giant" snakes -- anacondas, pythons and boa constrictors whose average adult body length is longer than 5 feet -- but only those with zoo permits will be allowed to breed them.
However, Hirst said, the breeding restriction will not affect ball pythons, a popular pet that can grow to about 6 feet.
"We did not want to exclude people from breeding ball pythons, because it is our belief that they are good pets and do not generally threaten animals or humans," Hirst said in a written response to a list of questions from The News Journal.
The regulations were crafted after a series of public hearings and rewrites that generated considerable comment -- and criticism -- in the exotic-pets community.
Chris Kiker, who owned the now-shuttered East Coast Exotics in Rehoboth Beach, testified at a hearing in February that the selective breeding of snakes for color patterns "is a major, major thing" among hobbyists.
"If you stop the breeding, then you open up the doors for the need to acquire animals that are wild-caught, and basically you are taking a step backwards," he said, according to a transcript of the hearing.
In an interview this week, Kiker, who has since left the business, said it is "definitely more preferable to regulate than to ban, which is slowly the direction they want to take."
Snake rescuer Rogers said there's not much to be gained by regulating responsible owners: It's the irresponsible ones who buy snakes and then turn them loose when the reptiles grow too large or too expensive to keep.
Rogers owns a corn snake, a black rat snake, 14 ball pythons, a Kenyan sand boa and a Colombian red tail boa that he says is sweet-tempered despite its impressive length. (Rogers says the snake has never held still long enough for him to measure it.)
"She's as docile as you can be unless you're a rat or a rabbit, and then you're dinner," said Rogers, who rescued the boa from beneath a porch at Mariners Cove near Millsboro.
Just because the state will grant a permit for a snake or other exotic animal doesn't mean it's OK to get one. Counties and municipalities can have their own ordinances regarding pets, and they can be stricter than the state regulations.
In New Castle County, for instance, it's illegal to own an exotic animal on any parcel of land that's less than one acre and is in a residential district. That includes llamas, which the state doesn't consider exotic.
In Kent County, it's illegal for most individuals to possess what is termed a "dangerous animal." According to the county code, dangerous animals "are incapable of adapting to human companionship and their possession by individuals as pets has proven to be a menace to emergency personnel, including firemen, police officers and utility workers, as well as the general public."
The Sussex County code contains no references to exotic animals.
The new state regulations spell out in detail the kind of enclosures needed for exotics, as well as how they must be transported.
In addition, the regulations will require vendors to ensure that purchasers have a license before they sell an exotic animal, and all sellers of reptiles must advise buyers in writing that most reptiles carry salmonella bacteria.
The new regulations are designed to protect the public, Hirst, the state veterinarian, said, and to augment a state law that has proved vague and difficult to enforce.
But Rogers, Kiker and others question just how effective the new rules will be.
Former store owner Kiker said he has no sympathy for the black-market trade -- but that it is likely to continue.
"They're either going to do it legally or illegally," he said.
KEY POINTS OF THE NEW REGULATIONS
A permit is required to own most wild mammals, hybrids of wild mammals and live reptiles not native to Delaware.
About the permits
• Prospective owners of regulated exotic pets must first get a $25 permit from the state Agriculture Department and provide proof that the animal will be properly housed.
• Existing permits will become void 60 days after the new regulations take effect.
No permits required:
• Mammals: chinchillas, degus, ferrets, gerbils, guinea pigs, hamsters, hedgehogs, mice, Norway rats, possums, rabbits and sugar gliders.
• Reptiles: anoles, agamas, Asian water dragons, basilisks, bearded dragons, chameleons, geckos, iguanas, skinks (except the five-lined skink), swift lizards and tegus.