The law on keeping dangerous snakes as pets should be tightened up, animal welfare experts demand in this week's issue of the Vet Record.
The call follows an investigation by the journal, showing that several species of venomous and potentially lethal snakes, such as cobras, vipers, and rattlesnakes, can easily be bought through pet shops in England, but that the licensing arrangements for ownership are somewhat lax.
What's more, these reptiles are difficult for owners to manage properly at home, and few vets are sufficiently insured or have the relevant expertise to treat them, the investigation reveals.
Under the Dangerous Wild Animals (DWA) Act, it's perfectly legal to sell venomous snakes to people who don't have a licence to keep them: the legal onus is, instead, on the purchaser to have obtained a DWA licence from their local authority.
And animal welfare charity, the RSPCA, says that DWA licences may sometimes be issued retrospectively by councils, so enabling reptile collectors to obtain venomous snakes before they become licenced.
President of the British Veterinary Zoological Society (BVZS), Peter Kettlewell, points out that there aren't any legal controls when venomous snakes are purchased in EU countries and brought into the UK either.
"Pet shops are currently excluded from the requirements of the DWA Act and are therefore able to keep dangerous species without a DWA licence. BVZS strongly believes the legislation should be changed to prevent this," he told Vet Record.
But the BVZS is also concerned about the welfare of these animals once in private ownership.
"The husbandry of reptiles is challenging, and even commonly kept reptile species kept in people's homes are given inadequate care -- as shown by the high proportion of reptiles presented to veterinary practices with husbandry-related diseases," he explains.
"Providing good husbandry would be made more difficult in the case of venomous animals due to the challenges in handling and managing them safely," he adds.
"BVZS believes that both the keeping of dangerous species by private individuals is likely to compromise both animal welfare and human safety, and as such, the selling of such species to private individuals should be carefully regulated and restricted," he contends.
The RSPCA also told Vet Record that it is "deeply concerned" about the number of venomous snakes being kept as pets, describing the DWA Act as "weakly drafted and poorly enforced." Many owners either don't bother to get a licence or don't realise they need one, it says.
Vet Record asked several exotics vets whether they would be prepared to deal with venomous snakes. Many said they wouldn't, citing health and safety issues and a lack of access to antivenom.
In a linked editorial, Vet Record senior news reporter, Josh Loeb, explains that the UK government (Defra) has now concluded a public consultation on the welfare of pet primates, and looks set to ban the keeping of these animals as pets.
"If written into law, such a ban would set a precedent. For the first time the UK would be banning a species or group of species from being kept as pets primarily because of welfare concerns. There are currently some legal restrictions on keeping certain species in private households -- however, existing laws are based primarily on public safety or conservation reasons, not welfare grounds," he writes.
Given the risks and welfare issues involved, he questions whether venomous snakes shouldn't be included in this ban.
Such a move would be pushing at an open door, he suggests, as there's cross party agreement on the principle that certain types of wild animal just aren't suitable as pets.
There may also be a sound public health reason for reviewing regulations around the exotic animal trade, in view of the source of the current Covid-19 pandemic, he argues.
"If we want fewer exotic diseases to be imported into the UK going forward, perhaps we should rethink the keeping of exotic pets," he writes.
"When the current Covid-19 crises pass and when, hopefully, the government gains more headspace, the issue of dangerous and exotic wild animals being stocked as pets is surely an issue that merits greater political attention," he concludes.
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