Do you ever wonder where the wild things are? When it comes to cobras, rattlers, pit vipers, pythons and even Gila monsters, they may be living a lot closer to home than you think.
8 On Your Side has identified 56 state permit holders for venomous snakes and other reptiles of concern in eight Tampa Bay area counties. Hillsborough has the largest number of permit holders. Many are housed in residential neighborhoods brimming with kids. One permit holder who raises rattlers and pit vipers lives in a gated Riverview community where nearby signs warn motorists to watch for children at play.
Tiffany Maron is a neighborhood mom. She had no idea there were deadly snakes just down the street. “I just don’t think people should have wild animals in their house, whether it’s a snake or a wolf or any kind of wild animal,” Maron said.
The snake permit holder, who asked to remain anonymous, insists none of his neighbors are in any danger from his collection of a dozen or so rattlesnakes and South American pit vipers. He said he is an attentive owner who is regularly inspected by Florida Fish and Wildlife officers who enforce strict guidelines for captive wildlife.
For the most part, the snake permit holders we visited around the Tampa Bay area appear to be responsible owners with secure cages and state-mandated “disaster plans” for their deadly pets.
Michael “Shane” Mader breeds a large collection of venomous snakes and Gila monsters in Brooksville. He calls his enclosure zoo quality and said it’s inside a specially built concrete building designed to withstand a hurricane.
Are you wondering what kind of pets your neighbors keep? The map below shows residents with licenses to possess or exhibit venomous reptiles or reptiles of concern.
Here is more information about the snakes and reptiles identified above.
- VIPERIDAE: A poisonous viper known for long fangs. It’s found around the world, such as true vipers, bush vipers, rattlesnakes, pit vipers and adders.
- ELAPIDAE: These tropical and subtropical venomous snakes include cobras, adders and mambas.
- COLUBRIDAE: This is the largest snake family, comprising 2/3 of all snake species. It’s a catch all that includes venomous such as boomslang, as well as nonvenomous snakes including king snakes, garter snakes and rat snakes.
- HELODERMATIDAE: These venomous lizards include gila monsters. They have grooved hollow fangs in their lower jaw.
None of Mader’s snakes have ever escaped, but a western diamondback rattler did bite him on the thumb a couple years ago. “It felt like my hand was on fire,” Mader recalls. “It taught me a valuable lesson that the smaller animals (that snake was two-feet long) can be just as dangerous as the larger ones.”
It took 10 vials of anti-venom and a few days in the hospital to recover from that bite. Mader now uses special bite-proof gloves designed to prevent hospital needle sticks when handling his venomous snakes.
“I understand that the public should maybe have a concern that people like me have the animals in their house,” Mader said. “But at the same time I think people should be free to do whatever they like to do in the privacy of their own home.”
Not every venomous snake owner is as diligent as Mader appears to be. “In all the years I’ve been doing what I do for Pinellas County I’ve actually went and picked up three cobras,” wildlife rescuer Vernon Yates said. “They never found who owned them.”
One of the cobras Yates still keeps in his freezer turned up outside of someone’s garage in Belleair 10 years ago. It was killed by a landscaper before Yates arrived. “He knew what it was and he said he couldn’t wait till we got there,” he said.
Last September a King Cobra named Elvis escaped from permit owner Mike Kennedy in Orlando and roamed the neighborhood for a month before turning up behind a neighbor’s clothes dryer. Kennedy has since given up his license to own venomous snakes. Elvis’ escape marked the third time one of Kennedy’s venomous snakes had slithered into the neighborhood.
Escaped Burmese pythons raise environmental issues now that they’ve begun populating the Everglades as an invasive species, but state-licensed people who own them as pets cherish them. “I’d say it’s the best pet I ever owned,” Dustin Green said. “She’s low maintenance and a great visual piece for the house.”
Green keeps his python Verna locked in a glass-fronted display case that takes up an entire wall of his suburban St. Petersburg living room. Green takes Verna out of her enclosure frequently to handle her but makes sure that his preschool aged daughter Piper keeps a respectful distance. Green insists his daughter is never left alone to interact with Verna.
“This is a tame animal,” said Green. “It’s not a domesticated animal. It’s not a dog and not going to understand when she (Piper) bats at it like a dog does.”
“I encourage people to keep an open mind,” he added. “If they’re not into it, that’s OK. I don’t think it’s something everyone has to like.”
Attorney Mark Tate keeps his 12-foot pet python named Tanya in his South Tampa law office. Tate insists she’s only a danger to the occasional rat or rabbit he feeds her. Tate did have another snake a while back that got loose inside his home and ate the family’s cat. That Python later died when the snake regurgitated the feline and suffered fatal intestinal damage.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission is now phasing out ownership of Burmese Pythons and a select list of other invasive species by revoking state permits once a snake dies. Cobras and rattlesnakes are not on that shortlist.
Python owner Dustin Green understands that constrictors of concern are not everyone’s cup of tea. Even he doesn’t much care for venomous snakes. “That’s a little too high gear for me,” Green said. I wouldn’t be as cuddly with a venomous one.”
Belleair resident Jim Cantonis grew up in Florida and now lives next to the Belleair Country Club not far from the spot where a cobra escaped 10 years ago. Cantonis says coyotes that consume cats now and then are the biggest neighborhood pests right now, but he has no use for anyone who wants to keep a venomous snake or constrictor as a house pet.
“They have no business having creatures like that in a home, period,” Cantonis said. “I think it’s crazy.”
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