Warning: Rat snakes may be slithering into your neighborhood

Rat snakes, bearded dragons, African knife fish, Alligator lizards, Spiny-tailed monitors, Golden poison frogs, Gargoyle geckos – the list of exotic animals you can possess in Maine without permits is an astonishing – and alarming – 14 pages long.

And the laws and rules governing the critters you do need permits to possess are a confusing mess.  Many who buy these exotics from out-of-state vendors don’t even know that permits are required.

While management of exotic animals in Maine is shared by the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry and the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, most of the job rests with DIF&W which receives no public funding for it, so sportsmen are paying all the bills.

The permits are priced at just $23, which doesn’t come close to covering DIF&W’s costs. For example, the agency is supposed to examine the cages of the animals before permits are issued, and annually ever after. That doesn’t happen. And the rules governing cages covers 14 pages!

But wardens are called out to check on exotic animals that are here in Maine without permits, and they have no training that would help them identify the animals or confiscate them if necessary. Many are dangerous.

I attended a meeting of DIF&W’s Wildlife Technical Committee in 2012 at which Derek Small, who is associated with the W.I.L.D. Center and Zoological Park of New England, took a small scorpion out of a container. It turned out to be a confiscated creature on its way to Avian Haven, a Maine animal rehabilitator. I pushed my chair back a bit further from the table!

One of the many problems faced by DIF&W is the lack of facilities to take confiscated exotic animals. Game warden Phil Dugas, a guy with a very dry wit who was at the meeting last year, pointed to the scorpion on the table and said, “I could have handled that scorpion – with a can of Raid.”

Dugas said he was on his way that day to confiscate three-toed turtles. “What do you expect us to do with these?” he asked after passing around a photo of the turtles to see if any of the experts at the table could identify them. No member of the Wildlife Technical Committee could do that. “I don’t think we should be in the rescue business,” noted the outspoken Dugas.

Dugas also reported that wardens need snake sticks. “You can get these snakes delivered to your door. The Asian Cobra is cheap,” he said. Yikes!

Recognizing these problems, the legislature ordered up a task force to “consider the effect of the importation and possession of wildlife and the issues of possession and exhibition of wildlife in the State.”

Among the tasks assigned to this group are: developing recommendations for a list of restricted, unrestricted, and banned species; amendments to current permit structures and fees; and the establishment of appropriate penalties for noncompliance with requirements. Findings and recommendations are due back to the legislature by January 14, 2014.

I attended the first meeting of this task force on October 1 and wrote about it in my weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. You can read that here. You may find some of the stories amusing, like the one about the Auburn fire department that mustered out in July for an apartment house fire, encountering more than 30 large Ball Python snakes crawling around on the floor.

But the issues and concerns are serious and complicated. At the October 1 task force meeting, Warden Lieutenant Chris Cloutier reported that two children were killed recently by a Boa Constrictor in Canada, a snake that requires no permit in Maine. He also said that Quebec seized 15 Whitetail deer from a private owner, concerned about Chronic Wasting Disease.

I will continue to attend and write about the meetings of this task force.               Jim Connolly, DIF&W’s top professional in charge of both the Fisheries and the Wildlife Divisions, asked the best question at the first task force meeting: “What’s a reasonable process including informing people about health issues with each species?”

I still remember another good question Connolly asked at the 2012 Technical Committee meeting: “Should the department be considering any request from anywhere in the world just because somebody wants to have something?”

I say no. How about you? What is slithering around in your neighborhood today?

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. George also hosts, with Harry Vanderweide, a TV talk show called Wildfire, now in its 13th year and focused on hunting, fishing, environmental, and conservation issues. The show is owned and produced by Maine Audubon and seen on its website as well as on the Time Warner cable TV station throughout the state.