Pythons in the shower, the river, and maybe your backyard

Ball pythonIt was quite a surprise. A few weeks ago a couple in Veazie discovered a 3-foot-long ball python in their shower. Turns out it had escaped from a neighbor’s house a month earlier. Perhaps, like me, you are astonished that Mainers can possess all the pythons they want – without a permit. And they don’t have to tell their neighbors when their pythons get loose and roam the neighborhood.

The 10-foot python seen in the Presumpscot River in Westbrook in July got tons of publicity and even a name: Wessie. Some called it the Presumpscot Python. Two Westbrook police officers reported seeing the python eat a beaver in the river. Reporter Mark LaFlamme, in a Sun Journal story, quoted one man who said, “Oh, I wouldn’t doubt at all that it ate a beaver. I don’t think it would eat a kid or anything like that, though.”

Don’t be so sure! In 2013, a 100-pound python killed two Canadian boys. According to an Associated Press report, the python “escaped from its enclosure, slithered through a ventilation system and fell through the ceiling into the room where the young brothers were sleeping.” The boys were 4 and 6 years old.

New laws and rules

Our Fish and Wildlife Department is on top of this issue and doing a good job of getting ahead of these problems. Last year, DIF&W proposed, and the legislature enacted, sweeping changes to the state’s exotic animal laws, in a bill sponsored by Senator Paul Davis.

In the previous session, the legislature had authorized DIF&W to organize a task force to examine the exotic animal laws, rules, and issues, and the agency did that, report back to the legislature the following year. That report is very interesting, and provided the basis for Senator Davis’s bill, submitted at the request of DIF&W.

In the report’s list of challenges facing DIF&W were these:

  • It is unclear with current statutes whether the legislature wishes to encourage exotic pet ownership or not.
  • The easiest way to prevent an exotic animal from becoming an exotic pest or invasive is never allowing it into the State of Maine to begin with. This puts the Department at odds with a number of individuals who wish to own exotic pets. DIF&W has an important stake in this area because it has the potential to put our native animals and habitats at risk if pets become pests. At the same time, developing a plan for all wildlife native or exotic can help educate people and engage them in supporting the work of the Department in preserving, protecting, enhancing and managing the wildlife in Maine.
  • Animals are adaptable to changes in their environment and habitat needs. Some states set standards and limitations on importation based solely on climate. Allowing animals to be kept as pets here under the assumption they would not survive our colder climate if released is not a sure thing. Red-Eared Sliders, a species of turtles, are an example of a species that was thought to be a safe pet species and has been released by owners into the wild and has become established outside its native range.
  • Exotic pet owners often feel it is more humane to release an exotic animals into the wild in Maine than turn it into a shelter if they feel it might be euthanized. This is especially true if the animal is in Maine illegally.

Other challenges ranged from fees that were inadequate to cover DIF&W costs, to lack of training for animal control officers and first responders. The latter problem reminded me of the time in 2013 when Auburn firefighters arrived at a fire in the attic of an apartment house, and were astonished by what they saw: more than 30 large ball pythons, some of which were crawling around on the floor.

Law and rule changes

In the new law enacted in 2015, DIF&W was authorized to arrange for independent contractors to make the required annual inspections of exotic animal cages and facilities, instead of game wardens – just one of many changes in the law that strengthened the agency’s oversight of and responsibility for exotic animals in Maine. If you want to read the entire new law, you will find it in Title 12, section 152.

The new law also authorized DIF&W to adopt new rules governing several important aspects of exotic animal possession, including lists of animals that can be possessed without permits, animals that require permits, and animals that are banned from our state. Tomorrow, I’ll tell you about the new rules, approved last month by the Commissioner and Advisory Council.

Big Problems

Lest you think this is not a major issue – and problem – in our state, consider these stories.

A single Mom with two children paid $3,000 for an animal she thought would be a great pet for her kids. Game wardens researched the cat and discovered it to be dangerous. They refused the permit and helped the woman get a refund.

A Portland man sued the pet supply chain store Petco after he was bitten twice by a rat he bought at the chain’s South Portland store. The suit was settled out of court and the settlement was not disclosed.

A family in northern Maine accepted the gift of a wallaby, an animal that can be vicious, often disemboweling its enemies. They might have gotten away with it, but made the mistake of taking their baby wallaby to their son’s baseball game. Someone at the game contacted the Warden Service. But the end of that story is not comforting. After building a substantial outdoor cage for the wallaby, the family got a permit for it.

At a meeting I attended of DIF&W’s Wildlife Technical Advisory Committee in 2012, a committee member took a small scorpion out of a container. It turned out to be a confiscated creature on its way to a Maine animal rehabilitator. I pushed my chair back a bit further from the table! I guess that scorpion was lucky, because 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, 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, passing around a photo of the turtles to see if any of the experts at the meeting could identify them. No one could. “I don’t think we should be in the rescue business,” notes 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 reported. Yikes!

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,, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. Islandport Press published a book of George's favorite columns, "A Life Lived Outdoors" in 2014. In 2014, George also won a Maine Press Association award for writing the state's bet sports blog. In 2016, Down East Books published George's book, Maine Sporting Camps, and Islandport Press published George and his wife Linda's travel book, Take It From ME, about their favorite Maine inns and restaurants.