Wrangler sees spike in exotic reptile smuggling

Posted at 9:20 PM, Aug 01, 2013
and last updated 2013-08-02 00:41:00-04

KAYSVILLE, Utah -- Authorities are seeing an increasing number of exotic, venomous and dangerous reptiles being smuggled into Utah.

"A lot of this stuff people are driving in or ordering online and having shipped from out of state," said James Dix, the owner of Reptile Rescue Service, whom authorities often call out to wrangle seized reptiles.

Last week, firefighters in Clearfield rushed into a home to put out a kitchen fire -- only to find 28 snakes inside. Most were pythons and boa constrictors (legal in Utah), but Dix said six were illegal rattlesnakes, including an albino diamondback as well as a Gaboon viper.

A few days later, he said, a woman called him and turned in her son's saw-scaled viper, a venomous snake native to Africa and the Middle East.

"In the last few years, we've been seeing a lot in alligators and snapping turtles," Dix told FOX 13. "We've had over 30 alligators in three years."

One alligator, Dix says, he fished out of a garbage bin at a fast-food restaurant in Lake Point. Another alligator was found in the Kaysville Botanical Gardens Pond, where someone had dumped it.

"The kids were running around with it when one of our employees arrived," Dix said.

Among his menagerie of recovered reptiles, Dix shows off a 60-pound snapping turtle found in the Jordan River.

The foreign species wreak havoc on an ecosystem and pose a significant public safety threat. For some of the more exotic creatures, anti-venom is rarely close at hand.

"We believe that there are more people keeping exotic animals than we're actually aware of at this point," said Ray Loken, a conservation officer with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. "There are things like antivenin that would keep people safe that is in short supply, maybe even non-existent here in the state."

Some of the most venomous snakes are also some of the most beautiful, Dix said, explaining the allure for people to play amateur herpetologist. Some people get alligators as pets and they grow too big to handle, so they're abandoned.

Law enforcement has also documented instances of drug dealers keeping reptiles as a sort-of "guard dog" for their narcotics; a police officer would be reluctant to stick their hand in an aquarium with a venomous snake to search for drugs.

"Usually it's somebody that's a drug dealer or on drugs, and the cages are just a glass tank that might have peg board on top with a brick for a lid," Dix said. "You wouldn't want something like that in your neighborhood with a venomous snake."

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources said venomous snakes are illegal to possess without the proper permits. Beyond seizing the reptile, there are criminal charges that include fines up to $1,200.

Dix said he was working with state officials to set up an "amnesty day" for people to hand over exotic and dangerous animals and not face criminal charges.

"I'm just worried that we'll get so many we won't be able to handle it," he said.