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Kaitlyn Mitchell: Pythons, boas are wild animals, not pets, Saskatoon

A lawyer who seeks justice for animals criticizes Saskatoon city hall’s move to allow more breeds of pythons and boas to be kept as pets.

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Saskatoon residents looking for a new family pet can soon add a range of pythons and boas to their list of options if city council goes ahead with amendments to the animal control bylaw.  

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These ill-conceived amendments, which were approved in principle at a council meeting last month, should be deeply concerning to compassionate residents of all political stripes. 

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The goal of the changes is apparently to align Saskatoon’s bylaw with provincial rules on exotic animals.

But this is nonsensical, especially considering that Saskatchewan’s list of allowable reptiles was heavily influenced by pet reptile keepers and the exotic pet industry, and that more exotic animals will mean an increase in the animal welfare and nuisance problems associated with them. 

Pythons and boas are fascinating animals. But whether born in captivity or captured from the wild, the fact remains that they are wild animals that have evolved over millions of years for life in their native habitats. 

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Scientific evidence shows that reptiles, including many snakes, have advanced cognitive, emotional and social capabilities.

They suffer physically and psychologically in restrictive environments, such as small aquariums and plastic containers which often do not even allow them to fully stretch out their bodies, never mind satisfy their specific and complex biological and behavioural needs.

Though pet retailers and breeders market many boas and pythons as starter pets, who are easy to keep for beginners, the sad reality is that despite their human guardians’ best intentions, these animals are not well suited to life in captivity in private homes.    

For example, in the last 20 years Canada has imported more than 78,000 ball pythons — a complex, nocturnal snake species from the grasslands and forests of Africa.

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Most are doomed to spend their lives in small containers in bedrooms and basements, unable to engage in natural behaviours such as climbing and burrowing. Artificial breeding in captivity can even cause ball pythons to suffer from serious genetic defects.  

Yet Saskatoon city hall is close to allowing these and seven other species of pythons to be kept in the city.

Every year, millions of wild animals are taken from their natural habitats or bred in captivity to become exotic pets. More than 82,000 wild animals are already kept as pets in Manitoba and Saskatchewan alone.  

Many animals destined for the exotic pet trade die during transport and a significant percentage of snakes, lizards, tortoises and turtles die within their first year of life as a pet.  

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The good news is that society’s sensibilities and values have shifted in recent decades and most people do not believe that wildlife should be allowed as pets.  

A 2021 Nanos Research poll in Winnipeg, where I live, found that 67 per cent of residents are opposed to capturing, breeding, and trading wild animals for the exotic pet industry.  

More than 75 per cent oppose the keeping of animals whose environmental conditions cannot be replicated in captivity or who travel long distances in the wild.

Rather than weakening the bylaw, Saskatoon city council should take a step back and consider the wisdom of allowing pythons and boas in homes where they will suffer in silence.  

The risks are particularly high given the city’s lack of restrictions on the number of exotic animals that can be kept in a given household, leaving the door open to unregulated breeders and collectors housing dozens or even hundreds of reptiles within city limits.

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Recent experience in Winnipeg — where a review of the city’s exotic animal rules was cut short following backlash from the pet industry — shows that the economic interests of exotic pet breeders and sellers virtually always win out when pitted against the interests of animals.  

Saskatoon has an opportunity to do the right thing. When the proposed amendments are tabled before city council in January, let’s hope that science and compassion prevail.

Kaitlyn Mitchell is a Winnipeg-based lawyer with Animal Justice, Canada’s leading national animal law group.

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