Do snakes make you nervous?



Seems like the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in New Zealand gets a little nervous when we talk of snakes, especially as New Zealand doesn't have any!

This week it was an 80cm boa constrictor curled up in a shipping container of ornamental palms from Guatemala, discovered by Auckland port workers.

In July a 19-year-old man was jailed for smuggling in two brown and cream mottled corn snakes from Bangkok in his pants.

And, in May 2008, the stowaway was a 55cm ground boa from Indonesia or Papua New Guinea which made its way to Tauranga underneath an empty shipping container from Vanuatu.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry says it is no longer unusual for live
 snakes to make it to New Zealand. Quarantine inspectors from around New Zealand are being sent each year to a snake catcher's course in Adelaide, South Australia, as the frequency of such discoveries increases.

Inspectors are equipped with snake hooks, tongs, gloves, goggles, catch bags and first-aid gear. Detector dogs trained to scent reptiles are available if required. When discovered the snakes are put down immediately.

The Ministry seems nervous about these incursions and perhaps with good cause. New Zealand already provides a damp, temperate climate conducive to snakes.

"Snakes are excluded by law from entering New Zealand. There are no exceptions which is why they are not found in zoos, research establishments or accompanying visiting entertainers," says Jaimie Baird, a quarantine inspector in Nelson and one of 24 Biosecurity New Zealand staff trained to deal with serpent trespassers.

Smugglers face hefty penalties: a maximum of five years in jail and fines of up to $100,000.

Mike Mullany, who was 18 when he smuggled in the two corn snakes in his back pockets on his return from a holiday in Thailand, was sentenced to three months in prison but got out this month after serving only six weeks.

If snakes were to become established in New Zealand, they could wipe out many of our native frogs, birds and reptiles. According to Mandy Tocher, a Department of Conservation 
herpetologist (snake expert) based in Dunedin, New Zealand's native animals could be vulnerable because they have not evolved to deal with such predators. And the snakes could also transmit parasites and disease to native reptiles.

"And they bite," she says. "And it costs money to have anti-venoms ready to go and the experts trained to deal with snake bites."

Kevin Hackwell, from Forest and Bird, agrees. "New Zealand's fauna has evolved over millions of years in the absence of mammals and snakes," he says. "They are not adapted to avoiding predation by these animals and are therefore particularly susceptible to their introduction."

But why not in put them in zoos where at least our Kiwi kids could get a chance to see the real slithery slimy thing? "In case they escape," says Tocher. "The risk is too high."

Where's my dinner?
The parents of little Shaiunna Hare didn't hear a thing. The snake moved silently through the house while they were sleeping. When they rose in the morning and checked the 2-year-old's cot, she was not still breathing. A 2.6m-long albino Burmese python lay wrapped around her body.

The southern stretches of the United States are home to dozens of native species of snakes. Many, like the corn snake, are harmless. Some, like the venomous rattlers and water moccasins, are more dangerous. Love them or loathe them, they all belong and have their place in that ecosystem.

The Burmese python does not - it hails from Southeast Asia. So how did a python come to be in Shaiunna's Florida bedroom last year?

The python, along with a boa constrictor named Dixie, was a family pet.

That same week, thousands of miles away in Bristol, United Kingdom, a 4-year-old tabby cat was killed by a 
Burmese python as it wandered outside to a neighbouring backyard.

"We don't know whether 
Wilbur stumbled across the snake and it was an opportunistic kill or if the snake was actively hunting him," says owner Martin Wadey on his website. "But either way, we heard the python's strike from the terrified scream that came from Wilbur and the subsequent blood-chilling cries as he fought for his life." It was over in less than a minute. Wilbur was consumed whole. His killer, a 4m-long 80kg snake named Squash, had been left outside unattended in an unsecured property while his owner reportedly tended to his laundry.

Stupid snake, he got caught!

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