Posted by: Loren Coleman on March 14th, 2010
Is it legal to keep a Gaboon viper in Maine? No, but there are other snake species that may be kept, most of which must be captive-bred. The list of unrestricted exotic animals that may be private pets in the state is on the State of Maine government site, here.
A gaboon viper like the one found last week behind a Saco movie theater. This one was photographed at the Cape Fear Serpentarium in Wilmington, N.C.
Jeff Woodbury/Staff Artist
A yellow eyelash viper, a Central American snake, photographed at the Cape Fear Serpentarium.
Jeff Woodbury/Staff Artist
Abandoned viper in Saco puzzles aficionados
By David Hench
The Maine Warden Service says it could confirm by next week who left a deadly Gaboon viper in the woods behind a movie theater in Saco, where it apparently died quickly from the cold.
Investigators said this week that they have interviewed a person who may have owned the snake.
A subculture of owners is drawn to the decorative and dangerous snakes, which are native to sub-Saharan Africa and illegal to own in Maine.
“They’re very beautiful and exotic- looking, with a large broad head,” said Dean Ripa, who runs the Cape Fear Serpentarium in North Carolina, where he keeps four or five Gaboon vipers. “The deadliness factor makes them interesting, but they’re not so hard to keep” because they are not particularly aggressive.
But when they do bite, it’s very bad news, said Dr. Karen Simone, head of the Northern New England Poison Center. “You could lose a limb and you could die, from the bite or as a result of allergic reaction to the anti-venom.”
Treating a Gaboon viper bite would probably mean contacting the Bronx Zoo and getting anti-venom rushed to Maine or sending the patient to New York, she said. There is no such anti-venom in Maine.
“I’ve worked in poison control for 20 years, and almost all the bad bites we have is people being bit by their pets, and many of those were intoxicated people,” Simone said. “You’re not faster than your snake.”
People typically acquire illegal snakes from people who have breeding pairs and sell the offspring, Simone said.
A dog walker found the Gaboon viper behind Cinemagic on Route 1 on Monday. Saco police called in the Maine Warden Service, which has been investigating the case.
David Sparks, a former animal control officer who now runs Sparks Ark Animal Emergency Services, said he has occasionally had to retrieve wayward pet snakes, though never a poisonous one.
“That (viper) was a big poisonous snake. I can’t imagine why someone all of a sudden would decide to get rid of it, unless they were afraid of being caught,” he said.
Possessing an illegal exotic species is a misdemeanor.
Authorities could seek additional charges in Saco because the snake was released where it could have posed a danger to others.
Sgt. Tim Spahr of the Warden Service said the snake apparently was released alive, then simply stopped moving when it got too cold.
Snake fans say such a valuable specimen is unlikely to have been discarded.
Young Gaboon vipers can sell for $500. A 5-foot viper, like the found one in Saco, which was at least 4 years old, could fetch $1,000.
Anyone who keeps a snake knows that it couldn’t survive long in the Maine cold, and needs temperatures of about 88 degrees to digest its food properly, said Robert DuBois, president of the Maine Herpetological Society.
Society members keep all manner of reptiles and amphibians, including decorative frogs, turtles and the most popular pet snakes: ball pythons, corn snakes and boa constrictors.
Nationally, the hobby has grown over the years, with magazines, large shows and conventions dedicated to it.
Large breeders in the Southeast produce 30,000 to 60,000 animals a year, DuBois said.
Snakes make attractive pets, he said.
“They’re a lot easier to keep clean than other pets. Your cat’s going to leave hair all over everything,” he said.
The society has been working with the state to expand the number of reptiles and amphibians that can be kept legally in Maine.
It recently helped to add almost 40 species to the list, including chameleons, colorful dart frogs and new turtle species, as well as more snakes — species that aren’t endangered in the wild and aren’t dangerous, he said.
The society has an adoption service for people who discover they cannot care for their snakes.
Although illegal snakes cannot be posted for adoption, an owner could look to a state that is less restrictive.
Releasing a snake into the Maine woods is almost unthinkable, DuBois said.
“There is nothing that upsets us more than that.”
Ripa, in North Carolina, suspects the viper was left by animal-rights activists — whom he has sparred with over the years — who may have planted a dead snake to create anxiety in the public.
Spahr said that is doubtful. “I don’t think this would have any bearing on our state allowing or disallowing venomous snakes,” he said.
Actually, the theory being pursued, at least in the media, that a live snake was released and then died in the chilly but temperate Maine weather is too simplistic for the evidence presented.
As Chad Arment, a herper, has noted on his blog at Strange Ark:
Snakes require heat to digest prey, and Gaboon vipers require far more heat than native snakes in Maine. With cooler temperatures, a Gaboon viper would have crawled off into the woods and disappeared inside a tree, probably to freeze to death and never be found again. Instead, this snake was found dead, stretched in a hiking trail where it was most likely to be spotted?
A far more likely scenario: someone in Maine (illegally) owned a Gaboon viper that died on them. So, to create a prank, they stretched it out on a walking path.
Meanwhile…other out-of-place large snakes continue to be investigated elsewhere, like the news of an alleged green Burmese python loose in Hamptonshire, UK. It was said to be “several feet long,” and was seen by a passer-by in the undergrowth in Lingswood.