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Exotic animal ban stirs up crowd

Snake and lizard lovers descended on the Oak Harbor City Hall Tuesday, but luckily for Councilman Danny Paggao, they left theirs scaly pets at home.

Seven people spoke, in some cases passionately, against a proposed exotic animal ordinance that would have made it a crime for residents to keep anything from baboons with red butts to grizzly bears in their homes.

The major concern with the lizard folks, however, was the proposed ban on snakes longer than four feet and on venomous insects and spiders.

Brian Knoll, owner of Island Pet Center, said such a ban would affect many people in the community who have ball pythons, corn snakes, tarantulas and other creatures “commonly kept as pets.” In fact, he sells these animals at his store.

“They are no more harmful as a dog or cat,” he said.

The city leaders were receptive to their plight. Assistant City Attorney Allison Cumberbatch said the ordinance could easily be tweaked to allow larger snakes and venomous insects; the City Council members decided to send it back to a committee to be re-worked.

Even Councilman Paggao agreed that the language of the ordinance was too restrictive, though he admitted he had a bias against creepy-crawly creatures.

“I’m scared of snakes,” he said. “I’m scared of reptiles and spiders. ... I have arachnophobia.”

Councilwoman Sheilah Crider said the idea of of creating an ordinance came from council’s concern about criminals “using poison snakes today to guard rooms filled with illicit items.”

“Police need an extra hammer against law breakers,” she said.

Gary Robinson, a retired dentist and lizard enthusiast, pointed out that an ordinance probably would not stop drug dealers from keeping rattle snakes, but it would affect law-abiding pet owners. He said responsible people should be allowed to keep exotic animals as pets.

“If these animals are properly cared for,” he said, “and not exposed to people in inappropriate ways, they are perfectly safe.”

Knoll, for example, has a seven-foot red-tail boa constrictor in his store. The peaceful snake, affectionately known as Sweet Pea, is a favorite with the preschool students who regularly take field trips to the store.

Knoll keeps the snake, which also makes rounds to elementary and middle schools, to educate children about animals, nature, and to teach them about the responsibility of pet owners.

“She’s a sweetheart,” he said. “She’s incredibly docile.”

Knoll said red-tail boas, which can grow from eight to 10 feet long, are very manageable for one person. Sweet Pea spends most of her time napping in her warm cage and would quickly die if she got loose outside.

He admits that there are several types of snakes — like reticulated boas and anacondas — which can grow up to 20 feet and longer need two people to handle them. Island Pet doesn’t carry such giants, but a person can easily buy those snakes over the Internet.

Such a snake could be dangerous for a herpetological amateur, but there are responsible and knowledgeable people out there.

Also, creatures like tarantulas would also be banned by the ordinance because they are technically venomous, though Knoll said they don’t bite unless in danger, and even if they do, their bites are no worse than bee stings.

Yet Knoll said he understands the concern about police and other first-responders being called to a house with dangerous exotic animals.

He said he’s not sure what the answer is, but maybe some sort of an animal registration system would work. Sort of a dog license for lizards.

He may get a chance to find the answer. The City Council decided that several people knowledgeable about the exotic animal issue should work with the council’s ad hoc committee to revise the language of the proposed ordinance.

The council will take up the issue again later this year.

You can reach Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or 675-6611.

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