Right now, hundreds of “hunters” are combing the Florida Everglades, machetes in hand, finding discarded “pet” pythons and chopping their heads off. It’s a grim fate for the snakes, whose slow metabolism means that they will suffer for up to an hour before dying. Appallingly, this cruel endeavor is being promoted as a contest, with actual cash prizes.

Yet just last year, the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers successfully fought a bill that would have made some species of dangerous snakes illegal to import and sell. The group lobbied for three years until the list of prohibited species was gutted by more than half—four species were banned rather than nine.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar defended the watered-down version of the bill, assuring Americans that the compromise wouldn’t “suffocat[e] commerce.” If hoards of hunters invading the Everglades and wielding guns and knives is “commerce,” then Salazar got his wish.

We need to remember that the snakes are there through no fault of their own. It’s a strange lot that insists that pythons, rattlers, constrictors, vipers, and other reptile species make good pets. Snakes shun contact with people and for good reason: They are wild animals who only suffer at the hands of humans. Reptiles do not want to be your friend. They want to be left alone.

Rather than exploring lush jungles and swamps and experiencing all the sensory pleasures that they are so keenly attuned to, captive snakes are relegated to aquariums in which they can’t even stretch out the full length of their bodies, much less move around or climb.

Reptiles have extremely specialized needs, including spectrum lighting, heat sources, and dietary requirements that are expensive, tedious, and technical. Because they can’t vocalize pain or discomfort, it’s easy for owners who feel inconvenienced or bored by their new chore to ignore a starving, dehydrated, or sick snake. Today’s cool pet is tomorrow’s pain in the tank, which is why so many are dumped outside to fend for themselves. Those who manage to survive can harm local ecosystems.

PETA saves animals by speaking out against keeping exotic animals as pets. Breeders and dealers harm animals by marketing them as novelties. As long as special interests trump environmental damage and cruelty to animals, the Everglades and other wild areas will be under siege from discarded snakes and other animals who pay with their lives for humans’ folly.

Image Source: Dough Beckers/Flickr