THE ELITE MYTH by Scott Bice

Venomous keepers have had a reputation I have heard and seen misconstrued by many people of them being “Elite”. Something I have thought about for a while and just really sunk in this weekend in speaking with a good friend. I thought maybe a look in to some of what Venomous Keepers do and the lifestyles related to our venomous charges might help the other reptile keepers understand us better.

We are not elite or above anyone, In fact many of us started with non-venomous and still keep them in our collections. Just like many in the hobby we breed them sell them collect them. From Boa Constrictors to Corn Snakes time and effort is put in to each individual animal with the same love and compassion. Where we stand apart in the minority of the hobby is we keep the highly deadly creatures by term of venom.

I sometimes find that amusing because once you get past the mystique of venom they are but another reptile. Large constrictors as well as crocodilian are fully capable of killing a person just as dead. Large Varanus are capable of inflicting disfiguring bites. All these animals have something in common they are all capable of inflicting major damage to the keeper if certain safety protocols are not in place. Yet many people keep them and find them rather simple to work with.

Many Venomous Keepers find their animals simple to work with as well. This is from the time and experience put into them just like the time and effort large constrictor, crocodilian ball python or even corn snake keepers put in to their charges. This by no means should encourage that anyone should go out and purchase a venomous reptile because they can handle aggressive non-venomous species. In fact I discourage it strongly to minors or persons with small children.

Many venomous keepers seriously have altered their houses or at least one room to be completely escape proof and invested large amounts of time and money in the remodeling of the room and cages. If we can use the State of Florida for an example as to the degree one must put into learning and education they must obtain before being allowed to own a venomous reptile I think it will show some what of the cost some venomous keepers must face. The Law in Florida is in brief that a person must have no less than 1 year not to be less than 1000 hours in the “Care, Feeding, Handling, Husbandry of the species for which the permit is sought.” With this in mind most persons who wish to go through the process and obtain their Venomous Reptiles Permit” VRL” do so as volunteers with persons who own the species that the trainee wishes some day own. As volunteers by nature are NOT paid for their time and efforts it is done at the expense of the trainee.

If one was to look at the potential cost for this training it shows a very high level of commitment and personal cost. Factoring in that the average pet shop employee is making for sake of argument $7.00 and hour then over the training period of 1000 hours it equates to $7,000.00 of the trainees time. Factoring in the for other expenses such as gas and food during training of another $1,000.00 and then looking at the high probability that the trainee purchases literature and or does web research we can easily factor in another $2,000.00 in time and publications.

Now we can not forget caging, Venomous reptiles require locking escape proof caging and most keepers go with high dollar cages for piece of mind such as Vision, Neodesha , Precision and the like. The price on these cages and other caging needs can easily reach $1,000.00. So we are looking at a potential out of pocket expense of $11,000.00 for that first venomous snake. Ok so some of you are saying no way. Well think about it how, much are you paid an hour at work? Or how much have you spent on caging or reptile related products and books? It is a very real number when factoring it all in to account. That is one hell of an expensive first snake and I didn’t even factor in the animals cost or actual cost for permits.

Training is always a difficult prospect in the aspect you must first locate someone to train you. This can be a very difficult task and one that may lend to the “Elite” misconception people perhaps view Venomous keepers in that light because many when approached refuse to help train. This can be explained in that the financial responsibilities if a trainee were to be bitten can be great. Also many of these people are afraid of taking on persons who may not have the right attitude for handling potentially lethal creatures. Others may just not want people knowing fully what is in their collection and are worried that if it was known animals could be stolen or the potential trainee decides to start bringing friends over to show off, which again lends to financial responsibility to the owner of the animals. Some of these people just like to be left alone as well.

Now if you are able to locate a person willing to train you. You should feel very comfortable with this person at all times. Your life is in his/her hands as their life is in yours. Unlike dealing with non-venomous where a bite be it painful it is not going to be disfiguring or fatal. Some persons who have started training have stopped due to the harshness of the trainer. The seriousness of the trainer is viewed as well as “Elite” which in fact is not. It is however from experience and knowledge of the species and their potential dangers much stricter in discipline.

Working with dangerous species be they venomous reptiles large constrictor, Varanus species, Crocodilians or even big cats or other large carnivores does require much more attention to safety and a seriousness not associated with species that are considered less dangerous to humans. Working with all the above animals is never and should never be allowed by novice persons with no experience in the nature or habits of the animals involved. All animal have certain predictable traits within the species but each animal’s temperament and attitude can vary greatly within the same species including siblings / clutch mates. This is where training comes in with experienced persons in their prospective fields or hobbies.

A good trainer can make you aware of the natural traits of similarity and prepare you for the surprises that can also be found within the species. These people have seen many things and have learned to deal with them as they arise. In speaking to many persons who have dealt with animals categorized as “Dangerous” one thing I have found is the overwhelming importance of remaining calm under all conditions. In some peoples minds a very calm attitude is perceived as “Elite”. This is not true at all. It is something gained over years of experience in working with particular species.

In some cases however people are seen doing highly dangerous acts with very dangerous animals. Keep in mind this is not an “Elite” attitude. Many of the acts you see on television or in a circus or other amusement arena are under highly controlled circumstances. There are many safety protocols and large crews on hand for added safety. These are shows designed to gain ratings or bring in the general public for profit.

Free handling of venomous snakes is another example of why people think of venomous keepers as “Elite” This is not a wise idea by any stretch of the imagination. In fact many venomous keepers frown on this activity. Again this is done in many cases with extreme safety protocols in place. Or devenomised reptiles being used. This action and these animals are in fact a danger to our hobby in a whole in many ways. But that’s for other discussions.

It really comes down to the keeper’s attitude as perceived by others. I have read and met many keepers of numerous species not just reptiles that do have an “elite” attitude and for myself have no respect for these people or their followers. It is these people and their mental aspect that they are “Elite” and better then everyone else that gives any hobby or group within hobby bad names. Venomous keepers are no better or worse then any other group of persons. The major difference however is the overwhelming amount of personal time and research we must for our safety put in to certain aspects of our hobby. Not to take away from any one group or add to any one group. It is just any group of persons dealing with a potentially dangerous animal or hobby does have to put a little more in to it then a group of people not working with potentially dangerous activities.

If you look at driving for instance it is required that a person must obtain a license and pass a test under supervision. Driving is a dangerous activity and thus is regulated. Venomous reptile keeping is becoming more and more regulated. Because of these laws I see more people will soon be coming to current keepers and asking for help. Remember to respect and listen to these teachers and their advice. Remember they are not gods or “Elite” in any way but like their counterparts in other dangerous hobbies they have the experience needed.

Many people like placing pictures of them and their animals on the web or in magazines. General perception of any “Dangerous” animal and their handlers is viewed as by some crazy or persons with large egos or other opinions based on lack of understanding of the person or time they have spent learning about that particular species. You can hear it in a crowd or even read it on the net and much of what you hear or read comes off as “Elite” Again this is not true it is something anyone can do with proper training and understanding of the species.

I have never bungee jumped but I am sure with proper training and advice I could. If a person has the right mentality and the reflexes to handle and work with these animals and in some cases that sixth sense to predict them before they act it does not make them better or worse the anyone else and certainly does not make them “Elite.”

Venomous reptile keeping is certainly not for everyone and not everyone should own or work with them. Just like working with the large carnivores is not for everyone.

- Scott Bice

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