A House Divided

For those of us who keep a certain category of herps — crocodilians, large constrictors or venomous animals — our lives are being made tougher and tougher every day by overbearing regulations. As I have posted previously, I do not object to reasonable laws, but some governmental folks are clearly clueless. And to make it worse, the leading organization in the war to keep common sense from becoming extinct has itself recently become endangered.

I received my State of Ohio Temporary Rules for housing my crocodilians in the mail last week.
901:1-2-08 Order – crocodilia; family – alligatoridae (excluding dwarf caiman); family – crocodylidae; family – gavialidae.
(A) Outdoor enclosures shall be constructed of at least nine gauge chain link or equivalent.
(B) Indoor enclosures shall be constructed of at least nine gauge chain link or equivalent. Sleeping perches shall be provided.
(C) The dry space in the primary enclosure must be two and half times the length and width as the largest animal in the enclosure. All animals must be able to stretch out without touching each other.
(D) The water space in the primary enclosure must be two times the length of the largest animal in the enclosure and the animal must be able to submerge at least six inches under water. All animals must be able to submerge at the same time without touching each other.

I thought I knew what I was doing. But I have to admit, I have no idea what a “sleeping perch” for a crocodilian is. Nor do I know anyone keeping their gators indoors in chain-link enclosures. The land and water requirements are far in excess of those of the Zoological Association of America and also exceed those of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. In fact, if they were not specifically exempted, nearly every zoo in Ohio would be in violation of the state’s housing requirements!

Until recently, we could count on a gentleman named Andrew Wyatt to defend us against these ridiculous requirements. The founder and (until a few days ago) President of the United States Association of Reptile Keepers, Wyatt led the unsuccessful charge against the Ohio law and was absolutely brilliant in November testifying (alongside Shawn Heflick and Dr. Brady Barr) against Senate Bill 511, which would have added several additional species of boas and pythons to the Lacey Act. That bill has now died in committee. He continued to work alongside the Ohio Association of Animal Owners in their recent lawsuit to get parts of the Ohio law overturned.

But, apparently due to a “difference” in philosophy, Wyatt is out at USARK and has now formed the United States Herpetological Alliance (Herp Alliance) with attorney Erika Nicole Chen Walsh, who resigned from USARK several months ago, and others. Both organizations say they will continue to fight for the rights of animal keepers. But will they? And with the split, can there be sufficient funding for both to exist and be effective lobbying organizations?

The reconstituted USARK has affiliated itself with PIJAC, the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, which, more and more, has been a supporter of the so-called “Big Box” pet stores- PetSmart, Petco, etc,- while ignoring the small independent shops who were the Council’s backbone in the late seventies and early eighties, when I was in the retail pet business. These chains have both recently adopted policies NOT to sell live feeder animals, despite selling pets that may require them. PIJAC even stood alongside the heinous Humane Society of the United States in support of Ohio’s Dangerous Wild Animal ban. How can a reptile breeder or keeper support an organization that is so affiliated? And yet some breeders are doing just that.

Meanwhile, Wyatt’s new Herp Alliance says it will reach out to breeders and keepers, but also to researchers and zoos for support. Zoos are also (generally) against allowing individuals to possess large constricting snakes, among other animals. The Cleveland, Columbus and Akron Zoos were in the forefront of getting Ohio’s law pushed through. How can a reptile breeder or keeper support an organization that is so affiliated? And yet some breeders are doing just that.

I have no idea what the “philosophical differences” that caused this breakup are. Hopefully we will hear facts some time soon. We have heard rumor and innuendo, and nobody will deny that Andrew Wyatt has a tendency to rub some people the wrong way at times. But right now, the two organizations are acting like eight-year-olds on the playground instead of like responsible lobbying organizations. Both groups need to grow up and think about their futures, which are bleak.

As Abraham Lincoln said, “A (reptile) house divided against itself cannot stand. It will become all one thing or all the other.’

Lincoln was smarter than I will ever be. He appears to be smarter than the parties involved in this dispute, as well. All I know, is that at this time it is impossible for me to support either organization, financially or with other resources. Before you send a check to either, I urge you to do the same.

Keith with an alligator

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are solely this author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wandering Herpetologist website.
Keith Gisser

Author: Keith Gisser

Keith runs the Ohio based, award-winning, nationally recognized interactive reptile and amphibian program Herps Alive! He has been a herpetology educator for over thirty years and currently maintains about 100 reptiles, amphibians and crocodilians, nearly all adoptions or rescues, about half of which are used in his programs.Gotta a question or comment for Keith? Email him at keith[at]wanderingherpetologist.com

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  1. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

    I wanted to clarify the Herp Alliance’s position with respect to zoos. Zoos and researchers are impacted by the ability or inability to obtain certain species (such as Burmese pythons) and to transport them across state lines. In certain legislative engagements, testifying alongside these institutions has the potential to help private keepers as well and where there is commonality, it makes sense to use strength of numbers.

    Please look at the Herp Alliance Mission Statement here: http://usherp.org/Herp_Alliance_Mission.html

    And please also look at our blog here:

    I hope that helps to clarify certain ambiguities.

    Herp Alliance is not seeking donations at this time. We do hope to earn your trust and we hope to do that by continuing the fight that Andrew Wyatt has led since 2008. If there are concerns I can address for you privately, I invite you to email me.

    Thanks again for writing. I will post a link to your blog on the Herp Alliance Facebook page.

    Kind regards,
    Erika Chen-Walsh
    Vice President
    US Herpetoculture Alliance

    Post a Reply
    • Keith Gisser

      Thank you for your response (for those of you who don’t know, Ms. Chen-Walsh is an attorney who was key to many of USARK’s successes before she resigned in the fall of 2012 -I am pretty sure those details are correct). She really knows her stuff.
      We (myself and the Wandering Herpetologist) appreciate the link to your FB page and the discussion. I think we are all fighting for the same thing, but when we have any division in our lobbying efforts, there is a problem. We simply do not have the power (manpower or financial power) to go head to head with HSUS and the like and when our energies are divided, it is an even greater problem. I have great respect for your work and Andrew’s work. I hold a Lacey Act permit to transport one of my Burmese Pythons across state lines for educational purposes, so I am well aware of the barriers the listing erects. I find this part to be key, and frankly it confirms what I posted in my blog- “Herp Alliance is not seeking donations at this time. We do hope to earn your trust and we hope to do that by continuing the fight that Andrew Wyatt has led since 2008.” I may well be in touch after Monday’s hearing in Columbus.

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  2. Keith Gisser

    Just a quick note, but it looks like I will be testifying at the Ohio Statehouse on Monday, 1/14 about the rules put in place. this will be in front of a Joint House/Senate committee called JCARR, the Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review, which decided if rules should be approved or sent back to the originating agency for amendment.

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  3. Keith Gisser

    Ben, good points. But I think the politicians are not scared of the animals, but rather of HSUS and lobbyists with deeper pockets. We saw a perfect example of an expansion of a bad law being trashed with Senate Bill 511. Unfortunately, in the case of the Ohio law, the Senator (Troy Balderson) who introduced the law, lied through his teeth to us and his fellow politicians at numerous meetings and even in committee hearings.
    What can we do? We can continue to educate. Numerous local mayors and state reps have seen my animals at educational events and are aware that they can be maintained properly by small operations. The problem comes when we (as herp keepers) cannot show a united front, as we see with the USARK-Herp Alliance situation currently, and as we have seen with other organizations (incluidng PIJAC) in the past.

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  4. Ben DeLancey

    How do you convince politicians to let you own crocodilians?

    Politicians are at best apathetic and at worst terrified of the animals in question. Who they see as the leading experts, representatives from HSUS and the local zoo, are against private ownership. The majority of their constituents are likely against private ownership and publicly backing the issue is likely toxic as they likely see crocodilian owners as unsavory people that they do not want to be associated with.

    Right now hot and exotic herp owners are fighting with very limited resources for a cause that few care about against politicians, lobbyists with more money, the status quo, public perception, and a vocal minority(though far larger than themselves). We have to win someone over and the only group that looks reachable right now is the general public and the general public isn’t exactly fond of crocodiles and snakes.

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