Help! My neighbour keeps pythons

“One day, we received a tip-off that a homeowner was keeping exotic animals,” began Louis Ng, Executive Director of Acres, a wildlife protection organisation. “Together with the Agricultural and Veterinary Authority (AVA), we went to a flat in Serangoon and found in the guy’s bedroom green tree pythons, a carpet python, a rainbow boa, bearded dragons, tarantulas . . .  altogether eleven animals and seven species. ”

The largest was the rainbow boa (above) which was as thick as a man’s forearm and about 1.2 metres long. The guy keeping those animals, a Singaporean living with his parents, was fined — and I’ll come to the question of penalties shortly.

Why do people want to keep exotic, often dangerous animals? For sure, it’s got nothing to do with emotional connect; only domestic animals are capable of relating to people. I suspect it’s got something to do with bragging rights: the more dangerous the animal, the more the stupid guy thinks it gives him status and proves his manhood.

“Another tip-off we had was that somebody had dumped polystyrene boxes with tarantulas in them by the roadside,” Louis continued. “Also in the Serangoon area — what’s wrong with Serangoon?”

I shuddered when I saw the picture (above).  What if a schoolboy had chanced on the boxes on his way home and opened one out of curiosity?

“Then there was the Burmese python,” Louis recalled. “Someone called and we found it in a park. It was as thick as a man’s calf and longer than my extended arms can reach.”

“But how do you know it was abandoned?” I asked. “Could it not have just wandered from the forest into the park?”

“Burmese pythons are not native to this region. They’re from India. It must have been smuggled in by somebody.”

The problem with keeping trophy animals is precisely because these are trophies and animals. We all get tired of things we collect at some point, or they are crowded off the shelf when newer trophies arrive. Unlike sports trophies or mementoes from our vacations however, animals grow. At some time, either because the mindless collector gets tired of it or the animal has become too big to handle, and the owner wants to get rid of it. But since it is illegal to have kept it in the first place, he has no legal way to dispose of it. The temptation to leave it outside anonymously is great. But that, as you can well imagine, presents a danger to the public.

Our laws are totally inadequate. Section 5 of the Wild Animals and Birds Act, specifies a maximum fine of only $1,000:

5. —(1) Any person who kills, takes or keeps any wild animal or bird, other than those specified in the Schedule, without a licence shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $1,000 and to the forfeiture of the wild animal or bird.

What is $1,000 when someone can be killed by pythons, or for that matter venomous tarantulas?

There’s even a huge question whether the law, inadequate as it is, is being enforced properly. Some years ago, the developer of Parc Palais in Bukit Batok decided to keep sharks in a tank next to the swimming pool. They brought in one nurse shark and two black tip sharks. The problem was that the tank they built was not much more than 2 or 3 metres in length, but the sharks grew. Black tip sharks can reach 1 to 1.5 metres while nurse sharks can be 4 metres. In any case, sharks need a lot of space to swim.

So just from an animal welfare angle alone, it was crazy to keep sharks like that. This is in addition to whether the condominium should even have acquired them in the first place.

Acres wrote to AVA. “But they said, ‘let’s wait for the sharks to get bigger before we consider removing them’, ” Louis recalled. Later on, they did remove the smaller black tip sharks to a fish farm, but not the bigger nurse shark. As to why they didn’t remove the bigger shark, it’s not altogether clear; though one suspects it was because AVA themselves had nowhere to shelter it, even temporarily.

“So what became of the nurse shark?” I asked.

“It died. It died from being crammed, because in the end it was longer than the tank and its tail was always bent.”

Imagine the suffering.

So it is not just crazy individuals, but even senior management types who have a callous attitude to the welfare of wild animals.

* * * * *

Acres, founded in 2001, is an organisation with charity status concerned with the protection of wildlife. Its vision is a world where animals are treated with compassion and respect

There are six areas of work and focus:

1. Tackling the trade in wildlife;

2. Rescue and rehabilitation of wildlife;

3. Welfare of zoo animals;

4. Cruelty-free living, i.e. aiming for a world without animal testing and cruelty in farming;

5. Human education; and

6. Community outreach.

Louis Ng won the Activism award in the recently concluded Yahoo! Singapore 9, based on an internet poll. Here he is at left receiving the award:

Based in Singapore, Acres is expanding its work to Laos. Partly the move was contingent becase there was an issue with bear farming and Acres was called upon to help, but also because in terms of remaining wildlife diversity, Laos is one of the most intact countries in Asean. Intervening now will save a lot for future generations.

In a follow-up article, I will be writing about a successful undercover investigation conducted by Acres on the trade in tiger parts, and the campaign to get Resorts World Sentosa — one of our two casinos and integrated resorts — to release the dolphins that had been caught from the Pacific Ocean.

(All pictures here, except the Yahoo! award photo, courtesy of Acres)


20 Responses to “Help! My neighbour keeps pythons”

  1. 1 jpatokal 18 August 2011 at 18:29

    Re: tarantulas and “What if a schoolboy had chanced on the boxes on his way home and opened one out of curiosity?”, the answer is “Nothing” — contrary to your assertion, tarantulas are generally not venomous, and even the venomous ones (which are rarely kept as pets) are only mildly so. There are no known human fatalities from a bite, and there is even a species of tarantula native to Singapore:

  2. 2 georgia tong 18 August 2011 at 21:57

    ACRES being a NGO welfare group with limited resources and doing so much good put AVA to shame.

    Thanks ACRES for all your good work.

  3. 3 Anders 19 August 2011 at 00:39

    “Why do people want to keep exotic, often dangerous animals? For sure, it’s got nothing to do with emotional connect; only domestic animals are capable of relating to people. I suspect it’s got something to do with bragging rights: the more dangerous the animal, the more the stupid guy thinks it gives him status and proves his manhood.”

    Beside valid points on Singapore law and animal welfare (where I’m sure at least the second can be properly taken care of), there do exist serious people with a genuine interest in exotic animals. People have different interests. Not everyone’s the same…

    • 4 Poker Player 19 August 2011 at 10:22

      Saying “genuine interest” makes it sound almost benign or virtuous. There is interest, and there is interest with empathy. People with genuine interest know that captivity is not good for wild animals. You only keep them nevertheless if you are missing the “empathy” part.

  4. 6 Andrew 19 August 2011 at 00:45

    Alex, thank you for doing a piece on Acres and the success of Louis Ng’s efforts. I have heard Louis speak several times and he is truly an inspiring and humble public figure with a massive heart and tireless mission. Thank you.

  5. 7 nickybayy 19 August 2011 at 09:46

    Various tarantulas roam our parks as well, even in the well manicured Botanical Gardens. They don’t pose much of a threat to the public and will be more keen to run away than to try to bite you. When abandoned, the exotic pets would have a much higher chance to die than to kill a human.

    Something about the bad impression we have on tarantulas:

    Some may have serious interest in exotic animals – the sweeping statement about proving one’s manhood wouldn’t be a fair one.

    • 8 yawningbread 19 August 2011 at 14:27

      But is capturing and keeping a valid expression of “interest” ? I don’t think so. See Poker Player’s comments too. I stand by my statement that there is something selfish about wanting to capture and keep.

      • 9 Anon 24kQ 28 August 2012 at 20:06

        Not all snakes and reptiles are wild-caught. For instance, Corn snakes and bearded dragons are bred in captivity by quite a number of reputable breeders in the States. Consider that Chinchillas, while originally wild creatures, are captive-bred on farms too and are in fact are available (legally) for sale in Singapore.

  6. 10 Nicky 19 August 2011 at 14:52

    Please don’t get me wrong – I’m not in approval of the captivity of the exotic pets nor the pet trade in general. There are some dog owners who abandon their dogs after they “grow too big” for them to handle as well.

    Just pointing out that the purpose of keeping such pets can be beyond “giving status and proving his manhood”.

  7. 11 Anders 19 August 2011 at 16:07

    Of course there is always a morally questionable side to keeping animals captive (and more so if they are caught in the wild and not bred) but I fail to see how keeping tarantulas in a terrarium is any worse than keeping goldfish in an aquarium.

    Be careful so that you don’t condemn one practice and not the other on your personal feelings of disgust towards the ugly and repulsive, and because you can’t understand how anyone would want to do that….

    • 12 Poker Player 19 August 2011 at 17:51

      In many countries, the material conditions are already there for us not to require the use of animals except for medical and scientific purposes.

      So any use of animals other than for medical or scientific purpose is arguably “gratuitous”.

      But moral progress is always step by step. First the recognition of other tribes as equals. Then of other nations and races. Then the recognition that certain kinds of higher animals should have rights.

      For this kind of progression to happen, there is a special kind of argument we have to fight. It is this:

      You condemn A, but not B. But B is the same thing. So A is alright.

      • 13 Poker Player 19 August 2011 at 18:22

        Not exactly related, but funny – involves differences in attitudes toward lifeforms based on politics:

        “So you could think of these extreme left wing positions. These are people who, I guess, they don’t eat anything except for fruit and they think that trees should have the vote. These guys out here, these are the extreme right wing positions. So they think the poor shouldn’t have the vote and they eat immigrants. ”

        From a Yale University lecture on Game Theory.

      • 14 Poker Player 19 August 2011 at 21:37

        I am reminded of one of Gerald Giam’s (anti-gay opposition NCMP) arguments against legalizing homosexual acts – to be consistent, you also have to legalize bestiality (I am not sure if bestiality is illegal in Singapore). Using this moral framework, we could argue cruelty against animals…

      • 15 Poker Player 19 August 2011 at 21:49

        Or at the risk of straining credulity – animal rape?

      • 16 Anders 20 August 2011 at 04:37

        I’m completely aware of the flaw in that argument and I’m not trying to justify A (although, there is some nuance to this and I don’t really find neither goldfish nor tarantula keeping, reasonably done, to be much to be upset about).

        But all this is completely missing the point altogether!

        What I’m trying to say is that arguments like “since I personally don’t understand why people want to do X I conclude that they must have character flaw Y”, don’t belong on a blog concerned with gay rights. I don’t think I have to spell out the analogue examples for you.

  8. 17 Ben 19 August 2011 at 18:20

    Agree, pet keeping is actually very selfish, and sterilizing pet too, but nobody seems to care about that. What if one day gov decides to farm humans to make up the numbers for the economy, and impose mandatory sterilization for all low income earners? If want to talk about animals deserve respect, this is how disgusting pet keeping actually is.

    So animals deserve our respect in letting them live their own lives or not, or are they there for human use? Pick one or the other, don’t be a hypocrite.

  9. 18 pandamonium 19 August 2011 at 20:33

    “Why do people want to keep exotic, often dangerous animals? For sure, it’s got nothing to do with emotional connect; only domestic animals are capable of relating to people. I suspect it’s got something to do with bragging rights: the more dangerous the animal, the more the stupid guy thinks it gives him status and proves his manhood.”

    Why is there a need to get personal? Do you happen to have any evidence for that sweeping statement. How do you like it if I went around making wide sweeping statements that dont seem to have any basis about gays. Perhaps they are just animal lovers. I keep a snake in my bathtub, have done it for years, no harm or risk to anyone, so what is the problem. When was the last time you heard about snakes and spiders mauling to death the postman? Household pets are much more dangerous by far.

  10. 20 Fuzz 24 August 2011 at 23:26

    Quote: “What is $1,000 when someone can be killed by pythons, or for that matter venomous tarantulas?”

    Hi I like the ACRES cause and I generally speaking support your work for animal rights, but please do try to be more scientific and objective with your posts. You are doing yourself and your readers a disservice with statements such as the above which have no bearing in reality whatsoever.

    Tarantulas are not venomous killers.

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