Forest cobra, inland taipan, bushmaster, rhinoceros viper, African bush viper, Gaboon viper, green mamba, eyelash viper, puff adder and several species of spitting cobra and saw-scaled vipers: These are the types of venomous snakes police in Florida have seized from a black-market ring of traffickers in the past two years, as part of a multistate wildlife law enforcement sting, Operation Viper. In total, police confiscated close to 200 snakes representing 24 species.
Our Florida state director, Kate MacFall, recently presented an award recognizing Operation Viper, which produced eight arrests.
Some animal species should never be kept as pets; dangerous wild animals are especially not suited for it—period. According to data we’ve collected, there have been 77 dangerous incidents in 24 states and the District of Columbia involving venomous snakes kept in captivity (mostly by pet owners) between 1992 and 2022. Nine people were killed and another 47 hospitalized after being bitten by some of the deadliest types of snakes in the world, like black mambas, saw-scaled vipers and king cobras.
The keeping of such snakes is a particular problem in Florida, where both a legal and illegal trade in reptiles flourishes. The trade itself is extremely stressful on the animals; one study of a major international wildlife wholesaler discovered that about 80% of its animals were grossly sick, injured or dead, and each week, nearly 3,500 animals who had died or were on the verge of death, mostly reptiles, were being discarded.
Because of the pet trade, exotic animals like the snakes discovered through Operation Viper constitute a tremendous hazard to the environment as well as public safety. (For several of these species, anti-venom for treating snake bites is not available in Florida or Georgia.) In addition to the dangers they pose to humans, these snakes, whether they escape or are released, can easily survive and thrive in the state’s subtropical climate and gravely threaten many Florida wildlife species.
Already, in the Everglades, the Burmese python, an invasive species, has decimated small- and medium-size native wildlife species over the last four decades, spelling ecological disaster. Florida’s wildlife is already under intense pressure from habitat loss and development, which compounds the threats posed by the often-cruel illegal pet trade. It’s essential to protect habitats for native species while finding humane solutions for the invasive animal species brought into the environment by human beings.
The alleged traffickers caught by Operation Viper carried out much of their illegal activity on closed social media channels or specialized websites, arranging black-market deals that involved in-person meetings to buy or sell deadly animals to undercover officers. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission used search warrants for social media accounts to document the traffic and identify additional suspects. Collaboration with Georgia officials uncovered interstate transport of the snakes in violation of state laws.
Undercover officers encountered several individuals who spoke of their disturbing plans to release prohibited reptile species into Florida habitats to establish accessible wild breeding populations from which they could later profit.
Some of the suspects were allegedly importing large numbers of non-native venomous snakes from around the world. One of those arrested had 27 such snakes in his possession at the time of his arrest. And some of the alleged traffickers were also established dealers in snakes, a serious problem because illegally procured snakes are frequently “laundered” through facilities authorized to sell animals without having to provide information on their place of origin.
One of the reasons this investigation caught my eye was the strong coordination between neighboring states, both determined to stop this illegal trafficking. Florida and Georgia have set a good example, and it’s crucial that law enforcement agencies at all levels take wildlife crimes seriously. After all, we’re asking officials in other nations to do so, frequently under more dangerous circumstances than we could imagine.
In the global market, profits from wildlife trafficking are estimated to be as much as $10 billion. We can only bring an end to this trade through wide-ranging collaborations, properly resourced investigations and the engagement of dedicated public servants.
We are thankful to Major Randy Bowlin of the FWC’s Division of Law Enforcement, who led the investigation, and his team who partnered with agents of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Law Enforcement Division to carry out Operation Viper for the good of animals, people and the environment.
Follow Kitty Block @HSUSKittyBlock.