Utah has a growing snake and reptile problem

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SALT LAKE CITY -- A lot more of those slithery little guys will be popping their heads out in the next few weeks. An American Fork woman learned that the hard way when she found what is called a "breeding ball" of garter snakes in her yard last week.

"They clump up in a ball, like a basketball. You could have up to 1,000 snakes," says James Dix, with Utah Reptile Rescue Service. "There were 50 that we removed."

That was just the first day; Dix says he got rid of another 15 the next day. The homeowner was planning to kill the snakes with bleach before Dix stepped in.

When a snake or any other kind of exotic reptile is wandering around somewhere between Ogden and Provo, Dix usually gets the call to remove it. He says calls have been steadily on the rise in the last decade.

"Seven years ago, we would probably average one call every two to three weeks. Now, with the economy as bad as it is, we're averaging, right now, at least two to three calls a day," Dix says.

Some people don't realize the financial commitment they're getting into. Take the African spur-thighed tortoise as an example. When they get really big, they can chow down $150 worth of vegetables every month.

Other people underestimate how dangerous the animals really are. Dix has had to take in Nile monitors from families who couldn't take care of them when they became really aggressive.

"Their claws are made for ripping flesh apart and tearing it into pieces so they can eat it," Dix says.

Other owners either lose track of their reptiles or simply dump them if they don't want them anymore. For example, Dix had to take in an alligator that was thrown away by someone in Lake Point.

"He got all paranoid thinking he was going to get arrested. He had it in a tub, and he dumped it in the dumpster," Dix says.

Some just don't know they're not supposed to have certain reptiles in the first place. Rules on snakes can vary greatly.

"In Ogden City, you can't have anything over 9 foot, and in Davis County [it's] anything over 10 foot," Dix says.

"A lot of folks don't realize when they have this stuff in another state and bring it to Utah, it is illegal," says Mike Fowlks, law enforcement section chief with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

Fowlks says he's also noticing a steady increase in animals either escaping from their homes or being released into the wild.

"They try to find places that look like they're secluded and out of the way, such as the Jordan River," Fowlks says.

Narcotics officers are seeing plenty of snakes and reptiles too. Sandy police Sgt. Troy Arnold says does not want to imply all people who collect snakes and reptiles are drug dealers, but dealers seem to like the exotics.

"They like to collect those as a status symbol to show the people, ‘Look, I have a lot of money. I can afford exotic animals,'" Arnold explains.

The Sandy Police Department has trained officers on what they should do if they find a reptile during a raid.

"Obviously, we want our officers to be prepared that if they do come across it that they don't panic," Arnold says.

Arnold says he's never seen it, but he's heard stories from across the country of dealers hiding drugs or cash in reptile cages, hoping officers would be too scared to look inside. Officials from the DEA say this is not a common practice in Utah.

E-mail: pnelson@ksl.com


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