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SALT LAKE CITY — Rival snake wranglers tangled Tuesday over the right to possess rattlesnakes. The battle of snake owner versus snake owner wasn't exactly venomous, but it wasn't friendly either. After both sides got their licks in, the Utah Wildlife Board ended a rattlesnake monopoly, allowing a competitor into the business.
The challenger was Shane Richins, president of Scales and Tails Utah. He puts on education events and shows involving various reptiles and wants to add rattlesnakes to his repertoire, like his competitor, James Dix.
"Competition breeds a better product," Richins said. "That's what capitalism's all about, and that's what America's all about."
State approval is not required for possession of most snakes, but it's a different story for venomous creatures. It's illegal to possess one without a variance approved by the wildlife board.
Dix, of Reptile Rescue Service, is the only person previously authorized to have rattlesnakes. He puts on snake shows, supplies snakes to movie crews and rescues snakes as a community service. He says owning a venomous snake requires special skills. "They're not like a dog. They don't return affection and love, so you have to remember that," he said.
The snake owners don't seem to have much affection and love for each other. As they clashed before the wildlife board, Dix questioned Richins' competence to handle dangerous snakes, suggesting Richins has a weak track record with non-venomous snakes.
"If you can't control a harmless animal," Dix said to the board, "why would you give a 6-year-old a loaded handgun, in my eyes?"
Dix criticized Richins and his employee Jeremy Westerman for allowing a python named Squish to bite a boy in the face during a Halloween party in West Jordan last October. Dix provided the board a letter written by the boy's mother, which accused Scales and Tails of being careless in handling the python. "I do not believe they should be trusted with a venomous snake licence(sic)," the letter said.
They're not like a dog. (Rattlesnakes) don't return affection and love, so you have to remember that.
–James Dix, Reptile Rescue
Dix said the bite, or a squeeze, from the python could easily have been fatal for the boy. "If he would have got bit in the jugular vein, he could have bled out," Dix told the board. "Protocol should have been two people (handling) a snake like that, and it was only one individual there."
Richins said he retired Squish from public events after the biting incident.
"The bite incident was very unfortunate," Richins said, "and we've changed our protocol since then to make sure that doesn't happen again." He contends his employees are well-trained professionals, unlike Dix who has decades of experience but is largely self-taught, according to Richins.
Before the board, Richins questioned Dix's motives and personality. "He has the monopoly on the venomous snakes right now," Richins told the board. "Right now films have to use him."
He said movie companies use Dix's snakes because they have no choice, but they don't like working with Dix. "He's difficult to work with," Richins said.
Jeremy Westerman, who works for Richins as a reptile educator, challenged Dix's competence in comments to the wildlife board. "The python bite in question," Westerman said, "it's interesting that Mr. Dix brought that up, because he had a python bite (someone) during a public event."
(Dix) has the monopoly on the venomous snakes right now. Right now, films have to use him.
–Shane Richins, Scales and Tails Utah
Dix took offense at that statement and responded from the audience. "You want my defense on that?" Dix asked the board. "It was behind the counter (at a snake exhibition) and we were pulling the snake out. It grabbed my employee, and it was a six-footer, on her thigh."
Richins argued with that statement, telling the board "it was a 10-footer and it was being carried around at the time."
The wildlife board warned the two sides not to let it get personal, but Richins, Westerman and Dix carried their dispute into the hallway and continued to argue after the meeting.
Ultimately the board sided with Richins and approved a variance allowing him to possess rattlesnakes. That followed an investigation by a Certification Review Committee.
"The committee, after reviewing the qualifications of Shane Richins, did not have any significant concerns," said Chairwoman Staci Coons.
The committee proposed restrictions that were accepted by the board. Among them, Richins promises not to handle rattlers during shows and to keep them locked up behind glass.
"They'll never be exposed to the public," Richins said, "so the safety concern is nil for the public."