Bull. Chicago Herp. Soc. 35(5):93-134, 2000.  Revised August 2001.

Degenerated Science

Critique of the Proposed New Laws Protecting Venomous Snakes in North Carolina, and a Request for Science and Factuality in the Evaluation of Animals for the Endangered Species Act

It is in man's power to content himself with the proofs he has, if it favors the opinions that suit his inclination or interest, and stop further research.
John Locke

An unflinching determination to take the whole evidence into account is the only method of preservation against the fluctuating extremes of fashionable opinion.  Alfred North Whitehead

In a progressive research program, theory leads to the discovery of hitherto unknown facts; in degenerating programs, theories are fabricated to accommodate known facts.
Imre Lakatos, The Methodology of Scientific Research Programs

The first symptom of pathological science is that the maximum effect is produced by a causative agent of barely detectable intensity. Second, the effect is of a magnitude that remains close to the limit of detectability. Third, the investigators claim great accuracy of measurement. Fourth, fantastic theories that contradict experience are presented. Fifth, criticisms are met with ad hoc explanations presented on the spur of the moment. Sixth, the ratio of supporters to critics rises to somewhere near 50 per cent and then falls gradually to oblivion. In all, pathological science arises from self-delusion.
Irving Langmuir, Nobel Prize-winning physicist  

Necessity is the plea of every infringement of human freedom.  It is the argument of tyrants, it is the creed of slaves.  
William pitt

Abstract

I sampled the advisory reports of a "Scientific Council," whose members are working to influence lawmakers regarding wildlife (nongame) regulations and the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in North Carolina. These reports concern putatively "declining" populations of certain reptiles and amphibians, especially rattlesnakes.  I reviewed these reports, and compared their methodologies and results with the known data.  My diagnosis is that they meet Irving Langmuir's definition of pathological science.  By focusing on a causative agent of barely detectable intensity, these programs will achieve barely detectable results. 

Moreover, because these programs amount to misdiagnoses, they are leading environmentalists down a "primrose path" toward the extinction of the affected animal populations. In keeping with Mackay's "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds" (1852), I conclude this "Scientific Council" to be a phenomenon of bandwagon mania. 

Exploiting their institutional affiliations to ride under a banner of science, the membership is in reality an activist group allied more to McCarthy-style propaganda organizations than to science.  Deluded themselves, they delude state and federal government into adopting degenerated and ultimately ineffectual programs as an "easy way out" of the environmental controversy.  

I show how large vested interests in environmental protection (ESA, CITES, and corresponding regulatory agencies in federal and state government) profit from the endangered species phenomenon and unintentionally bolster it from the standpoint of enlarging their own bureaucratic power base, absorbing hundreds of millions of dollars of public funds that would be better directed toward real solutions to the endangered species problem.

In this paper I focus on a new rattlesnake "protection" regulation slated to go into effect in April 2001.  I explore the justifications posed for this regulation and the expected outcomes, none of which, unfortunately, will protect the snakes as planned.  They will, however, cause many local problems while giving us a false sense of assurance that something positive is being done to help the snakes. In effect, the regulation is targeted to affect a statistically insignificant "offender" that because of wide publicity in a variety of popular venues (and the propaganda of misguided government activist groups looking for a pogrom) has assumed an aspect of exaggerated importance. 

Portrayed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a "billion dollar a year monster that is decimating our native reptiles and amphibians," the commercial trade in live domestic snakes (all species; but herein referent mostly to venomous snakes) is of such insignificance that its alleged impact can barely be detected statistically. Indeed, it is vastly exceeded by the numbers of these same animals killed annually from roadway mortality throughout the United States.  Thus the attack on commercial trade in snakes in an effort to save declining species is pathologically formulated (by the Langmuir definition), to the extent that only a deluded outlook could seriously entertain it.

I show (1) that the targeted "offender" is not statistically relevant to the populations of these species and so eliminating them will produce no measurable effect; (2) that these particular species cannot benefit from such protection as can be offered by the ESA; (3) that a growing ESA is the greatest proof of its failure; (4) that the ESA has reached a critical mass, having become so enormous as to perform no useful benefit to most forms of wildlife; (5) that abolishing the ESA and establishing in its place an EHA (Endangered Habitat Act) is the only tenable recourse in a world where the human population that has also reached critical mass.

The world cannot benefit from a larger ESA.  It can, however, benefit from more and larger wilderness areas, national parks and reserves.  Within this system, the herptile must be managed as a game resource for everyone.  In an EHA model, so called "nongame" is elevated to the status of "game," made abundant, and its use as a resource by the public is encouraged, however "managed" as is other game. In an EHA model, monies that would be squandered on failed police crusades are diverted toward land purchases and thus saving habitat;  in an ESA model, monies are wasted chasing an infinitely proliferating "offender" and such little habitat as is gained is taken away from the public at the price of coercion and ill-will.  An expanding EHA improves the human environment, whereas a proliferating ESA is worthless to humanity and damaging to nature in direct proportion to its increase.  The larger the ESA, the greater the measure of its failure.  The larger an EHA, the greater the measure of its success.  This is purely rational.

Beginning on the local level with the present "rattlesnake" problem, this paper investigates the national and ultimately international implications of the "pathological approach" to wildlife conservation.  The reader will discover that the rattlesnake issue is but the "tip of the iceberg" in a madness that has extended from a deluded scientific community to the government agencies they have also inadvertently deceived.  Using the "specimen" situation in North Carolina, I uncover in detail the flow of this pathology as it creeps from the non-scientific activist groups that foment it into the broader conservation efforts of state and federal government.  The best efforts of a conservation movement reliant on such mentally "unhinged" systems can only be doomed to fail.

Foreword

A group calling itself the "Amphibian and Reptile Scientific Council" has formed in North Carolina in order to influence state lawmakers into granting official protection to four of North Carolina's venomous snakes.  These are the eastern coral snake (Micrurus fulvius), and the eastern diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus), both of which will be elevated to a state-listed "Endangered" status; and the timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) and the pigmy rattlesnake (Sistrurus miliarius), both of which will be elevated to "Species of Special Concern." A harmless snake, the southern hognose (Heterodon simus) will also be granted a "Special Concern" status.  The reason given for this action is a supposed "decline" in the numbers of these animals.  Under the proposed law, the snakes cannot be killed; they also cannot be moved, collected, released, or kept in captivity.

The law states that the snakes "can be killed in self-defense," but because the definition of "self-defense" is vague and ultimately meaningless outside of the subjective context, we judge that the law can have no practical enforceable value.  It is merely a token, or symbolic protection that will cause more problems than it solves in North Carolina, bringing many honest citizens to face criminal charges they do not deserve, and do little or nothing to help populations of snakes, since the true causes of reptile decline are not being addressed.  It is also a highly dangerous law from the public standpoint in that it bans the public's ability to prevent the occurrence of snakebite, which is a phenomenon of accident, not, as our lawmakers imagine, from direct confrontation (see below).

In this article we look at the possible effects of this ruling on North Carolinians and North Carolina native snakes.  We review the true causes for reptile declines and place them in order of their statistical importance, with an emphasis on demolishing a popular myth: that deliberate human persecution (especially for live commercial trade) has a significant impact on the populations of widespread native snakes.  We will also take a look at the self-dubbed "Scientific Council" in order to better explore its own motives.  Since they have performed no scientific investigation to support their proposal, we judge that this issue has no basis in science, but was influenced by emotion, political climate and in some cases, self-aggrandizement among its membership. 

Further, we will show that this new proposal by the "Scientific Council" is but an extension or highly amended version of a previous (1998) proposal entitled "Report of the Reptile and Amphibian Scientific Council on Commercial Trade," in which this same council attempted to ban public access and usage of some 148 North Carolina native species.  In effect, under the guise of "protection," the new law proposal (2000) is but a covert incremental measure whose overall goal remains the same—to end public access (use) to North Carolina native reptiles and amphibians.

The snakebite issue: Why North Carolina?

Studies tell us that there are about 7000–8000 venomous snakebites each year in the United States, most of which are caused by rattlesnakes (Russell, 1983). The incidence of snake venom poisoning in North Carolina is described as being the highest of any state, with approximately 18.79 bites per hundred thousand people. This amounts to about 1100 venomous snakebites each year in North Carolina, accounting for about 15% of all snakebites in the United States. By contrast the incidence of snakebite in Maine is 0.00 per 100,000 people; in Vermont it is 0.08; in New Hampshire it is 0.16; in New York it is 0.22; in Massachusetts it is 0.04; in Connecticut it is 0.16; in New Jersey it is 0.41; in Pennsylvania it is 0.65; and in Maryland it is 1.35. 

As we reach the south, however, snakebite begins to present itself as more of a health issue. In Virginia it is some five times higher than in adjacent Maryland, with 5.49 bitten per 100,000 persons. In North Carolina, it becomes some 85 times higher than New York, 15 times higher than in Maryland, and three times higher than in Virginia.

The "Scientific Council" tries to justify its agenda in North Carolina by telling us that similar laws already exist in these northern states, and that North Carolina should sensibly follow their lead. And yet such a comparison is specious: snakebite is a southern problem. It is not now nor has it ever been a problem in the industrialized north. Moreover, North Carolina is also a comparatively much less developed state, with a large area statute (over 52,700 sq mi). It is here we begin to see the first signs of the pointlessness of a law protecting a dangerous and not uncommon predator. With the highest incidence of snakebite in the nation, where is the shortage of venomous snakes in North Carolina?

A popular myth (and one played upon by the "Scientific Council") is that killing (or catching) the snakes accounts for most snakebites. Therefore, to pass a law against killing and catching snakes will reduce snakebite. This is far from accurate. I can find no original source in the literature for this oft-repeated statement seen in tabloid venues. Russell (1983) remarks that of all reported bites by venomous species, probably at least 75% could be considered legitimate (i.e., non-interactive), while in other areas almost 100% will be legitimate. Snakebite remains first and foremost an accidental phenomenon. Most of these accidents occur near the home or in agriculture; they more rarely occur during hunting or hiking.

It must be conceded that of the annual 1100 bites, very few will result in death (about two every ten years in North Carolina; 7 - 15 overall U.S.). This is a fact that the "Scientific Council" makes a great deal of in its press reports, in order to justify the proposed law. And yet two mortalities every ten years is still about twice the number of deaths that have occurred over a similar period from rabies—and no one would think to suggest that rabies is not a public health problem.  If 1100 rabid animal bites occurred on human beings in North Carolina every year, you can be sure the North Carolina Public Health Office, as well as the citizenry, would be in a panic.  Contradicting the "Scientific Council," an illness need not end in death for it to be viably counterproductive to the lives of North Carolinians.  And as any victim of pitviper bite will attest, snakebite is one of the ugliest things that can happen to you.

Snakebite is not merely a matter of showing up at a hospital, getting a shot of antivenom, and going home.  If you survive the envenoming (and the antivenom, which is itself dangerous), depending on your case and the species, you can expect to be bedridden for many weeks, and will perhaps endure permanent disability.  Intense pain, massive swelling, blistering, necrosis, gangrene resulting in amputation and other disfigurement, permanent scarring (from surgical fasciotomy), muscle contracture, osteomyelitis, neurological deficits, kidney and liver damage are all well documented.  Every envenomed patient will show one or more of these symptoms.  The antivenom itself may kill you (a case occurred in Brunswick County in 1977).  

Hospitalization costs to treat snakebite start at about $6000 per day.  The victim of a severe timber rattlesnake bite can expect a minimum of 2-6 weeks in the hospital, and up to a year further recovery.  Other patients require repeated hospitalization, and there may be seemingly endless operations to remove necrotic debris (sloughing) as it occurs, with plastic surgery required to correct local damage. Some persons never actually "get well" but endure disability all their lives. Many victims are rural people, who do not possess the means to deal with such costly medical expenses.  The council members do not consider this in their report, and give no indication of even being aware of it.  Instead, they simply point to the remarkably low number of deaths, as if death were the only legitimately detrimental effect of snakebite.

The "Scientific Council" reveals a grave naiveté about what snakebite is, and how it occurs.  Their law allows persons to "defend themselves if their lives are in danger," but any other means of "defense" is forbidden.  If the snake is on your property and "not hurting anybody" you will just have to live with it, for you cannot legally kill it, or even catch it in order to move it away (nor will the state come and collect it for you, as we shall show).  While you can "defend yourself" in a moment of confrontational danger, this is an unrealistic conception of how snakebite occurs. Factually speaking, if you can see a snake you are probably already out of danger.  Warnings about "what to do" when confronted with a venomous snake are mostly irrelevant to your survival.

It is just here that the "Scientific Council" goes astray: they imagine that like bear attack, snakebite involves a "confrontation sequence" between man and snake, wherein a snake/attacker physically confronts and threatens a human being, and the potential victim has time to reflect about his destiny and act accordingly. This is not how most snakebite happens. Snakebite happens accidentally—and so rapidly the victim may not even be aware of it until after the bite has been struck.  

The victim steps on the snake accidentally, through not seeing it; or puts his hands on its accidentally, or sits on it, or any of the myriad other ways man and snake come together.  Snakes are well camouflaged and difficult for the average person to see. A human victim has no time to decide whether or not his "life is in danger," since chances are he will not see the snake that bites him, and in many cases, not see it even after it has done so. This is why polyvalent (broad spectrum) antivenoms were developed to treat snakebite—because in most cases people do not see the assailant, and cannot correctly identify the species even if they do.  The antivenom was developed to treat all snakebites in a given region to account for this problem.

This brings us to a most important point.  A human being does not kill (or catch to move) a snake because he fears his life in danger at the moment he sees the snake: he kills the snake to prevent his life becoming endangered in the future when he may not see that particular snake or its offspring.

Herpetology defines the pitviper (e.g., rattlesnake) as a "mobile ambusher" (Greene, 1997). Using crypsis (camouflage) the snake coils at a place favorable to its needs, or lies stretched out, in such a way as to escape detection.  It is so good at escaping detection that the rodents and birds it feeds on can't see it.  People can't see it either.  Hence they step on it, or so near it, as to provoke it to strike.  Snakes are small, difficult to detect animals that are impossible to avoid because it is only by accident that the two, human and snake, make contact.  Hence, the very presence of a rattlesnake on or near someone's home or property, or near where people walk, places those people’s lives in danger—no "life-threatening confrontation" is necessary.

It is very difficult to tell a man or woman whose arm or leg has just "rotted off" from venom necrosis, or who has spent six months in and out of hospitals enduring corrective surgery, that they should not have killed the rattlesnake they saw crawling near their property a month (or year) before the bite occurred. A person whose son or daughter is lying in a morgue, or is permanently disfigured, is not readily susceptible to far-flung concepts about "reptile decline."  The rattlesnake they saw crawling near their property, and did not kill out of fear of legal prosecution, may not have been the culprit—but if the snake was adult and female and it was in spring or summer, she was probably pregnant with 10 or more young that can reach 3 ft in length in a year's time.  Today the snakes are in the woods next door, tomorrow they are in your yard beneath the shrubs where children are playing, or hiding in the flowerbed where you are doing garden work.  The saying, "the only dangerous snake is the one you don't see" is axiomatic.  A venomous snake is a mobile bear-trap waiting to be stepped on.

What will the new law achieve?  Will it spare the lives of snakes, or merely alienate a public already weary with government interference in their lives?  Faithful followers of previous protection regulations will learn to distrust the wisdom of a Wildlife Resources Commission that would place a rattlesnake's life over their own or that of their children (or family pet, to which a rattlesnake bite is quickly fatal).  Furthermore, since wanton killing of vertebrate animals is already illegal in North Carolina (and this law is not presently enforced) and laws to prevent cruelty to animals exist also, the new law to protect rattlesnakes is already redundant and can serve no useful purpose.

Obviously this law is unenforceable.  Sensible people will simply disobey it—and keep quiet afterwards ("shoot, shovel and shut up").  Insensible people (and there is an abundance of them) will do the opposite, and begin phoning state government every time they see a snake—any kind of snake they mistake for a rattlesnake.  Because the government will not, of course, have the facilities to respond to the thousands and thousands of snake "nuisance calls" that will result from mistaken identity (there are over 40 native species of harmless and venomous snakes to confuse the public), a state policy of not answering snake nuisance calls will confirm a distrust of state government. Is distrust the message our state government wishes to send to North Carolinians?

Echoing the opinion of many North Carolinians who have deep reservations about this law, the author sent a letter to the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC), emphasizing his grave misgivings about the idea:

Venomous snakes are my life's work. I have collected them in 35 countries and on five continents.  These include the world's most dangerous species: king cobras, forest cobras, spitting cobras, mambas, kraits, gaboon vipers, fer-de-lance, bushmasters, and dozens of others.  I have studied them, written about them, and, in accidents that were always avoidable, been bitten by them.  Four times these bites were nearly fatal.  Obviously I truly "love" snakes, or I wouldn't be in this kind of work.  And yet my love of snakes has not turned me into such a fool as to want a live rattlesnake running loose in my yard, where it can bite my wife, children, and my pets!  The thought that I cannot remove a rattlesnake from my property under penalty of law is abhorrent to me.  The thought that if the state can be induced to remove the animal for me (they have no program for doing so), they must then euthanize (kill) it, is equally repugnant (the law does not allow the animals to be released).  So when I hear a NCWRC "protection" advocate whose contact with venomous snakes is minimal at best, tell me that he thinks rattlesnakes are "cool" and for that reason alone ought to be protected, my skin crawls to know that such people have somehow found themselves in positions of power over our lives.

I would feel a sense of profound unease if I were the one responsible for passing this law.  And yet somehow the climate has so altered in North Carolina that our government has no such conscience, nor sense of responsibility toward the people who live here.  The law proposal is blatantly irresponsible in all aspects and the public cannot be expected to live by it.  If the proponents of this law could experience snakebite for themselves, would they reconsider?  They are not likely to have to.  Spending most of their days on college campuses, living in concrete and condominiums, watching snakes run their paces on television and lulled into a dreamy stupor about a phenomenon of nature they have had little contact with, they are not in a position to regulate the lives of those who encounter venomous snakes on a frequent basis, such as hunters, farmers, and other rural people.  Nor are they competent to regulate the venomous snake researcher or other person who works with venomous snakes on a daily basis.  They simply do not know enough about it, and cannot learn enough in the few hours or days they are willing to devote to it, to make an informed decision.  Probably the majority of these "protection" advocates have never even seen a live rattlesnake in the field and would have no idea about how to go about finding one, or catching one, or taking care of one in captivity.  We can be equally certain that, for all their vaunted "training," the 200 or so state wildlife agents that will be put on the job to enforce this law have not the least inkling of how to deal with dangerous snakes they will encounter, how to find them (for the snakes will not wait on law enforcement to arrive), or how to collect them without hurting them when the situation requires them to do so.  Imagine a pair of panicking state employees attacking a poor reptile with six foot metal tongs, breaking its neck and back in order to cram it hastily into a plastic trash can before hauling it off to be killed (outside of the public's eye), and you have constructed a fair picture of what will happen on a "nuisance" rattlesnake call once the state becomes involved.  Perhaps it is just as well that such nuisance calls will rarely be answered by the state, once the state realizes the true extent of the public's snake identification skills, and the mess they have created for themselves.

What is the hidden agenda of the "Scientific Council" that it would ignore these issues in favor of a ruling that our police cannot enforce, and that our judicial system cannot countenance?  Is this a benign, if misguided, effort to "protect snakes" as its inventors assert?  Who are the members of the "Scientific Council" and what do they do?  In this paper we take a close look at the self-dubbed "Scientific Council" and its membership, and delve to the bottom of its real purposes and aims.  You will learn that this regulation has little to do with protecting snakes, just as it has nothing to do with protecting the rights and lives of North Carolina citizens.  You will learn that it is full of hypocrisy, exclusions and loopholes.  You will learn of a confused North Carolina Nongame Office that would like to shut down the hobbyist collecting trade in all native reptiles and amphibians, but which cannot even grossly guess how many examples of any species are taken by hobbyists in any given year, owing to their long opposition to a sensible quota or "bag limit" on take.  

You will learn that the new law is guided by a federal impetus that is itself without scientific verification, an attempt to make a plan devised for northern states "fit" a southern state, where it is not applicable.  You will learn that federal protection of these species and others, when granted, will bring revenue to the North Carolina Nongame Office through federal appropriations (through the ESA).  Granting that the primary goal of any bureaucracy is to expand its power base, we will show that there are strong incentives in the pipeline for this state government and others to comply with federal edicts from a monstrously powerful U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), which administers the ESA.  

We will show how the problems generated by this law will justify bureaucratic budget increases, hiring of new agents and personnel etc., enabling its advocates and creators to rise higher on the bureaucratic pyramid.  You will learn that there is money in the protection of native wildlife (far more money, in fact, than in selling it), and that job security is directly proportionate to the number of species that the state is charged to "protect."  And you will learn also that the name "Scientific Council" is a misnomer; that its goals have nothing to do with science, and that, indeed, it has not even employed science in order to draw its conclusions.

Who will be affected?

Snakes have many uses.  They serve purposes in medical research and pharmaceuticals; their venom is used to make life saving antivenom; their body parts are used as clothing (as for shoes) and meat; they are displayed educationally to the public, and purchased by zoos and fanciers who maintain them alive in terrariums. In short, snakes intrigue people from many different walks of life, from hobbyists to artisans to scientists.  Snakes have been used in a sustainable way in the U.S. since its birth as a nation.  Like other animals, snakes are "farmed" (herpetoculture).

Just what does the proposed law do? In brief, it bans all use of these animals by the public.  Put plainly, you can't kill them, buy them, sell them, study them, keep them alive in captivity, propagate them, and you can't acquire them from out of state.  You cannot possess any body part of one (e.g., skins, shoes or other products made from skins). You cannot serve the meat in a restaurant, or buy it in a grocery store.  You cannot possess their venom (if you are a researcher, or in the business of providing such venoms to researchers).  If you are in business to reproduce these snakes in captivity (e.g., for commercial sale to medical research or zoos or other venues), you have to go out of business.  You cannot move the animal off your property to avoid having to kill it, for if you are caught in possession of it, you will be accused of being a trafficker in endangered species (a very serious and costly offense).  You cannot rescue one from the roadbed in order to save its life.  If you kill one, you have to "prove" that it was in self-defense.  In other words, the rattlesnakes you see crawling about your yard or property must be left in place until they become a demonstrable threat.  And because the "onus of proof" is being placed on the public "to the extent possible"—you have to prove your innocence before a court of law.

Advocates of this Orwellian ruling have tried to trivialize the importance of this last factor, realizing that it might scare the public.  The public has good reason to be scared.  Note the case of Frank J. (Jerry) Christman of Athens, Ohio.  I quote from a recent Washington Daily News, Fred Bonner's column, "Carolina Outdoor":

According to Leeann Potts, news anchor with radio station WSEO in Nelsonville, Ohio, a local logger has been arrested and charged with possession of an endangered species, a rattlesnake!

Back in the summer of 1998 the snake was accidentally killed by a falling tree in the course of a logging operation.  Christman and his son found the dead timber rattler after the tree fell. They then took photos of the snake and placed it in their truck.  For a couple of days they hauled the snake around showing it off to people, and then disposed of the carcass.  The photos remained in circulation for some time after that.

Evidently some local environmentalists picked up on the killing of this snake and were incensed at the fact that the logger was in possession of the dead reptile.  Under the Ohio endangered species law, this was illegal!

Athens County Prosecutor, Lisa Eliason, who is running for state office this fall, evidently intends to make an example of Mr. Christman.  The case is scheduled to go to court on the 16th of March, 2000, in Athens.  If Christman is found guilty of possession of an endangered species, he stands to have a substantial fine and some jail time levied on him.  All this because he picked up a dead rattlesnake and, very unwisely, showed it off.

It makes a pretty good case in favor of the old "Shoot, Shovel, and Shut Up" idea having to do with endangered species, doesn't it?

We can see how this will affect the average citizen, who has not the skills to distinguish a venomous species from one of the more than 35 other native harmless ones, or the six venomous species from each other.  He will be in a double quandary—damned if he kills the animal (arrested), and damned if he doesn't (gets bitten).  But consider the effect upon the consumer.  If you buy a pair of boots (or purse, wallet, watchband, clothes) while visiting out of state, and the leather in those items contains snakeskin from any of the four protected species, you stand to find yourself in Mr. Christman's position.  You may be only passing through North Carolina on your way home to another state, but if you possess the banned items you stand to be prosecuted.  U.S. customs may strip you of such items when entering a port in North Carolina from another country (e.g., through Raleigh or Charlotte), even though you may have purchased the product abroad. Naturally you do not know what species the skin came from.  But even if it originated with a farm-raised snake (or legally obtained snake) of the same species in another U.S. state, you will still be prosecuted for trafficking in an endangered species.  If you win in court (most will resort to "plea bargain" and cede an apparent "victory" to the state) you will still be out lawyer's fees, time, and anxiety.  Even the shoe dealer (purse or watch band seller) will have be wary of what product he orders and sells, and competent at taxonomy.  Since the law makes no distinction for clothing made from farm-raised skins, the very fact of your owning such articles makes you guilty of being a "trafficker."  This departure from "innocent until proven guilty" is an attempt at "ease of enforcement."  That is, it is an attempt to make an unwieldy law enforceable. It is nothing less than a resurrection of the Napoleonic Code.

Who will be affected?  Everyone.  You need not be bitten by a snake to qualify.  You need not ever have killed a snake, or kept one in captivity.  You may not care about snakes one way or the other.  But your tax dollars (and/or money gathered from fishing and hunting licenses and equipment, which is how North Carolina Nongame Management is mostly supported) will be going towards a program that will increase in size yearly in order to keep up with the "new problems" that the laws themselves will generate: namely, the expenses of law enforcement as hitherto innocent persons are turned into criminals, and the expensive machinations of prosecution.  And agents who are supposed to be out "protecting" wildlife will instead find themselves sitting for days in courtroom ceremonies, while other state-paid hirelings replace them in the field.

And here is a reverse scenario: lawsuits filed against the state for damages when authorities fail to answer a snake call, or cannot find the snake in question when they do. "I could have killed it when it was there," moans the unlucky father of a bitten child.  "I could have.... But the state wouldn't let me.... Then by the time their agents arrived, it was gone.  Now three months later it has killed my son."  This is not an unrealistic picture.  It might not even have been the same snake that was the culprit, but the implications are the same:  the state is to blame.  "Four times I telephoned the agents to come back," the man testifies.  "They said they couldn't find it.  Finally they just wouldn't come back anymore no matter how much I phoned."  Such a person would surely have a good case against the state.  In Virginia, a woman bitten by a copperhead in a state park sued the state of Virginia and won a large settlement in court (pers. communication, V. Rouch).

The NCWRC, which evidently has no qualms about passing this law, will make no effort to go about snake chasing once the deluge of bogus calls becomes apparent to them.  For it is safe to say that thousands of snakes are seen every day in North Carolina, and while fewer than a hundred will actually be rattlesnakes, the majority will be misidentified as such.  NCWRC simply do not have enough personnel, and even doubling the present number could not keep up.  During the rabies epidemic of 1996–98, state and local animal control authorities gave up answering the hundreds of calls they received each day, and simply substituted a recorded message acknowledging that while rabies was certainly in the area, they regretted they could no longer investigate rabid animal reports, or pick up rabid animals.  Even a rabies-ridden raccoon so maddened that it was attacking a block of stone in a person's front yard could not provoke them come and collect the animal (Wilmington Morning Star, June 28, 1996).

But protecting venomous snakes in a state full of venomous snakes amounts to a permanent "rabies epidemic" year in and year out.  For while nobody contracted rabies in the last epidemic, North Carolina has on average 1100 venomous snakebites to contend with every year, the largest number of any state in the nation.  Most victims will not die, that is safe to say; but how many will endure massive medical expenses, and permanent disfigurement and disability, we may soon learn as award damages against the state mount up in our courtrooms and insurance companies start putting in their own complaints about the NCWRC folly.

We must question why, suddenly, overnight, the state of things has so altered in North Carolina that laws like these have become "urgent" for the well-being of North Carolina herptiles.  Is this the result of a drastic change in our physical environment, or a change in political climate?  Why have venomous snakes (and all snakes), which have been killed by human beings since time immemorial, suddenly become threatened by a human persecution that has gone on for thousands of years?  Is the pet trade to blame, as the "Scientific Council" keeps emphasizing.  Who are the "environmentally dangerous commercial traders, traffickers, and reptile persecutors" that exist unseen amongst us, ravaging the last of the remaining wildlife in our hills and streams?  We are always reading about these individuals in the newspapers (courtesy mouthpieces of the USFWS).  It is time to take a serious look at what part they play, and what actual damage they do.  In short, who are these people that state and federal authorities would have us demonize?

Here's the big secret.  They are you and I.  The blood pressure medicine you are taking may have been inspired by snake venom.

The hidden agenda of the "Scientific Council" is simple: They are "preservationists," not conservationists. They do not view wildlife as a resource at all.  They do not view you, a common citizen, as having personal rights within your environment—not even your life has any value in their great dream.  They view wildlife as an isolated entity to be kept in a museum jar, untouched on a pedestal and behind a guide rope they alone control, and to which they sell you tickets.  They talk endlessly about wanting to "save" wildlife, but for whom are they saving it?  Certainly not you.  They want to make wildlife off limits to everybody but themselves and their friends, as we shall show in further pages.

What the "Scientific Council" really is, and what they really want but aren't saying

The present environmental model being adopted and implemented by the USFWS in the United States is in essence communistic and totalitarian.  The "ownership of nature" is implied as belonging to all people equally.  An omniscient but unspecified "public" is given a share in nature as a whole, and yet forbidden to make use of that share in part. This model is conducive to a highly regimented but ultimately disinterested (in nature) urban worker society, such as existed in a defunct USSR.  In this model, while everyone is told that they own a part of nature, that part is not convertible to usable currency.  Its use as a resource has been taken away from the individual and given to the "masses".  But the masses are only an abstraction.  Having no physically individualized existence, their needs may be described according to the whims of the state, with complaints (when their needs are ignored) arising from the parts but never from the whole.  Since the masses have no vested interest in wildlife, they do not miss interacting with it, while special interest groups are content to point fingers at those who do (e.g., PETA, "Scientific Councils").  People who do have an interest in wildlife, however, are expressly forbidden to touch it without the consent of Nature's representatives in power. 

Like the king's hunting grounds in feudal times, only the government or its approved barons (i.e., institutional embodiments, called "legitimate") are to be granted permission to make use of the land.  Physical interaction is forbidden to the extent possible and the "resource" is discouraged except to certain state or federally connected individuals who "qualify."  The rest of the public is considered "illegitimate," that is, they do not qualify.  The taxpayer pays to be told what to do.  

This is the principal intent of the New Environmental Order as envisioned by growing factions in the USFWS.  The communistic-totalitarian methodology makes it incompatible with a democratic society.  The public resents the loss of its individual rights.  And the public is not so dumb as not to realize that an environment preserved "for everyone" but usable by no one is not of much use to anyone. 

In North Carolina recently, we were thrown face to face with this type of indoctrination for the first time.  In its failed 1998 proposal "Report of the Amphibian and Reptile Scientific Council on Commercial Trade" the "Scientific Council" attempted to ban from the public's access no less than 148 North Carolina native species/subspecies (there are a total of about 156 in the state).  The pet trade hysteria had reached certain persons employed by State of North Carolina and, joining forces with USFWS employees under a banner that they called the "Scientific Council," they reacted emotionally against it.  In fact, the "Scientific Council" did not form as a league of scientists with herpetological interests: the "Scientific Council" was born as a reactionary group with political agendas within state government.  Their intention in 1998 was to do nothing less than save our state from the plague of commercial wildlife exploitation that had apparently overwhelmed our once vast and beautiful Carolina wilderness.  It seemed like an admirable idea.  There was only one problem: there was no plague.

In its opening statements, the "Scientific Council" claims to have been "charged to assess":

(1) The potential susceptibility of individual species and populations to stress from commercial collecting activities

(2) The suitability (not desirability) of individual species as products of the commercial pet trade.

(3) To make recommendations on what such commercial activities should be allowed.

They go on to note that "hard data" to support these evaluations is present to varying degrees for some species, but lacking for others. And yet nowhere in the document is any "hard data" shown to confirm the report's assertions, and the only references or citations present in the report are of two field guides, neither of which relate to commercial trade.  In short, they felt the report, which would not have been good enough for a scientific journal, was good enough for lawmakers.

Standard scientific protocol requires that a paper be formally refereed by a circle of peers.  This can take several forms: (1) by a review process usually done anonymously, so as to be without bias, by the editorial board of a recognized scientific journal. The paper will then be published, enabling a wider scientific audience to review it. But if a paper does not take this route (is not peer reviewed) then: (2) it must be published somewhere (e.g., in the CHS Bulletin) and circulated among other scientists if it is to earn its validity.  Finally, if it is to be recognized as accurate, a confirmation by other non-colleagues should appear eventually in separate literature.

To date the "Scientific Council" has not published a single one of their results on this matter in any known journal, and they cannot provide the public any scientifically legitimate articles confirming their views.  The "Scientific Council" could not have gotten as far as they have without cronyism (i.e., their inside government connections).

These connections were (and are) considerable.  The 1998 proposal informed us that the agency that invited the "Scientific Council" report was the North Carolina Nongame Wildlife Advisory Committee.  However, a number of the Nongame Advisory Committee members were also on the same 11-member "Scientific Council" that prepared the proposal.  At least three members were employed by the state-run North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, including its Chairman, Alvin L. Braswell (with the others either colleagues or answerable to him at their jobs).  Two members, including the chairman of the Nongame Advisory Committee, were directly employed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (one of the law enforcement agencies directly benefiting from an increased power base in North Carolina if the laws were passed).  In sum, the "Scientific Council" report begins with falsehood.  The "Scientific Council" was not "charged to assess" anything—they, together with the Nongame Advisory Committee and state and federal government merely concocted the proposal themselves!  Affecting the colors of an independent and unbiased science, the "Scientific Council" was (and is) a shared entity with state and federal government!  They asked themselves for the report and they answered themselves with the self-same report.

Most scientists agree that bias is the single greatest obstacle to be overcome in any scientific experiment.  Indeed, the majority of all scientific experiment is simply an endeavor to reduce the latent biases present in any scientific idea.  Experiments are designed first and foremost to eliminate bias, otherwise a true picture cannot be shown.  If an unbiased experiment is not done, it doesn't qualify as science.  Being born not within science but within the biased arena of politics, the "Scientific Council" is its own greatest argument against itself.

But the "Scientific Council" has degenerated even further.  It does not use science in any form!  Performing no experiments and only ad hoc surveys, and content to mimic programs designed for other states, its members do not even bother submitting any documents of "science" to the government agencies involved. Why should they?  They are the government agencies themselves.  And thus it is to its own ears in state government that the "Scientific Council" preaches its "science."

Meanwhile, in Washington

It may or may not shock you, depending on your opinion of science, that a group touting itself as an unbiased independent "Scientific Council" should be composed largely of employees of state and federal government (USFWS).   But this is not merely a case of a scientific action group betraying the public's good for their own rarefied ends, it is a case of government officialdom betraying their oath as sworn representatives of the people.  They have taken a natural resource away from the public, and restricted its use to certain special interests groups composed of their own membership.  And there is a federal connection to this membership.  

Since 75% of all money for NCWRC comes from federal sources (Pittman-Robinson Act [hunting] and Dingle-Johnson Act [fishing]), the motivation to obey federal dictates is considerable in North Carolina.  Is it merely a coincidence that U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents sit in abundance on this panel otherwise composed almost entirely of state employees?

Moreover, the proposed state regulation has an even more blatant federal connection: CITES (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species).  The USFWS is in fact at this moment in the process of a  national drive to add the timber rattlesnake to the list of species under CITES control.   USFWS is petitioning scientists (and the public sentiment) for support. Their propaganda on this issue can be seen in hobbyist pet magazines and even on the net.

I am boldly calling this "propaganda" and not merely "publicity" because it meets Webster's definition of the word in its most derogatory sense: "any systematic, widespread, deliberate indoctrination or plan for such indoctrination . . . connoting deception and distortion."  The extent of this distortion I shall show in further sections.

For those readers still possessing faith in the wisdom of CITES, let's look at some of the putatively "endangered" species already under their control.  And bear in mind, there are some 1300 of them....

In Central and South America we have the terciopelo (Bothrops asper), which most herpetologists have long known as the most prolific and common pitviper in Central America (Solorzano and Cerdas, 1989).  A snake so inordinately numerous that it can well be considered, not only one of the most common venomous snakes, but one of the most common of all snake species.  Its distribution range is huge, occupying at least 11 countries.  Costa Rica is currently overrun with the animals: terciopelos have taken over abandoned farmlands and are turning up in people's houses and even their beds! Statistically, this snake (with its Bothrops congeners) causes more bites than any other pitviper in the New World.  This species has been on CITES Appendix 2 since the early 1990s.  It was no less common then than today.

Supporters of this ruling will argue that the CITES status is only applicable when this snake is exported from Honduras.  It should be mentioned in this context that in Honduras the terciopelo is no less numerous than elsewhere.  By the most conservative estimate the population of this snake in Honduras must exceed the human population by at least three to one.  There are literally millions of these snakes in Honduras and thousands of them are killed by residents every day.  This is not an exaggeration.  A single female terciopelo produces upwards of 70 young and a square kilometer of wilderness or agriculture can support as many as 1,000 adult individuals.  CITES cannot refute these figures.  This is because they have no figures.  They never did.  They didn't even bother to research the matter before setting it to law.

These are not the isolated "goofs" of an otherwise sensible program.  Also on the CITES list are four other extremely common Bothrops (since divided into other genera) from Honduras, and some extremely common coral snakes, most distributed throughout Central America with ranges comparable in size to B. asper.  One of these, Porthidium (Bothrops) nasutum cannot number less than ten million individuals in Honduras alone. Indeed, at least 75% of all the other "endangered" snakes on the CITES list fit a similar profile. In the CITES imagination, even the mussurana (Clelia clelia) is an endangered species!  This widespread snake likely outnumbers all living persons in at least three of the South American countries to which it is native (Surinam, Guyana, French Guiana). None of these animals, by the way, are popular pet trade items and never have been, with annual numbers imported into the U.S. averaging less than 100 individuals.

The CITES list is over 1300 species long (and growing).  We may conclude that no scientific studies are required to qualify a species for CITES listing, since the majority of species on CITES are not endangered or even particularly rare: indeed, most (probably more than 70 percent) range from common to abundant.  The name CITES is a misnomer: it may be a convention on trade, but it has little to do with trade in endangered species per se, these being far in the minority.  What would an accurate, scientific reappraisal of CITES mean to CITES?   It would mean a CITES of weakened importance.

A weakened CITES is clearly not in the interests of USFWS.  We must assume, however emotionally attached we are to the idea of protecting wildlife, that CITES, like any bureaucracy, cannot survive without two ingredients: power and money.  The more species they are charged to "protect," the more power they have to get money to justify doing the job.

Their job consists mainly in vending their stamps to the wildlife agencies abroad, who in turn sell them to the wildlife exporter.  As a result of which they also exercise considerable input over local regulations in these foreign countries.  The bigger and more inclusive the CITES list, the more countries over which they can exercise influence.  It's really a very simple idea: the English once did the same thing with tea sent to the American colonies. You pay our tax (buy the stamps) and we will allow you to import or export the product.

Third world countries love it: it means American dollars funneled into their own wildlife departments.  At home in America, USFWS loves it for the same reason: you pay for their jobs.  Does it perform a useful function?  In some ways, yes.  It increases the value of wildlife (you have to be able to afford to buy the stamp) and because of the higher price tag, this creates a sense of value for the exported (and imported) live animal. Consequently, low dollar animals (like terciopelos) are better looked after than they would have been otherwise.

The evil of CITES is much the same one afflicting the "Scientific Council": it uses the "Endangered Species" concept in a covert way (to achieve other ends).  It is dishonest at its roots, and provides a pathologically inefficient solution to a greater problem.  For nowhere in the world is the pet animal trade a significant cause for herptile decline. Herptiles are declining at the same rate in those countries that do not export them as in the countries that do: declining in direct proportion to the decrease in habitat.

But this is of no concern to a growing bureaucratic organism that depends on endangered species for its own growth and well being.  It is in the vested interest of CITES to have endangered species, and if no endangered species can be found, then (1) to ascribe (according the Langmuir definition) a maximum effect produced by a causative agent of barely detectible intensity (e.g., the effect of commercial trade); (2) to claim great accuracy in its measurements (e.g., population surveys even when no such surveys exist); (3) to offer ad hoc explanations (e.g., invent a science to fit the observations, such as, "the applicable species is being impacted by commercial trade") and ignore facts that do not agree with preconceived notions.  This is the "scientific" methodology of CITES (and USFWS) in a nutshell.

We pay for CITES; consequently, CITES has certain fears.  If the CITES list of endangered species remains static, and no new species are added from year to year, the organization may be affected by cutbacks: i.e., required to do the old job with less funding.  This is the worst thing that can happen to a bureaucratic entity; it means downsizing.  Less workers, less chance of becoming a boss (or remaining one), less pay, less power domestically and abroad.

But if the list of species to protect is ever-growing, then the money must grow also to keep up.  A growing bureaucracy means job security.  The list of tasks (species to be protected) may be allowed to diminish a little here or there, and these can be credited as successes (giving the impression that something is being "accomplished," always heavily publicized), but the inflexible order remains: growth must continue overall.

This is the bureaucratic equation, as is no secret to anybody.

It is also the equation of parasitism and cancer: proliferate at all costs to the host.  The parasite's lifeline is money.  Cut off the money, kill the parasite.  Because the parasite fears this will happen if the host "wises up" to the situation and realizes he is being taken for a ride, the parasite must work to convince the host he is necessary to the host's survival.  And this is the role of CITES and the ESA and the propaganda board in charge of publicity for these departments: to promote fear of an unseen "enemy" from which the department alone is qualified to protect the public. Like a Mafia "protection racket," these organizations thrive on keeping the public afraid. Like the McCarthyists of half a century ago, they have evolved a propaganda network to do so.

CITES and the ESA are the mouthpiece by which the hysteria is spread.  The OMA (the USFWS Office of Management Authority) in charge of propaganda, leaks the news reports to the media insuring that we will have continued faith in their necessity.  From them we learn such semantic abuses as "smuggling of endangered wildlife has reached an all-time high, with a greater pound-for-pound dollar value than cocaine."  We learn from USFWS mouthpieces that "even many so-called captive born animals are probably smuggled" and so "there is no certainty that even legitimately captive propagated animals are not connected to the nefarious smuggling trade", whereby animals are stuffed into suitcases and shunted all over the world to the evil buyers who profit from them and live in gigantic mansions and secret underground installations paid for with the bloodshed of helpless little animals.  And because instances of smuggling do occur, always widely publicized because of their anomalous nature, we will be led to believe that "for every one offender we catch there are hundreds of others getting away scot-free" and "if we only had more money we could stop them...."  Ad infinitum.  We will go on hearing these reports so long as there is a press willing to echo them; and as long as save-the-world groups are ready to parrot anything that will help them get their fingers in our pockets. 

Save-the-world groups are not innocent of these techniques; in fact, they have refined them.  The latest verbiage from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) warns us of the "$2 to $3 billion dollar wildlife trade, whose profit margins are comparable to [again!] the drug trade."  They might have compared the trade profit to gold or computer parts or even sunglasses and fake Rolex watches; but the intent was to link an illicit association that would reflect the moral undesirability of the trade.  Their money-raisers have at last caught on to what USFWS has known for years, courtesy their brothers in the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration): scare the public enough, and they will keep supporting you.  Echoes spread by echoes; rumors told to rumor tellers; parrots parroting parrots, imitating they know not who, in a mindless array of self-serving propaganda.

What we will not hear is that the live wildlife trade in the United States is predominantly a legal trade, and that most reptiles on this trade are born in captivity.  We will not hear that the approximately 2 million legally imported reptiles in the U.S. last year had an average dollars value of $3.30.  We will not hear that there are not more than 50 so-called "smugglers" of reptiles all told in the U.S. and most of them below the age of 25.  And that they do it as much for a dare as for profit, and that they can scarcely pay for their plane tickets with the money they make from it.  And we will not hear that it costs more money to police and chase these offenders than the dollars value of the animals.  And that six million dollars were spent chasing Tom Crutchfield for "smuggled" captive born snakes, an amount equal to the cash value of all reptile imports for that same year!  And we will not hear that the forests that the snakes come from no longer exist, having been slashed and burned for agriculture (it was during this process that they were encountered); and that if the animals had not found their way to caring owners (e.g., via the exporters) they might have been slaughtered as pests or eaten on somebody's dinner table.  No, we will not hear these things.  And we will not hear of the hundreds of animals put to death each year by the USFWS in their confiscations programs.  Nor of the countless other captive born animals put to death by dozens of major U.S. zoos who, out of fear of USFWS, opt to euthanize the animals rather than let them fall into the hands of a caring public.  And of Earl Schultz, who opposed this senseless slaughter at San Diego Zoo, and in defying them (by selling to the public), was arrested and made an example of.  And of Johnny Arnette, at Cincinnati Zoo, who tried, in another way to save Komodo dragons from this same sort of slaughter—and for his good efforts is even now being hounded by the Government Gestapo. 

Least of all will we hear that the six million dollars spent chasing a single lawbreaker (who would not have been considered a lawbreaker before the existence of CITES, prior to 1973) could better have been spent buying the forest from which the snakes came, preventing its destruction (along with the thousands of other species that lived there) and then donating it to the impoverished country as a national park.  And we will not hear this sad fact either: that with the five hundred seventy five million dollars absorbed by the USFWS folly each year (making five billion dollars in ten years) all the forests of the earth might be saved and our own domestic problems with declining species might be solved once and for all, rendering the USFWS technically obsolete.

 

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