Jason Calleri doesn’t usually tell people that he keeps venomous snakes as pets.
“One of the first things people say is, ‘Do you have a girlfriend? Are you married?’” he explains. “It’s like I’m disgusting, and girls wouldn’t want to be around me.”
Calleri, who is 42 years old, lives in Plantation, and works on an airboat in the Everglades, admits he does not, in fact, have a girlfriend at the moment. But he doesn’t think it’s fair to blame his four snakes — an Indian cobra named Indy, a pair of male and female viper monitors named Mr. and Mrs. White, and a green tree monitor named Mrs. Green — for that.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about snakes,” he explains. “Snakes are defensive — they’ll defend themselves if someone steps on them. But they’re not going to attack you. Think about it: If you went to Africa and saw a bull elephant, would you attack them? That’s what it’s like if you’re a snake and you see a human.”
Despite the widespread stigma, there are plenty of Floridians who own venomous snakes. Currently, 291 people in the state are legally licensed to possess potentially lethal reptiles. Some of them hold the permit because they come into contact with snakes at their jobs, but many are normal people who just want to come home and feed some dead rats to their king cobra at the end of the day.
“The media will make it out to look like your average reptile keeper is some metalhead kid with no job living in his mom’s basement, and that’s not true,” says Suzi Davis, a 36-year-old mother of two who lives in Coral Springs and works as an insurance agent. “Anyone could come into to my house and never know that I have eighty snakes upstairs in a room.”
Her motivation is simple: She just thinks snakes are cool. They’re not exactly good at cuddling, and many people who own venomous snakes don’t bother giving them names since they won’t respond anyway. But there’s something appealing about about owning a pet that has the ability to kill you.
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“I’ve seen so many people die from so many things that weren’t dangerous,” explains Albert Borges, a Miami-Dade firefighter and paramedic who keeps five venomous snakes in his Pembroke Pines home. “They were driving a car, they were in a building that collapsed… so I’m not going to be scared of riding my motorcycle or owning a snake that could kill me.”
Apparently, this is not a point of view the State of Florida endorses. It’s not easy to buy a venomous snake through the proper legal channels. First, you have to spend a thousand hours training with someone who already has a permit. Then, you must learn how to safely handle them, which can take several years. Finally, you have to submit letters of reference and paperwork that details where exactly the snake would be housed, how often it would be fed, and what you’d do if a hurricane forced an emergency evacuation, among other things.
And it’s about to get even harder. In September, Florida Fish and Wildlife commissioners approved a new set of draft rules which say that reptiles’ cages have to be kept in an escape-proof room or outbuilding — not exactly something you find in the average American home. In theory, this rule change is supposed to prevent future headlines about escaped king cobras found behind people’s dryers and pythons causing havoc in the Everglades. But reptile owners who’ve already gone through the hassle of getting a permit suspect the stricter rules will just encourage people to buy snakes somewhere else or go to the black market.
“I could go to South Carolina and buy any snake that I want, legally, and bring it back here,” Davis says. “Other states aren’t so heavily regulated.”