Arlington County is a densely populated jurisdiction. It has more than 650 restaurants, 167 public parks and a diverse population that includes people of numerous nationalities.
It also has many non-traditional pets. Its companion animals are as varied as its people, something the Arlington County Board thankfully recognized in its recent changes to exotic animal ownership.
Under the new ordinance, certain exotic animals are no longer allowed as pets, such as lions, tigers and bears. Allowed after much discussion are non-venomous snakes, hedgehogs and sugar gliders. Board members originally considered banning these unusual but valued pets; thankfully, they listened to animal experts, veterinarians and others who used science and data to make our case. Their decision will benefit the many reptile keepers and other pet owners in Arlington who have these animals, sometimes because of issues with other pets — such as allergies, small living spaces and more.
Animal activists who oppose pet ownership frequently malign constrictor snakes as dangerous pets — and they did so in Arlington. As an Arlington pet advocate and a longtime pet care professional, respectively, we understand that some pets may make some people uneasy. However, there are tens of thousands of these pets across the country that are kept safely. Basic reptile-keeping standards of care, voluntary best-management practices and public education will ensure the safe keeping of constrictor snakes in Arlington.
The Arlington County Board included many of these husbandry practices in its revised ordinance on the recommendation of snake experts. For example, transport of constrictor snakes is allowed only if the snake is “housed in a sturdy and secure enclosure” and “permanent enclosures shall be designed to be escape-proof and shall have an operable lock or secure latching device.”
Those who own larger snakes, defined as “weighing over 25 pounds,” must have enclosures with have appropriate identifying details. Safety and escape protocols must be written and “within sight of permanent housing, and a copy shall accompany the transport of any snakes.” Microchipping requirements, enclosure sizes, temperature and environmental concerns and sanitation are all addressed, among many other important areas of snake ownership.
County board members also considered whether hedgehogs and snakes posed a significant salmonella risk to Arlington residents. Again, while activists claimed that hedgehogs are in the same category of pet as lions and bears, board members listened with open minds to area animal health experts who made clear that simple hand-washing after handling a pet will stop salmonella from reaching humans.
In fact, all of these animals — sugar gliders, hedgehogs and non-venomous snakes — can be as or more suitable for pet owners than more common companions such as dogs, cats or fish.
One of the authors of this op-ed was proud to provide insights to the board on behalf of companion animal owners and their pets, though not alone – two veterinarians worked directly with board members on the ordinance to ensure the best solution for all stakeholders. They and other advocates were proud to support the science- and data-based recommendations, most of which were included in the final document.
It is worth noting that many Arlington residents expressed concern about the appropriateness of snakes in high-rise apartments. In fact, snakes take less work than the ever-popular dog — no daily walks and elevator rides are required, they eat less frequently and they do not bark. There’s also no chance of your son or daughter saying the snake ate the homework.
Alice Harrington of Arlington is a representative of the Virginia Federation of Dog Clubs and Breeders. John Mack is president and founder of Reptiles by Mack, a leading national distributor and breeder of pet reptiles.