Opinion: CJ Opinion

Venom-spitting cobra scare fuels the ‘just do something’ crowd

Image from the African Snake Bite Institute (https://www.africansnakebiteinstitute.com/snake/zebra-cobra/).
Image from the African Snake Bite Institute (https://www.africansnakebiteinstitute.com/snake/zebra-cobra/).

The recent case of a dangerous snake on the loose in Raleigh gave state and local authorities a good excuse to “do something” to ease constituents’ fears. It’s fortunate for all concerned that a top lawmaker refuses to bite.

The desire to do something can lead to hasty action. That action can generate unintended consequences.

This column makes no argument for or against tightening state laws regarding ownership of exotic pets. It’s an important issue. It deserves thoughtful discussion and debate. That’s the course of action least likely to happen when a high-profile incident stirs passions. Acting quickly can take precedence over acting sensibly.

For those who avoided reading, hearing, or watching local news in recent weeks, here’s a brief recap.

In late June, people spotted an unusual snake on the porch of a Raleigh home. It turned out to be an African zebra cobra. It was billed as having the particularly scary trait of spitting venom that could hit a victim up to nine feet away.

Raleigh police issued an advisory about the snake the following morning, cordoned off areas near the snake’s last known location, then started their search and investigation. Authorities caught and removed the snake the day after the advisory.

While police were conducting their work, politicians also sprang into action. The day after the cobra’s capture, state Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, D-Wake, took to Twitter to ask “WITH #ZebraCobra SAGA OVER, NOW WHAT?” Writing that “a number of constituents” had contacted him with concerns, Chaudhuri mused that North Carolina might want to consider a statewide ban on private ownership of “non-native venomous snakes.”

The following week, Chaudhuri and Democratic Wake County colleague Wiley Nickel announced they were writing legislation to accomplish that goal.

Around the same time, Raleigh City Council member David Knight told the News and Observer he was “working to propose an ordinance that would restrict ownership of dangerous animals in the city.”

I have no doubt that Chaudhuri, Nickel, and Knight all responded to complaints from neighbors, co-workers, and concerned citizens. But each also offers an example of the politician’s natural instinct to “do something” in immediate reaction to controversy.

The appropriate response to that instinct occasionally involves quick action. Often, though, it’s better to step back and examine more than just the present circumstances. Additional factors might raise arguments against a new rule or law.

Let’s look again at Raleigh’s zebra cobra.

Fairly early on, authorities tied ownership of the snake to 21-year-old Christopher Gifford. Living relatively close to the scene of the snake’s public appearances, Gifford was known among social media followers as the owner of dozens of exotic snakes. He even had spent time hospitalized this spring after a different snake bit him.

Within days of the cobra scare, authorities removed 75 snakes from Gifford’s home. They charged him with 40 crimes. News reports reminded us that North Carolina already has extensive laws regarding dangerous animals.

Article 55 in the state law books, dubbed “Regulation of Certain Reptiles,” requires that snakes be “kept in a sturdy, secure enclosure designed to be escape-proof, bite-proof, and having an operable lock,” according to a News and Observer synopsis. The container must have a detailed label, and a “written bite protocol” must be maintained within sight of the snake’s container.

The dangerous snake’s owner must contact local law enforcement immediately after an escape. Violations of existing state law can carry a punishment of up to 150 days in jail and fines of $1,000 per charge.

Gifford has not been convicted of any crime, but the dozens of charges against him suggest authorities believe he ran well afoul of existing laws. Had he obeyed the law, perhaps the zebra cobra never would have escaped. At least authorities would have learned about the escape from Gifford, rather than being surprised by the snake’s sudden appearance on a neighborhood porch.

Here’s another wrinkle: Gifford’s attorney told media outlets that a “routine check” by authorities in March revealed nothing wrong with his snake collection. “Everything was up to standards and in full compliance with the law.”

If that’s true, policymakers should ask questions about adequate enforcement of existing statutes. Poor or uneven enforcement today doesn’t inspire much confidence about the potential benefits of new restrictions.

Issues related to ownership of dangerous snakes require thorough discussion and debate. It’s fortunate, then, that at least one top lawmaker seems in no hurry to “do something” now about the zebra cobra scare.

“I don’t see us getting into that snake pit,” Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, told reporters on July 22. Without Berger’s support, the issue is unlikely to move very far very soon.

Would-be reformers will have more time to take a good bite at the topic.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.