North Carolina has statutes governing the keeping of exotic venomous snakes as pets to try to reduce the risk of injury to their owners, family members and neighbors.
Dustin Smith, curator of reptiles and amphibians for the N.C. Zoological Park in Asheboro, said Article 55, “Regulation of Certain Reptiles,” originally was written in the 1950s to govern “snake handling,” a form of religious worship in which preachers and some members of their congregations demonstrate their faith by handling venomous snakes.
In the decades since, Smith said, the law has been expanded and tweaked to govern the growing practice of buying, breeding, selling, and keeping venomous snakes, as well as large constricting snakes and crocodilians, as pets.
A venomous zebra cobra — also known as a barred cobra, native to southern Africa — was on the loose in northwest Raleigh on Tuesday after escaping from its owners.
What the law says
Article 55 says snakes must be kept in a sturdy, secure enclosure designed to be escape-proof, bite-proof, and having an operable lock. Each enclosure must be clearly and visibly labeled “Venomous Reptile Inside,” with the scientific name, common name, appropriate antivenin, and owner’s identifying information noted on the container, the law says. A written bite protocol with emergency contact information, local animal control office, the name and location of suitable antivenin, first aid procedures, treatment guidelines and an escape recovery plan must be within sight of permanent housing. A copy must accompany the transport of any venomous reptile.
If such a reptile escapes, the owner must immediately notify local law enforcement, the law says.
If the owner of the animals is found to be in violation of Article 55, they can be charged with a Class 2 or a Class 1A misdemeanor. A Class 2 misdemeanor is punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. A Class 1A misdemeanor carries a potential maximum punishment of 150 days in jail and a fine at the court’s discretion.
Smith said it’s important to regulate the keeping of venomous reptiles because if not managed properly, they can quickly become a risk to their owners and, in the case of an escape, to animal control or law enforcement officers trying to recapture them.
Highly toxic venom
Smith said the barred cobra can grow to 4 or 5 feet or longer, and has a highly toxic venom that it can dispense either through a bite or by spitting, which makes it a more dangerous snake to try to capture than some other species. Typically, Smith said, people trying to find escaped venomous snakes carry long tongs to pick them up. But with a barred cobra, he said, they would also need effective eye protection such as snug-fitting goggles or a face shield.
“Not only can it bite, it can actually spray its venom 6, 8, 10 feet,” Smith said. “And they’re pretty accurate. They have evolved, and they can spray the venom directly into the eyes and face of their prey. They’re aiming specifically for the eyes, or right toward the middle of the face.”
Cobra venom in the eye would cause immediate, intense pain, giving the snake time to get away, Smith said. If not treated immediately, the venom could cause severe eye injury or blindness, he said, and enough venom from a cobra can cause severe neurological damage or even death.
In the case of a bite or spit exposure, the person should call an ambulance and head to a hospital emergency room.
“Don’t try to drive yourself, because you don’t how your body will react to the venom,” Smith said.
The zebra cobra in Raleigh apparently came from Chaminox Place home of Keith and Rebecca Gifford in northwest Raleigh. Their son, Christopher, has TikTok and Instagram accounts on social media showing him with numerous venomous snakes.
In one TikTok video, he talks about his large zebra cobra while protecting his eyes with a face shield.
In North Carolina, Smith said, he would not expect any hospital to keep antivenin on hand to treat a bite by a zebra cobra or other venomous exotic such as a mamba, because the antivenins are expensive and have a limited shelf life.
People who want to keep such animals as pets, Smith said, must consider the risk involved, including the strain on resources that could result from an accidental bite. Antivenins are available in the U.S., Smith said, including from Miami-Dade Fire Rescue in Florida, which keeps the largest bank of such solutions for public use in the country. But it’s costly to acquire and transport them.
How many exotic snakes in homes?
Smith said that because North Carolina doesn’t require licenses for owners of exotic venomous snakes, it’s impossible to know how many are being kept in people’s homes, but he believes the practice is widespread. And accidents happen. Smith said he knows of two bites by exotic venomous snakes in North Carolina in the past six months, in two different counties.
In the case of an escape, the statute says, if an officer determines there is an immediate risk to safety, the officer does not have to consult with the zoo, museum or other agency, “and may kill the reptile.”
When there is an incident, if investigating officers find that a pet owner intentionally or negligently exposed other people to unsafe contact with an animal covered under Article 55, the owner can be criminally charged and the animals confiscated. If they are taken, they may be temporarily housed by the zoo, the state Museum of Natural Sciences or a designated agency that is able to care for them safely.
Smith said the zoo has so far not been asked to get involved in the case of the missing cobra, and a spokesman for the Museum of Natural Sciences said that agency has not been asked to get involved either. The zoo keeps and exhibits venomous snakes, but they are all indigenous to the United States.
Smith said he suspects that once the animal escaped and found itself outdoors in unfamiliar territory — having lived in captivity and been cared for by humans — it immediately looked for a place to hide. Since it has lived indoors, he said, it might be disoriented and, though naturally nocturnal, might be on the move during the day or night.
“I don’t want to raise the alarm and get people too scared, but it’s significant enough that if you live in the area, I would be concerned about where I was putting my hands,” Smith said. “If outside, I would be watching where I step, and look around all the nooks and crannies around my home.”