IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The deadly snake trade: Venomous reptiles sold online, shipped on passenger planes

Last month in Thousand Oaks, California, a 6-foot escaped albino cobra attacked a family dog. Fortunately, the dog survived, but the missing snake, which was believed to have been kept illegally as a pet, spread fear throughout the community until it was captured by animal control officers several days later.

A 2009 incident in Oxford, Florida, did not end as well: A family's 9-foot pet Burmese python escaped from its enclosure and strangled a 2-year-old baby in her crib. Owner Jaren Hare and her boyfriend, Charles Darnell, were convicted of third-degree murder, manslaughter and child neglect and were each sentenced to 12 years in prison for the death of Hare's daughter, Shaianna.

While you need a permit to own a deadly cobra in many states, in others you don't. Venomous snakes that can kill you, including cobras, rattlesnakes and vipers, can easily be bought at reptile shows or online.

To show how easily, national investigative correspondent Jeff Rossen went undercover at a reptile show in Pittsburgh, where he paid $300 in cash to the seller of a cobra. The seller never even asked Rossen's name; he just counted the money, then handed over a flimsy plastic container with the cobra inside.

Even though sellers could be violating U.S. conservation law when selling or shipping venomous snakes, the Internet has numerous ads offering to sell deadly rattlesnakes and cobras. While some sellers contacted by the Rossen Reports team acted responsibly by asking for proof of permits and age, others could have cared less. Several were willing to sell venomous snakes with no questions asked and even ship them to the purchaser on commercial airliners (shades of the film "Snakes on a Plane").

One baby cobra purchased by the Rossen Reports team for about $400 was sent on a Delta passenger plane; Rossen booked a seat on the flight to track its journey. The cobra, packed inside a wooden box, was loaded onto the plane with passengers' luggage. Delta says they follow all airline industry regulations and policies when it comes to shipping live animals.

Wildlife educator Tom Hudak was called in to handle the cobra when it arrived at its destination. Hudak has the proper permits issued by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to handle certain types of venomous snakes, including the cobras we bought.

"Make no mistake, this is a small snake but it's still a fully locked and loaded venomous cobra," Hudak said. "This snake has enough venom to cause death within one bite."

It was just as easy to buy an adult cobra online for about $300. When it arrived, it was barely out of the box before it tried to attack.

To suggest a topic for a future edition of Rossen Reports, email us.

"The guy who sold us this snake knew we didn't have any permits to have it, didn't ask us a single question about our experience with snakes, but sold it to us anyway. What do you make of that?" Rossen asked Hudak.

"The guy obviously wanted to unload the snake, wanted to make some money for it, but it's obviously a public health hazard," Hudak said. "It also gives a black eye to reputable hobbyists that are trained properly and that do follow proper protocols. I think laws need to be enacted, where people are able to prove that they have apprenticed with someone and actually have the proper skills to work with an animal like this."

Hudak pointed to state regulations in Florida that require applicants to have worked with a wildlife biologist or licensed venomous reptile trapper for a minimum of 1,000 hours before they’ll even consider issuing a permit.

In states where permits are required to possess a venomous snake, Hudak recommends the following: “A seller should at minimum require a photocopy or a scanned copy of the permit. And a very good seller will ask for references.”  

There are plenty of snake sellers online doing the right thing. The problem is, all it takes is one to sell a snake to someone who doesn't know how to handle it and you have a very dangerous situation. (The snake purchased at the reptile show for this report was returned, and the snakes that were bought online were turned over to expert Tom Hudak.)

Have an idea for a future edition of Rossen Reports? Email us.