FWC: Illegal trafficking of 'highly venomous' snakes could result in more arrests

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) says its undercover agents were able to buy and sell nearly 200 illegal snakes in a three-year investigation called Operation Viper.

The snakes they confiscated were highly venomous. The list included a variety of two dozen snakes, including several different types of cobras and vipers. 

FOX 35 talked with Chris Torge, the Director of Animal Operations at the Central Florida Zoo to ask about those snakes. Two of the types of snakes that were found in Operation Viper, the green mamba and the gaboon viper, can also be found at the Central Florida Zoo.

"[They’re] highly venomous, they are unpredictable and very deadly to humans," Torge described, after hearing the list of snakes the FWC found. "Especially to people who don’t know how to handle them properly."

Reptile Enrichment Specialist Jessica Hartman says people handling wild animals illegally puts a negative light on those going about it the right way.

"It’s really frustrating and heartbreaking to see stuff like this come out," said Hartman. 

You need permits, practice, and the right resources to own or handle venomous snakes.

"There’s great resources in the reptile community if that’s something that you want to do. If you want to work with venomous snakes, there’s a way to do it. And doing it illegally is not the way," Hartman added.

The wildlife agency says illicit wildlife tracking is a $10 billion industry each year.

That’s been a huge problem in Florida in the past, with pet owners no longer interested in or capable of caring for their animals and choosing to release them back into the wild in a non-native habitat. 

"As they mature, they’re going to eat more and more, and you’re going to need larger enclosures for them to maintain proper health," said Torge. "Some of these animals get five, six, seven feet long, and you definitely need the right humidity, temperature, and if you have a venomous animal, it does need to be behind a lock and key."

A lot of the activity for Operation Viper happened online and on social media. 

There are now eight people from all over the state of Florida facing charges for illegally trafficking venomous and prohibited snakes. One of them is from Volusia County.

The FWC says it is not yet done with its investigation. It may make more arrests moving forward.