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Once withering, now slithering

D.C. officers help rescue starving snake and convict former owner

From Animal Sheltering Magazine November/December 2012

The Washington Humane Society seized an underweight blood python from a resident’s home and successfully pursued a cruelty conviction against the owner, who had failed to provide veterinary care. Humane law officer Michael Triebwasser notes that he typically deals with cats and dogs, but other animals—including snakes—are equally deserving of protection.

The case of the severely underweight snake raised some eyebrows, acknowledges Michael Triebwasser, a humane law officer for the D.C.-based Washington Humane Society (WHS).

As he investigated the situation and pursued a cruelty conviction against the snake’s owner, people seemed a little surprised: Oh … a snake?

“It’s something that we don’t tend to see,” he says, “but it’s an animal as defined by D.C. law, just like any other animal, and deserving of protection under the law.”

The case began last December when animal control officer Shawn Covington accompanied D.C. police on their search of a suspect’s home. The search was unrelated to animal care, but the police requested help securing two dogs on the scene, Covington says.

After dealing with the dogs, Covington checked the home for other animals. In the bedroom, he discovered a small aquarium containing a malnourished, 2-foot blood python; the animal wasn’t moving and appeared to be having trouble shedding her skin—a sign of dehydration. “At first when I looked at it, I thought the snake was deceased,” Covington recalls.

The top of the aquarium was covered with a layer of plastic that prevented air flow, he adds. When he removed the cover and picked up the snake, she still didn’t move. Then, “As I’m taking it out of the cage, it just barely moved its head a little bit.” He took the snake to WHS’s animal care and control facility to assess and document her condition.

Triebwasser was called in and found that the snake bore little resemblance to the muscular creatures you might find on a nature trail. “This was just literally like a sack of bones,” he recalls. “You could see just about every rib. Its spine was this really prominent ridge along its back.”

WHS impounded the snake soon after. While the shelter is not designed to handle snakes, staff set up a large tank in an office, equipped with a heating lamp, substrate logs to help the animal remove her skin by slithering around, and a pool of water large enough for her to submerge her entire body. WHS’s medical director tasked Triebwasser with trying to feed the snake and giving her baths twice a day—a new experience for him; his previous snake-handling experience was limited to touching one at a zoo.Triebwasser also interviewed the snake’s owner, who wasn’t home when police conducted their search, but visited WHS about a week later, asking for his snake back. He told Triebwasser that the animal had suddenly started losing weight and developing mouth sores about seven months earlier. The owner claimed he had contacted a veterinary technician friend of his, who advised him to put peroxide on the sores, which he had done.

The owner said he had owned snakes before and appeared to be knowledgeable about their needs, but when Triebwasser repeatedly asked him if he had sought veterinary care, he said no, citing a lack of money. The fact that the owner had gone about seven months without getting veterinary help for a sick, underweight snake amounted to a major husbandry problem, Triebwasser says, noting that there are resources available to low-income pet owners.

Triebwasser wasn’t able to verify that the owner had even spoken to his vet tech friend, which in any event wouldn’t have qualified as vet care. WHS declined to return the snake to the owner, instead obtaining an arrest warrant on one misdemeanor count of cruelty to animals for failing to provide veterinary care.

In May, a D.C. Superior Court judge found the owner guilty, sentencing him to a 30-day suspended jail sentence, six months on probation, and 24 hours of community service.

WHS transferred the snake to a reptile rescue facility in Maryland.

The cruelty conviction, Triebwasser’s first, was especially rewarding because it came for a snake, he says. Prosecutors see all kinds of criminal cases, he notes, so one involving an animal, particularly an animal that isn’t a dog or a cat, “might not be the first thing that they really jump on.” The snake made the case unusual, but gathering evidence, talking to veterinarians, investigating people’s stories, and presenting information to U.S. attorneys are among his typical daily activities, he says.

The legal process dragged on from December to May, and so much was out of his hands, but Triebwasser says the outcome was worth the wait and the uncertainty. “Knowing that you saw something wrong, you followed up, you did your job well, and someone was held accountable for a crime that they committed is a really good feeling.”

About the Author

James Hettinger is the assistant editorial director for Animal Sheltering magazine at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). He's responsible for editing copy and managing the production of the award-winning quarterly publication aimed at shelter and rescue personnel. Prior to joining The HSUS in 2008, James worked for several local newspapers and trade associations in the Washington, D.C., area. He shares his home with three cats: Edgar, Dana and Vinny.