NEWS

Thorold, Ont. Snake Theft Likely A Targeted Attack: Police

02/21/2017 02:04 EST | Updated 02/22/2017 02:29 EST

THOROLD, Ont. — More than a dozen deadly snakes are both at risk themselves and pose potential danger to others after a weekend break-in in southern Ontario, local police said Tuesday.

Niagara Regional Police said the assortment of snakes were snatched from a rural home in Thorold, Ont., on Saturday evening, leaving them scrambling to recover the animals and identify suspects.

Const. Phil Gavin said the targeted attack zeroes in on a wide array of snakes, most of which are venomous and all of which have potential to kill.

They include a diamond-back rattlesnake, five varieties of cobra, a pit adder, several vipers and a pregnant albino boa constrictor.

Possibly breeding reptiles for sale

"These certainly are not reptiles that should be trifled with either by trained personnel or by anyone who just stumbles across them,'' Gavin said in a telephone interview.

Gavin said the owner of the residence is believed to have been raising and possibly breeding the reptiles for sale, a practice that is entirely legal across Ontario.

Whether or not that figured into the motive, Gavin said it was clear the theft was not random.

"There's reason to believe that . . . the people responsible knew they were there and targeted them,'' Gavin said of the reptiles in a telephone interview. "The average person to go in and deal with these snakes, the likelihood is they wouldn't reach into a cobra pit without some level of knowledge."

boa constrictor The boa constrictor is not venomous but can still kill with crushing force. (Photo: Getty Images)

The snakes range considerably in size, Gavin said, adding even young or small reptiles carry venom that can be deadly to humans.

The venomous animals range in size from 12 to 106 centimetres. The boa constrictor, which is not venomous but can still kill with its powerful crushing force, is 200 centimetres long.

The practice of owning exotic animals is controversial, but largely legal thanks to a patchwork of laws across the country.

Ontario is widely considered to have the least stringent laws around exotic animal ownership. The provincial government has banned only two animals for domestic ownership - killer whales and pitbulls. It is up to municipal governments to create their own bylaws restricting the types of animals that can live within its jurisdiction.

Lack of enforcement tools for businesses offering animals for sale

Some municipalities, like Toronto and Ottawa, maintain lists of prohibited animals that need to be updated constantly. Niagara Police say there is no such list in place for Thorold, where the break-in took place.

Nor are there licensing requirements for businesses that focus on exotic animals as a main commodity.

Zoocheck Inc., an industry watchdog with a focus on animal welfare, has documented a significant spike in the number of businesses offering animals for sale or entertainment in the past five years.

Executive Director Rob Laidlaw said such businesses are easy to establish and can operate freely thanks to the lack of enforcement tools.

"Today, all you need is a bunch of animals in your basement or your garage or your backyard, and a computer,'' Laidlaw said of the requirements to get established in the industry. "We could set up an animal business probably in about two hours. Have a nice website, a bunch of photos, and start sending some emails."

diamond back rattlesnake The stolen animals include a diamond-back rattlesnake, five varieties of cobra, a pit adder, several vipers and a pregnant albino boa constrictor. (Photo: Getty Images)

Gavin said the investigation into the Thorold theft is still in the early stages, adding police do not yet know how many suspects they're looking for.

He said the first priority is to rescue the snakes, both to eliminate a risk to the public and for the sake of the animals themselves.

"If someone chose that they no longer wished to possess the snakes, these aren't something that you just pull up somewhere, dump them off and say, 'here's the snakes,''' he said.

"Certainly we wouldn't condone by any means them being released into the wild. Obviously because those animals aren't natural to this habitat and they're deadly, but also, with the cold temperatures, it would likely kill them.''

The reptiles would likely be returned to the original owner once recovered, he said.

Anyone with information is encouraged to come forward.

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