PIKEVILLE, Tenn. -- It's not often anyone tells Tinky -- a 16-foot-long, 150-pound Burmese python who lives near Pikeville -- where she can slither.
But restrictions proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would put strict rules around where Tinky could and couldn't go.
"I haven't done anything wrong, so why should I be punished?" said Travis Parker, of Dayton Mountain, as his beloved Tinky slithers over him and the couch he is sitting on.
The proposed rules, which could come as federal law voted on by Congress or as an edict handed down from the Fish and Wildlife Service, would ban importation of nine large snake species into the United States and also prohibit snake owners from taking the reptiles across state lines.
The regulations are aimed at cutting down the populations of snakes such as boa constrictors and Burmese pythons, which recently have been found to thrive and multiply across South Florida. Researchers studying whether any of the species are capable of surviving winters in Georgia, South Carolina and other states are finding mixed results.
While the law may sound fine to those who aren't fans of the slithering reptiles, it would keep Rossville resident Chris Lewis from taking his pets to the veterinarian. None of his six snakes, including Zoey, a seven-foot dwarf Burmese python, and Chloee, a female albino Burmese python approaching eight feet, would be allowed to cross the state line to go to his veterinarian on the Tennessee side of Lookout Mountain.
The potential restrictions are "hurting more than they realize," Mr. Lewis said while sitting in a reclining chair with Zoey and Chloee slithering around him.
Mr. Parker takes Tinky and other serpents to schools and fundraisers in Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama. If the legislation passes or if the new policies are enacted, Tinky might be stuck at home.
Tamara Ward, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the agency's proposal would add the snakes to the injurious species list and put them under the Lacey Act, which would ban importation and interstate travel.
She said anyone transporting the snakes across state boundaries would need to have a permit or face a $20,000 fine and up to five years in prison. Permits can be issued for "zoological, educational, medical or scientific purposes," she said.
Senate Bill 373, introduced last year by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, would add all snakes under the python genus to the list. It would spare the anacondas and boas that would fall under the Fish and Wildlife law but include the ball python, one of the pet trade's most-popular species.
Many snake owners share an issue with the restrictions, saying it addresses a localized problem with a very broad brush.
"Why is everybody affected by something that's only in South Florida?" said Tom Parker, Travis's father and a lifelong reptile owner.
Mr. Lewis said the laws are too broad and should regulate the snakes on a state-by-state or even county-by-county basis.
Mr. Parker acknowledged that some regulations need to be put in place, and he suggested putting microchips in all large snakes sold as pets in Florida. Any snakes with a chip that are found in the wild could be traced back to the original owner, and that owner could be penalized.
"There have to be limits," he said. "There are going to be irresponsible owners just like with cats and dogs."
Jane Whited, who lives in the Highway 58 area, has more than 250 snakes, mainly ball pythons, which she breeds and sells across the country. She called the possible restrictions "ridiculous" even though the Fish and Wildlife rule wouldn't affect most of her snakes -- yet.
"I feel like, if they get this passed, that's what they'll go after next," she said.
The Senate bill would include the ball pythons.
Snakes gone wild
If tropical snakes such as boas and pythons were released in North Georgia and Tennessee, the owners have strong doubts that their pets would be able to survive.
Mr. Parker and his father take careful precautions to keep their snakes warm. Even indoors on a chilly day last week, they were concerned about leaving the animals out of their enclosures too long.
"They'll never survive out there," said Mr. Lewis, who recently built custom-heated enclosures for his scaly pets.
Albinos such as Tinky particularly are vulnerable outside their cages because the dark camouflage colors the snakes rely on to hunt prey have been bred out of their genes, making it hard to sneak up on a potential meal.
Dr. Whitfield Gibbons of the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Lab has been trying to find out just how far north the pythons, boas and anacondas can survive.
Right now, his lab is conducting experiments to see if some of the snakes can survive in South Georgia. He speculated the Burmese python and a few other species could survive a winter in North Georgia or even Chattanooga if they are able to find a warm spot in ductwork of a house or business.
The odds, however, of such a snake living north of the Florida panhandle are pretty low, he said.
"Probably, most of the species on that (Fish and Wildlife Service) list couldn't make it," he said.
Ms. Ward said, however, there is suitable habitat for the snakes in "a number of other states."
"The threat they represent to the environment and other wildlife species is therefore not limited to Florida," she said. "In other words, injurious and invasive species are -- by their very nature -- a national rather than a state-specific problem."
Mr. Lewis, who manages a cleaning chemical and pressure-washing service, said the regulations would hurt his hobby, but it could crush some dealers' livelihoods.
"I know people who pay their bills off this industry," he said.
If the rules cut down on sales, they could create entirely new problems, Ms. Whited said. If breeders are left with hundreds or thousands of snakes, they will have to go somewhere and might be released into the wild, she said.
"When there's no more money in it, they're not going to feed (a snake) or house it," she said.
SNAKES PROPOSED FOR LIST
Burmese python, northern African python, southern African python, reticulated python, green anaconda, yellow anaconda, Beni or Bolivian anaconda, DeSchauensee's anaconda, and boa constrictor
Talk of the potential rules already has affected the industry as buyers grow concerned about having a pet under the restrictions, Tom Parker said.
"Everything's frozen up," he said of the market. "Everybody's scared."