Snakes on Your Plane? Serpents Are Frequent Fliers Too

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
August 14, 2006
In the new horror movie Snakes on a Plane, which slithers into theaters this Friday, hundreds of deadly snakes are set loose inside an airplane, where they proceed to attack the passengers.

It's only a movie, of course, but snakes are regular airline travelers in real life too, crisscrossing the skies as part of the burgeoning trade in pet reptiles.

Not that you're likely to face one in the seat next to you. Snakes—at least those traveling legally—go strictly cargo, and must be safely stowed away inside fortified crates.

"In my 20-odd years, I've never heard of an incident where a snake escaped into the passenger area," said Mike Osborn, a wildlife inspector with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) at the Los Angeles International Airport.

Pythons on a Plane

L.A.'s airport is the busiest port for the importation of live animals into the U.S., receiving seven or eight shipments of reptiles every week from Southeast Asia, South America, and Africa.

A typical shipment of 30 crates may contain 200 to 300 pythons, 100 to 200 turtles and tortoises, and thousands of small lizards, Osborn says.

"Most reptiles are being brought in for the pet trade, so it's going to be a lot of the things that you see in the pet stores," he said.

The FWS has adopted a set of voluntary guidelines for shipping animals of all types. According to these guidelines, reptiles should travel in cloth bags and be placed in ventilated crates.

"The guidelines specify what type of animals are to be shipped in what types of boxes and what types of closures. It gives you diagrams of the crates and shows you specific features that are required," Osborn said. "It's very strict."

Crates containing poisonous snakes must be clearly labeled "venomous."

"This is so our inspectors don't get surprised when they open up the shipments," Osborn said.

(See a video of a snake-venom expert at work.)

Osborn says there have been instances—four or five times in his career—when animals have escaped inside the cargo area.

"Usually, the animals perished in the belly of the aircraft," he said.

Excellent Travelers

Snake wrangler Jules Sylvester, whose L.A.-based company Reptile Rentals supplied the snakes for the Snakes on a Plane movie, says the cold-blooded creatures actually make excellent travelers.

"They live underneath logs and down in holes, so they don't get claustrophobic when you put them in a box," Sylvester said.

(Read "'Snakes on a Plane': Behind the Scenes With the Movie's Snake Wrangler" [July 2006].)

For transporting snakes within the U.S., Sylvester recommends Delta Dash, a shipping service of Delta Airlines that lets passengers check cargo with them at the ticket counter.

According to Marvin Cummings, a Delta Dash customer service representative in Atlanta, Georgia, transporting snakes, even venomous ones, is "a regular, everyday thing" for the airline.

Snake shippers, however, have to be licensed, which involves having an official from either the airline or the U.S. Department of Homeland Security inspect the premises where the snakes are being held before shipping.

And the instructions for packing snakes are equally strict.

Snakes should go into a pillowcase or cloth bag tied with an overhand knot and then into another pillowcase that is also tied.

The animals should then be placed inside a box, which can be made of plastic foam. This whole package finally goes inside a wooden box, which has to be screwed down.

Sylvester, the Hollywood snake handler, says he doesn't see the need for quite so many precautions.

"Good gracious, you'd think there's a bloody gorilla in there," Sylvester said. "I don't think dynamite travels like that."

Creepy Crawlers

One practice that is more difficult to control is illegal snake smuggling.

"Most of the illegal smuggling of snakes [in and out of the country] takes place in the passenger arena," Osborn, the FWS official, said.

"A person may try to bring the snakes onto the plane in their carry-on luggage or even tape them to their body."

One traveler, Osborn says, was caught at the L.A. airport with 53 baby snakes concealed underneath his clothes.

"He had taken nylon stockings and cut them into sections, tying one end of the section off and putting the snake in and tying the other end," Osborn said.

"Then he tied all of these things together and made bracelets out of them, and carried them around his waist, ankles, thighs, biceps—they were even sewn into the lining of his jacket."

To be honest, Osborn said, "you never know what the person sitting next to you on the plane might be wearing or carrying."

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