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.

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