Boa constrictor becomes fourth snake fatality in less than two years
A British wild animal circus who breached its licence by allowing the public to handle a snake who had ‘very close contact’ with a sick and untreated boa constrictor has been condemned by Animal Defenders International (ADI) for putting the public at risk.
‘Boa’ the snake was underweight, having not eaten for five months, was suffering with mucus in the mouth and was in “poor condition”. Peter Jolly’s Circus, one of only two wild animal circuses in the UK, was ordered to seek urgent veterinary treatment. The animal died a few weeks later.
The reason for ill-health was not known and the cause of death is still undetermined. Salmonella was previously detected in the snakes’ vivarium, which in humans can cause serious illness and even death, and is a particular risk to pregnant women, the elderly and young children. Members of the public were put at unnecessary risk which would likely have continued, had an unannounced inspection of the circus not taken place. The snake was eventually treated for a protozoa infection which is not transmissible to humans.
An unannounced inspection in June 2015 found Peter Jolly’s Circus featured two of its three snakes in the show, with one draped around people’s necks for photographs. The inspector raised health and safety concerns, reporting how a young girl did not wash her hands after handling the snake. The inspector advised that even if sanitising gel had been used, it is “not fully effective”, and even washing hands with “warm water, soap & towel”, members of the public remain at risk of contamination around the neck, “especially given that at present one of the snakes appears unhealthy & prior to the performance was in very close contact to the one used [for photo opportunities]”.
The government advises that “All reptiles should be presumed to carry salmonella in their gut, even if they do not show any signs of infection” and that anyone handling snakes or other reptiles should immediately wash their hands with soap and water after contact, with children supervised to prevent hand to mouth contact.
The circus was reportedly unable to provide immediate medical attention for the snake. A vet was consulted at the circus’ next location who advised that the animal should be isolated and not used in the show until Salmonella and other tests had been carried out. The snake was described as “Very thin and pale… looks like immune response so could be due to the protozoa” and died soon after. Veterinary documents indicated that Boa was 8 years old. The average lifespan for the species in captivity is 20-30 years.
Boa is the fourth snake to have died at the circus in less than two years after three Burmese pythons died within a short period, in 2013. The Circus Licensing Panel “strongly advised” Peter Jolly’s Circus “to ensure that no infectious disease is found”, yet there is no record of a post mortem examination on the other three snakes. It was stated that an examination on one of the snakes was not possible because of decomposition, also that “Salmonella infection was diagnosed, but there is no veterinary report of this”. Burmese pythons ‘Bruce’ and ‘Roy’ remain with the circus.
The Circus Licensing Panel oversees adherence to regulations governing the use of wild animals in circuses, which were put in place as a temporary stop-gap ahead of a ban. It is chaired by Sue Ellis, Head of the Animal Welfare Team at Defra.
The Panel stated that Peter Jolly’s Circus was “clearly in breach” of the regulations governing the use of wild animals in circuses which requires the circus “to ensure that any animal being used for display, training or performance is fit for the activity and that you should stop the activity if the animal shows any sign of injury or disease.”
The Panel requested copies of the outstanding test results which showed that Salmonella had not been found in the snake or vivarium but the results of the other tests are as yet unknown. The Panel strongly advised the circus “not to add to your stock of snakes until you have all the test results back and that you should pay especial attention to the condition of your remaining snakes.”
Documents released to ADI also revealed the death of Onkuli, an African ‘ankole’ cow who was 25 years old. Onkuli was forced to tour and perform with the circus for many years and died without the companionship of his own kind. During the show he was walked around the ring as part of an exotic animal display.
A commitment to ban wild animals in circuses was made by government over three years ago. Since legislation was drafted in 2013 progress has stalled, with the government repeatedly citing “lack of parliamentary time” which is now jeopardising its proposed implementation date of 1 December 2015. Despite being overwhelmingly opposed by the public, taxpayers are subsidising wild animal circuses through administration of the temporary regulations which are not covered by the cost of the annual licence.