TAMPA, Florida, November 5, 2009 (ENS) – A Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission investigation into the staged capture of a 14-foot-long Burmese python has resulted in charges against the professional nuisance-animal trapper who perpetrated the public hoax.
On Wednesday, FWC Investigator James Manson arrested Justin Matthews, 47, of Bradenton, Florida, a well-known wildlife expert and owner of Matthews Wildlife Rescue.
Matthews is charged with misusing a 911 emergency system, third-degree felony, and a second-degree misdemeanor violation of maintaining captive wildlife in an unsafe manner resulting in threats to the public safety.
On July 25, Matthews called Tampa Bay area media to a Bradenton neighborhood to witness the capture of a large Burmese python from a drainage pipe near a daycare center.
Matthews told the media he was performing a public service by capturing a large snake residents had reported seeing over a period of months. Matthews also claimed the python posed a threat to children in the nearby daycare center.
The FWC charges that he purposefully, and illegally, let the snake go in the drainage pipe and then staged its capture for the media. The story made national headlines.
Manson contacted Matthews after following up on leads that Matthews had legally purchased a large python a month prior to the incident from a properly licensed reptile dealer in Tampa.
Matthews admitted to Manson, and publicly, that he had purchased and released the snake. He said he had staged the stunt to draw public attention to the danger of releasing pythons into the wild. Thousands of pet pythons have been released into the wild in Florida.
The release of the snake in the wild and a subsequent call to 911 to request emergency help have Matthews in trouble with the law.
Burmese pythons have a well-established breeding population in South Florida and are a threat to native wildlife and the state’s delicate environment. Burmese pythons are listed as a “reptile of concern,” along with five other reptiles.
To own a reptile of concern, owners must have a permit prior to acquiring the animal, pay a $100 fee, complete a questionnaire, and meet caging requirements.
The reptile must be microchipped, and the owners’ facilities are subject to unannounced onsite inspections. Owners must have a disaster plan for securing and evacuating reptiles. These rules apply to anyone who possesses a reptile of concern no matter when it was acquired. It is illegal to release any nonnative animal in Florida.