Captive Reptiles and Public Safety…
The Numbers Don’t Lie!!...

By Zuzana Kukol and Scott Shoemaker

Every time there is a tragic unusual accident, the media gets into heated hysteria to milk the story, often not researching the subject and creating damage in the process by not presenting the whole picture.

Reporters especially love the fatal exotic animal mauling accidents, with reptile attacks being some of their favorite, turning them into sensationalized pieces resembling Hollywood horror movie scripts. Who needs to go to see Samuel Jackson’s "Snakes on the Plane" and deal with noisy popcorn eaters (and dangerous car drivers on cell phones to get there) when you get better entertainment reading morning paper in the safety and privacy of your home.

Private owners of captive reptiles, pet snakes especially, have been coming under ever increasing attacks from the media bandwagon, mostly fueled by the agenda of the AR (animal rights) activists groups. These organizations, under the guise of pretending to care for public safety, hide their real agenda: to end the captive keeping of animals.

The best method of discrediting the claim that captive reptiles are a public safety issue and to show no need for additional regulation is to look at the real numbers. Facts don’t lie.

According to the Animal Protection Institute (API) website and various news sources, 19 people were killed by captive reptiles in the USA between 1995 and 2008, which is just one and a half death per year. (API is an animal rights group opposed to captive keeping of exotic and wild animals). For captive big cats, the rate is one fatal mauling per year.

Wild venomous snakes in the USA kill 12 or less people each year. Wild alligators kill 2-3 people per year and injure many more.

No human fatalities were attributed to captive tortoises. One few weeks old infant supposedly died as a result of salmonella infection from captive turtle; two deaths were attributed to lizards. One fatality was blamed on salmonella infection supposedly contracted from a pet Iguana, second death was blamed on monitor lizards that were found in the house with their deceased owner. Out of the remaining 16 fatalities, 9 were caused by venomous snake bite and 7 by large constrictors.

None of these deaths were caused by reptiles at large. Instead, all victims were either individuals voluntarily on the property where the animals were kept, or were the owners themselves at their own homes. No members of the public have been killed by captive reptiles in USA since 1995.

Two deaths resulting from the venomous snake bites occurred during voluntary serpent handling religious services in the church, while the remaining 7 involved the owners at their own home at their own risk and discretion.

Two of the deaths caused by large constrictors occurred to the children of the snake owners, at their own home, resulting in the parents being rightfully charged with child endangerment, some also with reckless endangerment and involuntary manslaughter. The remaining five fatalities were owners themselves, whom have accepted and know extremely well the potential risk of their hobby (occupational hazard?).

It doesn’t matter if the child died as a result of an animal attack or by other everyday activity, like drowning in the pool. The parents are responsible for their children and other responsible owners of exotics should not be punished with unfair bans because of parental mistakes of others who just happened to be fellow exotic animal owners.

Now contrast the number of deaths to spinach in the last year (2006). According to the USDA, E. coli caused 199 infections, three deaths and 31 kidney failures nationwide. Add to this that fresh raw vegetables like lettuce, spinach, tomatoes and green onions were responsible for the illness or deaths of nearly 19,000 people nationwide over a five-year period.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), food borne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year. Known pathogens account for an estimated 14 million illnesses, 60,000 hospitalizations, and 1,800 deaths. Three pathogens, Salmonella, Listeria, and Toxoplasma, are responsible for 1,500 deaths each year, more than 75% of those caused by known pathogens, while unknown agents account for the remaining 62 million illnesses, 265,000 hospitalizations, and 3,200 deaths.

Furthermore, according to CDC study 1.4 million human Salmonella infections and an estimated 600 associated deaths occur each year in the United States. However, less than 1% of human Salmonella infections are caused by the “reptile-associated” serotypes.

The CDC study also reported that in the wild, the colonization of Salmonella in iguanas and toads may be related to the eating of feces, which typically contaminates food and water; insects, soil, and pond water have all been shown to carry Salmonella. In the home, reptiles and amphibians might acquire Salmonella from being fed undercooked chicken or meat or by contact with household dust, all of which have the potential to contain Salmonella.

News reported that 23-year-old pregnant woman in Missouri fell ill after purchasing live rats and mice to feed her pet python. No salmonella was isolated from the culture of the snake feces, and the rodents and their cages weren't available for testing. The woman's prematurely born baby also had salmonella and was in intensive care for 56 days before going home.

What this means is that many captive reptiles might not be the primary source of infection, they got infected by their food, raw chicken, eggs and vegetables, the same food their human owners ate.

No one is advocating banning fresh vegetables or eggs, even though they are a greater threat to public health and safety than reptiles. Considering animal rights groups advocate vegan and vegetarian diets, it seems a little hypocritical to advocate banning captive reptiles in the name of public safety when advocating a diet that causes far more risk to health and life for the general public than any captive reptile.

The odd of being killed by a captive reptile is therefore extremely low. With the current US population being 297,618,284, with one death occurring every 13-14 seconds, this translates to approximately 2,440,000 US deaths per year. With this in mind, the alleged threat of captive reptiles being a public safety issue seems ridiculous with the yearly odds of dying by captive reptile being one in 198,412,189 equaling one and a half fatalities per year.

You have a better chance of winning the lottery Jackpot (1 in 13,983,816, all six winning numbers selected) or even the elusive Mega Millions Lottery jackpot (1 in 175,711,536), than being killed by a captive reptile (1 in 198,412,189). But you must visit someone with a captive reptile to get those odds. Now compare that to deaths by escaped captive reptiles….hmm, can’t find those numbers since nobody ever died as a result of captive reptile running loose. Animal Rights groups claim to want more regulation and/or banning ownership of reptiles in the name of public safety. The odds just don’t add up.

Still, where are the escaped rampaging reptiles killing people and endangering the safety of the general public? More people have died from a runaway NASCAR vehicle than runaway (escaped) reptiles. Shouldn’t we ban racecars?

According to Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2001 killed 37,862 people, of which 4,901 were pedestrians.

The best evidence of escaped reptiles not posing a threat to humans would be a situation currently happening in Florida’s Everglades National Park.

It appears that some irresponsible owners of Burmese pythons (non venomous constrictors native to Southeast Asia growing to 20 feet) have released their overgrown pets into the park. These pythons have a preference for rabbits, rodents or birds and are not attacking Florida’s burgeoning human population.

The Burmese python is an ambush predator that tends to wait in one place until prey walks by. The real threat is not to the human safety, but rather to the ecosystem of the park being invaded by non native species. It is already against the law to release exotic animals into the wild, so more unfair regulations or bans will only punish the law abiding responsible owners who are not the problem to begin with.

When in Florida, humans should be more concerned about native wild alligators, cougars and sharks when it comes to public safety.

CDC 'Cause of Death statistics' for the  year 2001 reported a total of 2,416,425 deaths in the USA. Seven people died as a result of a contact with wild venomous snakes and lizards, 5 by venomous spiders, 1 by scorpions, 43 by hornets, wasps and bees, 44  by lightning, 54 in cataclysmic storms, and 28 in landslides and other earth movements.

Assuming responsible reptile owners with proper enclosures (with locked doors, secured roofing or in the case of large lizards and crocodilians, double fence inverted toward the inside to prevent climbing over the top to prevent escape) to keep the animals in and the curious public out and to avoid easy trespassing, the best course of action to avoid being killed by a captive reptile is to simply avoid the properties where they are being kept. Can you do that with the rest of your daily activities outlined at the end of this paper?

Your lifetime Odds of Dying by a captive reptile in USA are 1-in-2,681,245.

If our government and  the AR groups really care about saving human lives, they should concentrate on the tables below.

Table 1- Lifetime odds and Number of deaths in 2003

TOTAL NUMBERS AND ODDS OF AN ACCIDENTAL DEATH IN THE USA BY CAUSE OF INJURY in 2003 – comparing human fatalities caused by captive exotic and wild animals (average up to year 2006) to deaths caused in the course of a normal daily routine in every day life in 2003.
REXANO only used fatalities numbers since all deaths are reported and there is only one degree of death. Injuries in all walks of life range from life threatening to simple Band-Aid fix and many go unreported. The average life expectancy of 77 years was used to calculate the lifetime odds.


Cause of death in 2003

Number of deaths per year

One-year odds

Lifetime odds

Captive non-human primate




Captive bear


1 in 2,416,000,000

1 in 32,000,000

Captive elephant




Captive big/exotic cat




Captive reptile




Fireworks discharge




Contact with hot tap-water








Bitten or struck by dog




Earthquake and other earth movements




Struck by or against another person








Contact with hornets, wasps and bees




Cataclysmic storm (****)




Animal rider or occupant of animal-drawn vehicle








Fall on and from ladder or scaffolding




Drowning and submersion while in or falling into swimming pool




Firearms discharge




Air and space transport accidents




Occupant of all-terrain or other off-road motor vehicle




Drowning and submersion while in or falling into natural water




Fall on and from stairs and steps




Exposure to smoke, fire and flames




Motorcycle riding




Assault by firearm




Motor vehicle accidents




Source: National Safety Council, National Center for Health Statistics, U.S. Census, animal attack news reports

*In 1997 in Atlanta, Georgia, one Yerkes primate researcher supposedly died of herpes B after she was splashed in the eye with bodily fluids from a rhesus macaque; this can NOT be classified as animal ‘attack’, just like a nurse or doctor being accidentally infected with a blood from an AIDS patients can not be called a murder.

** Based on 16 year average 1990-2006 numbers

*** Based on 11 year average 1995-2006 numbers

 (****)Includes hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, dust storms and other cataclysmic storms.


Note: Exotic animal yearly and lifetime odds numbers were rounded due to their extremely large size for the ease of use and quoting purposes in the media and legislative sessions.

The figures in Table 1 and Table 2 below are for US residents, and are based on 2001. Other odds, indicated with an asterisk (*) in Table 1 are based on long-term data.

Table 2 - LIFETIME Odds in USA in 2001

Cause of Death  in 2001

Lifetime Odds

Heart Disease 1-in-5
Cancer 1-in-7
Stroke 1-in-23
Accidental Injury 1-in-36
Motor Vehicle Accident* 1-in-100
Intentional Self-harm (suicide) 1-in-121
Falling Down 1-in-246
Assault by Firearm 1-in-325
Fire or Smoke 1-in-1,116
Natural Forces (heat, cold, storms, quakes, etc.) 1-in-3,357
Electrocution* 1-in-5,000
Drowning 1-in-8,942
Air Travel Accident* 1-in-20,000
Flood* (included also in Natural Forces above) 1-in-30,000
Legal Execution 1-in-58,618
Tornado* (included also in Natural Forces above) 1-in-60,000
Lightning Strike (included also in Natural Forces above) 1-in-83,930
Snake, Bee or other Venomous Bite or Sting* 1-in-100,000
Earthquake (included also in Natural Forces above) 1-in-131,890
Dog Attack 1-in-147,717
Asteroid Impact* 1-in-200,000**



Fireworks Discharge 1-in-615,488
Captive Reptile related fatalities in USA 1-in-2,681,245
Captive Exotic Cat related fatalities in USA 1-in-4,000,000
Captive Elephant related fatalities  1-in-5,000,000
Captive Bear related fatalities  1-in-32,174,949

Captive Non-human primate related fatalities



** Perhaps 1-in-500,000

SOURCES: National Center for Health Statistics, CDC; American Cancer Society; National Safety Council; International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies; World Health Organization; USGS; Clark Chapman, SwRI; David Morrison, NASA; Michael Paine, Planetary Society Australian Volunteers


Table 3 - CAUSE OF DEATH IN  USA in 2001


Cause of death in 2001 Number
All causes 2,416,425
  Dry land
   Motor Vehicle Traffic Crashes 37,862
   Fall on and from steps and stairs 1,462
   Fall from, out of, or through building or structure 580
   Slipping/stumbling  564
   Fall involving bed 516
   Accidental strangulation and suffocation in bed 456
   Fall on and from ladder 376
   Fall involving chair 181
   Fall involving wheelchair 157
   Skates/skis/skateboard/roller-skates 119
   Fall from tree 111
   Fall from cliff 68
   Contact with hot tap water 57
   Contact with powered lawn mower 45
   Dog attack 25
   Toys-children 0-14 25
   Pushing or collision with another person 22
   Contact with hot drinks and oils 6
 In the water
   Drowning while in natural water 845
   Drowning while in swimming pool 494
   Drowning following fall into natural water 209
   Drowning following fall into swimming pool 102
   Diving or jumping into water (excluding drowning) 68
   Shark attacks 3
 Captive Exotic Animals
  Captive reptiles in the USA 1.5*
  Captive big cats in the USA 1**
  Captive elephants 0.81**
  Captive bears 0.125**
  Captive non-human primates 0***


Source: CDC, FARS, CPSC and Wikipedia
* Based on 11 year average 1995-2006 numbers
** Based on 16 year average 1990-2006 numbers
*** In 1997/Atlanta, Georgia, one Yerkes primate researcher supposedly died of herpes B after she was splashed in the eye with bodily fluids from a rhesus macaque, but this can NOT be classified as animal ‘attack’, just like a nurse or doctor accidentally getting infected with a blood from an AIDS patients can not be called a murder.


Now, how scared should we be of captive privately owned big cats, and how scared should we be of everyday life?


Are you still worried about captive exotic animal attacks?


Copyright 2007 © Zuzana Kukol & Scott Shoemaker