Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — An exotic snake collector still has his beloved reptiles in his basement for now.
Friday was the deadline Thomas Cobb was originally given by Cottonwood Heights police to get all but one of his rare boa constrictors out of his house. A week ago, police were called to his house because of an alleged complaint from a neighbor. What they found were 29 rare boa constrictors, most between 4 and 7 feet long.
Officers cited Cobb for failing to have an exotic pet permit, a class C misdemeanor. They also told him that city ordinance only allows for one exotic animal and he would have to get rid of 28 of his snakes in a week.
But they found nothing wrong with Cobb's setup, and even noted how clean and well-kept it was.
The snakes are a special breed and worth about $12,000 each. Cobb has spared no expense in their caging and living conditions, putting more than $100,000 into building a special room in his basement and buying top-of-the-line cages for all his reptiles.
By all accounts, Cobb's snakes are extremely well-cared for.
But his story of snake eviction quickly went viral and Cobb found himself retelling it to radio programs and Internet bloggers all over the world. It also caught the attention of the Cottonwood Heights City Council and mayor, with whom Cobb has had an open dialogue.
Although the issue of what will happen to his snakes was still not settled Friday, Cobb said he was impressed with the council for communicating with him.
"I am pleased to find that they are at least willing to take and investigate further rather than make assumptions and going off on maybe their personal belief on snakes and maybe the reptile hobby keeping in general," he said. "After talking to them, I was very impressed with how open they are to actually have the dialogue with me. I don't think we're that far apart. There's a distance, but it's not nearly as great as one might have with that type of scenario."
The biggest point of contention between the two sides seems to be an interpretation of the city's exotic pet ordinance. To obtain a permit, Cobb said he needs to show he can properly care for his pet, that they do not pose a danger to the public and to prove he has knowledge of the animal. He believes he passes all those requirements with flying colors.
"They continue to tell me with an exotic permit you are only allowed one animal, which is not true. The ordinance itself is very ambiguous and it needs to be gone through more thoroughly," he said.
Cobb believes the ordinance, as it is written, is open-ended about how many exotic pets a person can own.
"So to get an exotic permit, you need to have at least one (exotic animal) but there is no maximum. That's where the ambiguity falls in. That's where my issue with the actual ordinance is," he said. "The definition is open for interpretation. If you just don't like reptiles, obviously you're going to lean to the other side."
Cobb said the ordinance is further ambiguous in defining an exotic pet simply as one not indigenous to the lower 48 states. He believes what happens with his case could affect the majority of pet owners in Cottonwood Heights.
"Technically, any individual who owns a gerbil, anyone who owns a hamster, anyone who owns a chameleon, anyone who owns a red-bellied toad, anyone who owns a guinea pig, technically is going against the ordinance of the exotic animal permit," he said.
What makes his collection different than someone who owns a gerbil, he said, is the public perception of snakes in general.
"We see movies, we see 'Snakes on a Plane,' we see 'Anaconda,' we see these movies where snakes are portrayed as monsters and can eat school buses, and that is not the case," he said.
Under a worst-case scenario, Cobb said he would move. He said the only place his snakes can truly survive is in the comfort of the specially designed room he built for them.
Cobb is scheduled to meet behind closed doors with the Cottonwood Heights City Council on May 7 to talk more about the situation. He has invited all of them to his house to see the snakes firsthand, but as of Friday no one had taken him up on the offer.
In fact, Cobb said since the situation with his snakes has gained so much attention, he has worked to educate everyone about snakes, even inviting his neighbors into his basement to see the conditions.
"The vast majority of the public is supportive, or curious more than anything, because the vast majority of the public are not like me," he said. "Obviously, there are two ends of the spectrum. A lot of people are like, 'Oh that's amazing.' But then there's that other end of the spectrum where people almost give you that judgmental look of, 'Oh, you're the snake guy.' I have people only a daily basis who say they recognize me."
Cobb said the situation has been very trying on his whole family. But he has received a lot of support from reptile collecting groups around the world. And he feels optimistic with the way talks with the city have been going about keeping his boas.
"Everybody has been level headed, more than wiling to actually talk to me about it and break apart the stigmatizations of what this whole situation has become."
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