From Unethical to Unlawful? Reality Bites Part III

By Christie Wilcox | June 23, 2016 8:00 am

This is Part III of a four-part series on the Discovery Channel show Venom Hunters, and the apparent bad behavior of the network, production company, and cast members involved. Parts I and II revealed how the production company pursued a flawed premise against the advice of several venom professionals, and then probably faked or staged scenes and storylines to promote that premise. In this post, I look at whether the stars were permitted or licensed properly in the states they were filmed.

venom_hunters_irony

I can assume the scene above in Venom Hunters’ opening credits was in part meant to build the drama, and in part, to dissuade people from copying the show’s dangerous antics. But perhaps it would have been less ironic if there was evidence that all of the cast members on the show obtained the proper permits for their activities.

In the United States, the permits and licenses required to legally collect and extract venom from native species for sale or scientific research are considered public records, so I contacted the various state regulatory agencies in states where snakes were collected for the show (Arizona, California, Georgia, Florida, Oklahoma, and Texas) and asked 1) whether permits were required to collect and sell venom from native species or collect and sell the snakes themselves and 2) whether the venom hunters that were depicted collecting in their state had those permits.

The only state where some kind of permit is not required is Georgia (the venom hunters could have gotten a hunting or scientific collection permit anyway, to cross their Ts and dot their Is, but they weren’t legally mandated to do so). In all others, catching and milking native wildlife for research or profit requires a permit or license of some kind. In Texas, for example, snakes fall under the nongame wildlife regulations. The Texas Administrative Code says that “no person may collect, acquire, possess, import, export, cause the import or export of, or engage in a commercial activity involving nongame wildlife,” unless they obtain one of the nongame wildlife permits. The process of getting one of those couldn’t be easier—you can even apply for and purchase a permit online. Or, if it’s for research, you can apply for a Scientific Permit for Research instead, thus allowing you to “collect, salvage, band, or hold native Texas wildlife for scientific purposes.”

In episodes 03 and 04, Ed Chapman and Justin Bottrell sought and eventually snagged two Texan western diamondbacks, which were supposedly sold to a serpentarium in Florida—so the pair presumably collected, exported, and engaged in commercial activity involving nongame wildlife (although a snake expert noted that the snakes depicted in Florida may not be the same snakes as shown in Texas—so there is question as to whether the snakes were indeed transported out of state or if the show simply pretended they were). Meanwhile, according to Tim Fitzer in episode 02, his “whole life savings” was riding on the sale of venom from three copperheads that he, Hannah and Kevin caught in Texas, which would be collection plus commercial activity (the team returned for cottonmouths in episode 05, but didn’t get any venom from the snakes they collected, so only collection the second time around). Even if the show lied about the money aspect and the teams worked pro bono, Tim and his team would have minimally needed a Scientific Permit for Research to collect the venom for use in the ground-breaking research they claimed the venom was needed for.

Tim and his team bagging a copperhead in Warren, Texas.

Tim and his team bagging a copperhead in Warren, Texas.

And yet, according to my official request for records under the Texas Public Information Act, there were no permits of any kind issued to Tim, Hannah or Kevin, nor were there permits issued to Authentic Entertainment or Discovery. Justin Bottrell held a Recreational Controlled Exotic Snake Permit from 6/20/15 to 8/31/15. If the hunters caught wild snakes for profit or research as they claimed onscreen to fulfill their “orders” while not permitted to do so, then they broke Texas law. Anyone who broke Texas law would be guilty of Class C Parks and Wildlife Code misdemeanors, which are punishable by a fine of up to $500 for first offenders, and much heftier fines plus the possibility of jail time for repeat violators.

I found similar results in the other states. In episode 06, Ed and Justin would have needed Biological Supply House Permits and Field Collecting Permits to catch and export the southern Pacific rattlesnakes from Cali to Florida, as the snakes would fall under “Commercial Take of Native Reptiles and Amphibians for Scientific or Educational Institutions.” They would have had to specify the names of those authorized to collect, the number of animals, and the dates when they were going to be hunting. When I filed my records request, I even asked about scientific collecting permits, too, just in case. And yet, after “a diligent search of its records,” the California Department of Fish and Wildlife informed me that no permits issued to either Ed or Justin were found.

Justin Bottrell was licensed under a California State Annual Sport Fishing License from 02/27/15 to 12/31/15, which would have made it legal for him to capture the snakes in the state. Thus, if the snakes depicted in the show never left California—in direct conflict with what the show claimed occurred—then there would have been no violation. A snake expert pointed out to me that the snakes in California appear to be different than any shown in Florida, and thus it’s possible that the storyline of the snakes being transported was faked during production and editing, and that the team therefore did not break California law.

Dan and Melanie Massey were required to have Scientific Collecting Licenses to catch and milk the blacktail and black rattlesnakes that they chased after in Arizona in episodes 04-06 if the venom was intended for research—even if they milked them onsite and let them go afterwards—according to officials from the Arizona Game & Fish Department’s Terrestrial Wildlife Branch. Yet the pair did not have have those permits in 2014, 2015 or 2016. That’s not to say they had no permits at all—Dan has maintained Wildlife Holding Permits for Educational Purposes for animals kept at home and the Arizona Poison Center. However, those licenses explicitly state “The License does not allow the taking of wildlife (to include — hunting, fishing, capturing, snaring, etc)”—so to capture and milk venomous snakes with solely a Wildlife Holding Permit is illegal. Not only did Dan and Melanie lack scientific collecting licenses for 2015, when Venom Hunters was shot, the pair also did not file any reports of the collection activities shown on TV, which would have been required if animals were collected for research purposes (deadline to file was January 31). However, if the research storyline was faked, then there would have been no violations.

So the question becomes: was the storyline fake, or was there a legal violation? Dan Massey has come forward to state that the show’s producers pushed the pair into making that part up. “We were asked to do and say things that we were uncomfortable with and did not agree with,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “We had the necessary permits and adhered to all laws as we personally worked hand and hand with Arizona Game and Fish during the entirety of filming.”

“I fabricated a story line that was based on personal experience/research to prevent the show from fabricating a completely false perspective – and I apologize,” he wrote.

[[This post originally included questions about permits in Florida, however, clarification with the authorities has confirmed that the actions depicted did not violate Florida law]]

The laws in Oklahoma are among the most lax in the nation; I had a lengthy conversation with Lt. Col. Bill Hale, assistant Chief of Law Enforcement with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, who explained to me the rules. Catching rattlesnakes is permitted under any of the dozen or so possible hunting licenses; there are no limits, so you can take as many as you want, and you can pretty much do whatever you wish with the animals afterwards (alive or dead). Milking the snakes and keeping, selling or giving away the venom is all allowed under any hunting license. There’s really only one catch: open season is between March 1 and June 30th. Outside of those dates, it is illegal to collect a wild snake and take it home with you, even if you release it alive later. Bill was clear: “They wouldn’t be able to take the snakes home in a closed season” (emphasis mine).

We know that Tim and his team collected snakes in Oklahoma and brought them back with them (episodes 01 and 03)—the show clearly depicts the trio with the snakes they caught back at Tim’s taxidermy shop when they were milking the venom to sell to Tim’s clients. And, as avid hunters, all three—Tim, Hannah and Kevin—possess hunting licenses. But an email from one of the producers to a potential star stated that the production schedule was very strict—”It was produce the show with a shoot period of July and August (8 weeks in US, 3 weeks in Australia) or they would find someone else that does,” the producer wrote. Since July and August are closed season for rattlesnakes in Oklahoma, then it seems as if the venom hunters still managed to violate the law in one of the least restrictive states.

It might be tempting to let that slide; after all, Tim’s a taxidermist, not a professional venom hunter. One might argue that he probably didn’t know the rules. But that’s just it—you cannot start conducting business without knowing the laws pertinent to your company. Just imagine if you wanted to start a bar. You can’t just buy a bunch of alcohol and cups and start calling yourself a bar—there are laws and regulations that you need to learn and comply with. If you want to start a bar, you need to learn about liquor licenses, any regulations involving food or cigarettes in an establishment that sells alcohol, and so on. If you’re going to claim to be starting a business selling venom, then you need to know the ins and outs of every law that can apply to you, from when it’s illegal to collect animals in the areas you want to collect them, to what kinds of permits you need to move venom across state lines, and even what kinds of permits and inspections are required for a scientific laboratory. There’s simply no excuse for being ignorant.

Australian information laws are more arduous that US ones, thus I do not yet have official documentation as to what kinds of permits the cast or crew had there. So I asked Brian Barczyk about the permitting, and he said “I think up until about two days before we left, we were still trying to get all the proper permitting in place. Literally, I remember having a conversation two days before we left. They said, ‘We’re 90% sure we’re going to have everything in place.'”

“We wanted to make sure we were doing everything above board,” he continued, but did not (or could not) provide details of any permits obtained for the show.

I also reached out to Authentic Entertainment, particularly inquiring as to whether they had any documentation to disagree with my (lack of) FOIA results. This is what I was told:

“Throughout all phases of production, the Venom Hunters team was mindful of following all local, state and federal laws of every nation, state or jurisdiction in which we were shooting. This required detailed research and the enlistment of a variety of reptile and wild game professionals. Our practice was always to partner with experts who held the appropriate licenses to ensure we were following both the letter and spirit of the law in all locations worldwide.”

They did not provide any evidence to refute the information from my FOIA requests, and did not provide documents or details which challenge anything in this post.

Considering the recent exposés of Animal Planet shows, you would think that Discovery would be more careful about following the rules. In fact, I asked Discovery directly what measures they had in place to ensure that no laws are violated during the filming of their shows. They did not provide comment.

Not only did the apparent lack of permits mean state laws may have been broken, if, as the show claimed, any sort of commercial activities occurred from illegal collections or any of the collected snakes or venom were transported across state lines, then all involved are guilty of violating federal law. The Lacey Act (16 U.S.C. §§ 3371–3378) prohibits trade in wildlife, fish, and plants, or parts thereof, that have been illegally taken, possessed, transported, or sold. And to be clear, both the snakes and their venom fall under this law—”The term “fish or wildlife” means any wild animal, whether alive or dead, including without limitation any wild mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian, fish, mollusk, crustacean, arthropod, coelenterate, or other invertebrate, whether or not bred, hatched, or born in captivity, and includes any part, product, egg, or offspring thereof” (emphasis mine). Depending on the severity, violations can result in tens of thousands of dollars in fines if not criminal charges and jail time.

It seems probable that some of the footage in Venom Hunters depicted illegal activities, or that, in many cases, Authentic and Discovery made up storylines and staged scenes, thus making it appear as if the cast members did things that they were not permitted to do. And, as I explained in Part II, much of the show revolved around probably-faked contracts—all in service of a premise that, as shown in Part I, they were told was false to begin with. Is this Discovery’s idea of committing to real, honest scientific programming? I explore the implications of these alleged actions in Part IV.

 

*This post has been updated to reflect new information regarding several state permits. 

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About Christie Wilcox

Dr. Christie Wilcox is a science writer based in the greater Seattle area. Her bylines include National Geographic, Popular Science, and Quanta. Her debut book, Venomous, released August 2016 (Scientific American/FSG Books). To learn more about her life and work, check out her webpage or follow her on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook.

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