Year of Snake sees serpent sales soar in Hong Kong

HONG KONG (AFP) - As Hong Kong prepares to usher in the Year of the Snake, an increasing number of the reptiles are slithering their way into local households, with sales of the uncuddly pet rocketing.

Keeping snakes has become increasingly popular in the densely-populated city in recent years as animal lovers seek out less space-hungry pets.

And with the spotlight firmly on the reptile in the lead-up to the Lunar New Year on Sunday, sales have surged.

At Reptile Paradise, a store which first opened its doors in Hong Kong's Mong Kok neighbourhood in 1994, dozens of baby snakes, not more than a few weeks old, frantically try to climb their way out of small plastic boxes.

As well as turtles and lizards the shop sells milk snakes, corn snakes, king snakes and ball pythons, plus containers of live white mice to feed them.

Its director Vincent Cheung said snake sales have been rising steadily for several months prior to the arrival of the new year.

"The increase for the past month and what I expect for the coming month is about 20 per cent to 25 per cent, compared with the last year," Mr Cheung said.

He has sold 100 to 150 snakes in the past three months and remembers a similar spike in 2001, the previous Year of the Snake, with twenty- and thirty-something Hong Kongers the most eager customers.

"When the Year of the Snake comes, they really want to save their money to buy a snake for it. Keeping snakes is very simple compared to keeping other types of reptiles," said Cheung, adding that clients often learn how to raise and breed them on the Internet.

With real estate at a premium and rentals sky high, snakes appear to fit with the compact high-rise lifestyle of most of the city's residents - popular breeds in Hong Kong like the North American corn snake and milk snake only measure 25cm when they are young, growing to four times as long.

But while popular pet reptiles such as the turtle represent luck, longevity and fortune, the snake has a mixed reputation in Chinese culture.

Although it can signify intelligence and happiness, it is also associated with tragedy - some believe that if a snake is found in the home it means impending disaster for the family concerned, though others feel that such a discovery brings good luck and peace.

In culinary terms it is held up as a delicacy in southern Chinese cuisine as well as a health booster, with thick soup made from snake meat thought to quicken the blood and ward off illness in winter.

In Hong Kong, practicality and a certain cool factor are fuelling sales, as well as money-making potential.

"Some people think it's a good idea to impress the girls with snakes and some people want to keep them to make money through breeding," Mr Gourry Chan, a director at Mong Kok's Turtle Park pet store, said.

Demand has also spiked in his shop in the lead up to new year, though he criticised those who simply want to get on the Year of the Snake bandwagon.

"There are a number of people who are genuinely interested in keeping snakes - but lately there have been more people coming in, and if they say they are doing it for the Year of the Snake, we discourage them.

"A snake can live up to 20 years and it takes dedication to keep one. Some are sold online when their owners get bored or they die from neglect." Animal protection groups also warn against buying a snake on a whim.

"There are many species of snake and all require unique habitats, including the right temperature and humidity to accomplish various physiological and behavioural processes. There are huge commitments behind keeping snakes and the SPCA does not recommend it to be a suitable household pet," said the organisation's Dr Fiona Woodhouse.

Bad diet and poor care often leave pet snakes dehydrated and with bone deformities, while keeping them in small containers leaves them stressed and prone to disease.

The reality may also be more gruesome than buyers realise.

"Many snakes require the feeding of live mice and although some can be trained to eat dead food, many can't," the SPCA said, adding that it feared that unwanted snakes would end up abandoned.

Turtle Park's Chan says he'll make sure his customers know the nitty gritty before snapping up a snake.

"As a pet enthusiast myself, I feel that I have a responsibility to tell them it isn't right to buy on impulse."

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