It’s a Monday evening on the southern end of Palisades Park. Tourists are flocking to the Santa Monica Pier. The sunset looks like a layered Mexican Sangria: a layer of pink, then blue. A 120-pound yellow snake is draped over the shoulders of a little girl.
Her family laughs and snaps pictures, handing over a $5 “donation” to Al, the snake’s owner who’s been coming out to the area for almost five years.
Al, who declined to give a last name, may soon be facing an ordinance banning his snakes from a slew of popular public spaces in Santa Monica.
City Council could consider passing the ordinance, which may ban exotic and wild animals from the Santa Monica Pier, Third Street Promenade, and public parks, on Feb. 24, Pier Manager Rod Merle said at a Pier Corporation meeting last week.
The Pier Corporation signed off — unanimously among those who were present — to the proposed ban, which originated in the Recreation and Parks Commission. The Pier Corporation and Recreation and Parks Commission approvals are simply recommendations to council, which will have the final word.
“We’ve seen a confluence of bird acts, animal acts, and a lot of carnival sort of barking at the corner of Colorado and Palisades Park,” Recreation and Parks Commission Chair Phil Brock said. “It seems to have gotten worse because there is now only one walkway down to the pier. Strategically, if you’re the snake man or the bird man, you can station yourself so that every single person that goes up or down the pier has to see you. We feel it’s gotten excessive.”
Brock said that the animals are becoming a safety hazard.
“I was walking down to the pier and someone stuck a snake in my face with their right hand,” he said, “and I sort of ducked from that and a bird was coming at me from the other side.”
Howard, who brings his birds to the park two to four times a week, says this is not a legitimate concern.
“They think someone is going to get hurt but no one has ever really gotten hurt out here,” he said.
Matthew O’Brien, who said he’s been helping Al with his snakes five days a week for about a month, also downplayed potential for injury.
“Sure sometimes the birds bite a little bit but that’s all birds,” he said. “It doesn’t kill anybody. It doesn’t give anybody stitches. Just a little scrape.”
O’Brien made a bold comparison when talking about the potential exotic animal ban.
“It’s just like Hitler did before he took over Germany,” he said. “He took away people’s rights little by little so they didn’t realize they were getting taken away. That’s what the American government’s doing to people. I have a huge problem with it.”
Al was visibly flustered when asked about the proposed ban, which he does not believe will ever go into effect.
“I’ve heard this eight times since the last five years I’ve been coming out here and guess what: It’s not even a scare tactic to me,” he said. “I’m not even worried about it. This is the key. When they come with the paper and they say ‘OK, guys. The party’s over.’ We’ve all had permits to the pier and promenade but the bottom line is this: Everything is talk until I see a piece of paper in my face. I’ve heard this over and over. It’s just a bunch of hot air.”
Last year, after a push from local animal rights activists, council voted to effectively oust a long-time pony ride operator from the Main Street Farmers’ Market. When the operator’s current contract expires later this year, another, non-animal vendor will likely replace it.
Brock referenced this council decision when talking about the potential exotic animal ban.
“We have citizens who are upset about ponies at Main Street Farmers’ Market and other areas of the city,” he said. “It would seem that this falls quite a bit into the same category.”
When the proposal was put forth by the Recreation and Parks Commission in August, it included only the parks, the beaches and “other public spaces as the council deems appropriate.”
The commission passed the recommendation by a vote of 5 to 1 with Commissioner Deborah Cohen voting against it, according to meeting minutes.
The ordinance that Merle brought forward at the Pier Corporation Board meeting included the pier and the promenade as well. City attorneys, he said, are still drafting the ordinance for council.
“The concern was that this would just migrate down the hill,” Merle said.
As previously mentioned, the item is scheduled for council’s Feb. 24 meeting but could get pushed back for a number of reasons.
“It’d be great if it could happen before spring break,” said Pier Boardmember Misti Kerns, who is also president and CEO of the Santa Monica Convention and Visitors Bureau, at the meeting.
Out at the corner of Palisades Park, a woman’s eyes bulge as the giant snake is draped over her. She’s afraid it will bite her, but it doesn’t. A colorful bird is placed on her head and another is cradled, like a baby, in the snake’s coils.
“They’re not bothering anybody,” O’Brien says, looking on. “And they’re actually making tourists in Santa Monica come out a lot happier because it’s exciting for somebody to see a snake or a bird that they’ve never gotten to touch before in their life. That’s cool. I think it’s ridiculous that they want to shut this down. Why can’t they let these guys be so they can make money and pay their rent?”