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East County Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2009 8 years ago

Wildlife rehabilitator regrets hoax

by: Pam McTeer

MANATEE COUNTY — He wasn’t selling snake oil, but East County Wildlife Rehabilitator Justin Matthews used his expertise with the slithery creatures to dupe local and national media last month.

Matthews garnered the attention after capturing a 14-foot Burmese python in a storm drainpipe near a shopping plaza at 53rd Avenue East and 33rd Street in Bradenton on July 25.

But last week, he admitted the capture not only was staged but that the snake, named Sweetie, was one of his own. The announcement came hours after the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported that Matthews had confessed to placing the snake in the drain when asked by an investigator.

Matthews may be charged with a misdemeanor for not having the snake micro-chipped but likely will not face any other charges.

“I regret doing it just for the fact it was dishonest, and it wasn’t a good example,” Matthews said. “It was the wrong thing to do. Never done it before, and I will never do it again. I made a mistake, and I apologize to the public.”

Matthews said he bought the 14-foot-2-inch snake for $200 from Southeast Reptiles in Tampa. He planned to use it for educational purposes.

In the months leading up to the fake capture, Matthews had been trying to raise awareness about the danger of releasing pythons into the wild, especially after a child was killed by one in Sumter County July 1.

“I could picture someone out there thinking, ‘I have no place to take this snake, but I don’t want it anymore,’” Matthews said.

He said he came up with the idea for staging a snake capture after watching a show on “Animal Planet.” With the help of his son, who lives in Gainsville, Matthews placed the snake in the pipe and called a local newspaper photographer, who did not respond. Matthews planned to retrieve the snake and leave but hesitated when it became aggressive. He said he contacted 911 with a non-emergency call and requested the assistance of firefighters to help capture the snake.

“I was in the pipe for over an hour with a ticked-off python,” Matthews said. “She came at me when I was in (there). Calling the fire department was not in my original plan.”

Firefighters arrived in about 20 minutes, as did members of the media, who likely learned of the snake by listening to the 911 dispatch, Matthews said.

Matthews said he would comply with firefighters if they choose to bill him for their time.

Matthews operates his animal rescue from his home and from Mixon Fruit Farms, where he runs the Wildlife Care and Education Center and provides educational tours to guests.

In the past several years, he also has worked closely with Freedom Elementary School, providing wildlife presentations and caring for the school’s mascot.

Janet Mixon, co-owner of Mixon Fruit Farms, said she does not expect it to interfere with tours of the Wildlife Center.

“He’s passionate, and I think he got a little carried away with that passion,” Mixon said. “We don’t agree with what he did, and he knows that. But if the passion is true, then we want it to be here.”

Jim Mennes, the new principal at Freedom, called Matthews’ decision a “bad judgment” call and said he plans to speak with teachers about how they would like to address the situation.

Although the incident does not automatically mean Matthews will discontinue his activities at Freedom, Mennes said the school will not pretend the incident never happened.

“That compounds the lie,” Mennes said. “That’s not an option. You can take any bad situation and turn it into a learning experience.”

Although Matthews regrets his actions, he said he is glad that some good has come out of the incident. Since the staged capture last month, he has picked up seven snakes that would have been released into the wild, he said.

Contact Pam McTeer at [email protected].

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