In one of his widely viewed TikTok videos, Christopher Gifford takes a monocled cobra out of its cage and releases it in the driveway of his Raleigh home on Chaminox Place. As the snake raises its hood and hisses, Gifford announces to his more than 460,000 viewers that he has chosen a name for his highly venomous pet.
“Guys, say hello to Shelby,” he says. “She’s now in the family.”
The snake lunges at Gifford, about a dozen feet from a sidewalk, but he reaches down and pats its head.
Hopefully, he tells his viewers, he can collect some spitting cobras soon.
“Super excited,” he says.
Gifford’s collection of videos, filmed almost daily for more than a year, show him regularly playing with venomous snakes in his yard, often barefoot. His followers thrill to him packing baby vipers into containers for transport, or unpacking fresh shipments of snakes on the backyard patio of the home where the 21-year-old lives with his parents. The basement appears to hold dozens of deadly specimens: rattlesnakes, Gaboon vipers and a green mamba that bit Gifford in April, requiring antivenom from a South Carolina zoo.
But a few days ago, a spitting zebra cobra owned by Gifford escaped, driving much of Raleigh into a panic as it slithered half a mile to a neighbor’s house on Sandringham Drive in northwest Raleigh. Dozens of Raleigh police and animal control officers scrambled around on a two-day chase, blocking off streets as nervous residents kept children and pets inside.
But barring the outside play, little of Gifford’s activity could qualify as out of bounds. Under North Carolina law, as long as a venomous snake is confined to a locked and clearly labeled cage, and a set of emergency instructions is kept handy, nothing prohibits anyone in Raleigh from keeping, buying and selling them at will.
Rules apply for endangered snakes, and the state keeps a limit on owning more than five of its native venomous natives — copperheads, rattlesnakes, cottonmouth water moccasins. But the world of exotic African cobras and vipers remains otherwise open.
In fact, Raleigh’s code addresses the sale of baby chickens, but not snakes.
“Remember guys, always follow your local and state laws,” Gifford says in one of his videos.
In another he adds, “If I ever get bit, hey, that’d be pretty cool to record it.”
The need for a ‘common sense solution’
There is only one law that regulates the keeping of exotic venomous snakes in North Carolina, and that is Article 55, “Regulation of Certain Reptiles.”
At least one legislator, Democratic state Sen. Jay Chaudhuri of Raleigh, wants more. He noted that South Carolina’s House approved a bill in May that would require owners of venomous snakes to register their animals. They would not be allowed to register new ones once the first snakes die, a move that would act as an eventual ban.
“This seems like a pretty common-sense solution,” said Chaudhuri, whose legislative district includes the area where the Raleigh snake escaped.
But that South Carolina bill, by the way, did not pass the state Senate.
Rep. Bill Hixon, R-Aiken, told a reporter for The State on Friday that he hopes the legislation will pass early next year.
”We are going to do something when we come back,’‘ he said. “We were scared to death for people’s safety. ‘‘
The NC law was originally written in the 1950s to govern “snake handling,” a form of religious worship in which preachers and some members of their congregations demonstrate their faith by handling venomous snakes.
In addition to noting that venomous snakes can’t be used to harm or harass people, the law spells out the conditions under which these snakes must be kept.
Article 55 says snakes must be housed in a sturdy, secure enclosure designed to be escape-proof, bite-proof and having an operable lock. Each enclosure must be clearly and visibly labeled “Venomous Reptile Inside,” with the scientific name, common name, appropriate antivenom and owner’s identifying information noted on the container, the law says.
In addition, a written bite protocol with emergency contact information, local animal control office, the name and location of suitable antivenom, first aid procedures, treatment guidelines and an escape recovery plan must be within sight of permanent housing. A copy must accompany the transport of any venomous reptile.
Finally, if a venomous reptile escapes, the owner must immediately notify local law enforcement, the law says.
Some cities and counties have stricter laws
Dustin Smith, curator of reptiles and amphibians for the N.C. Zoological Park in Asheboro, is well versed in the law because the zoo has to field questions from law enforcement, animal control officers and the media.
In addition to the state law, Smith said that some cities or counties may have additional ordinances governing the keeping of exotic venomous reptiles.
Orange County, for example, has a local law that prohibits keeping exotic venomous snakes or restrictors, such as pythons, Smith said.
In May 2016, an Orange County man, Ali Iyoob, was bitten by his pet king cobra, requiring antivenom from the Columbia, South Carolina zoo, and hospitalization at UNC. Orange County Animal Services officials said Iyoob had more than 20 snakes — some of which were venomous and two that were constrictive — in his home. He was later found guilty of a misdemeanor “venomous reptile” charge in Orange County.
But Wake County and the City of Raleigh do not have any local laws beyond Article 55.
Smith could not comment on whether or not it appears Gifford may have broken any laws in the handling of his collection of snakes. He has not watched Gifford’s videos on social media and is not involved in the case.
But speaking in general terms, Smith said some aspects of Article 55 could be “open to interpretation.”
For example, regarding the videos in which Gifford takes cobras into his yard or driveway to record videos, the law focuses on how the snakes must be housed and transported.
“The way Article 55 is written, when you’re transporting an animal, it should be in an escape-proof and bite-proof container,” Smith said.
Beyond that, Smith says, “My interpretation is going to be different than yours, than law enforcement, but I would say law enforcement can read this and come up with a pretty good judgment there.”
Other venomous snake handlers, including Chris Eichele of Cameron, who once operated his own snake rescue, said any responsible owner would keep a snake enclosed when it’s out of its cage rather than let it crawl free.
“That way,” he said, “if the snake gets off the tongs, it’s in your garage and not in the neighborhood.”
The Raleigh Police Department has offered no details on how or when the zebra cobra escaped or how many of the serpents shown in the TikTok videos remain in Gifford’s basement.
A goal of ‘public safety’
But there is one part of Article 55 that could be used to hold a snake owner accountable, depending on the circumstances of such an escape.
The article states that “It shall be unlawful for any person to handle any reptile regulated under this Article in a manner that intentionally or negligently exposes another person to unsafe contact with the reptile.”
Smith describes this section of the law as a “catchall” provision, designed to ensure public safety.
“The goal of the law is public safety,” Smith said. “That’s just a really generic way to say that anything you do with this animal when you’re handling it, if there are intentional or unintentional consequences, it can violate the statute.”
It should also be noted that nothing in North Carolina’s law prohibits breeding or selling exotic venomous reptiles.
Keeping native venomous reptiles, such as rattlesnakes, cottonmouths and copperheads, does require a permit from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.
Snakes for sale
For interested buyers, many avenues are open for buying venomous snakes.
Mike Martin, president of the North Carolina Herpetological Society, said most people seek them out at reptile shows. And though North Carolina shows don’t allow venomous snakes to Martin’s knowledge, cobras would be available across the state’s southern border.
Smith, of the NC Zoo, said that “South Carolina and Pennsylvania have two of the most well-known venomous reptile expos in the Eastern United States, if not the whole United States.” Smith also notes that he has heard that a venomous reptile show is being planned for North Carolina, but doesn’t have any details.
Also, Martin said, websites such as kingsnake.com act as online marketplaces. This week, the site listed a zebra cobra similar to Gifford’s for $250, available in Michigan only. But another ad offered Gaboon vipers for nationwide shipping at $300 each plus Delta airfare.
While Facebook does not allow animal sales, Martin said, many snake seekers find a way through private messages.
In a 2018 report on wildlife trafficking in South Carolina, The State newspaper noted the world’s insatiable demand for animals, writing that some dealers have reportedly made $100,000 selling turtles, snakes and other reptiles in a single year.
Opinions vary on whether current laws are tough enough, Martin said. But his biggest concern is the lack of oversight and enforcement. Nothing in the way of inspections exists to keep regular tabs on venomous snake owners.
“The occasional news reports that share stories of ... escapes of venomous reptiles are alarming and perhaps suggest a further look into the laws,” he said. “But the cases that hit the news almost always involve illegal or otherwise negligent activity that is already addressed by legislation.”
Meanwhile, Gifford has not posted snake videos on TikTok since June 15, a rare period of silence for the cobra enthusiast.
Though he has add more than a million likes on TikTok in the past week, the tone of many of the comments on his page has shifted.
“How do you let a venomous snake get out of its cage?” asks one follower. “Out of the room? Out of the house? Rookie keeper that should never keep another venomous pet.”
N&O staff writer Martha Quillin and The State staff writer Sammy Fretwell contributed to this report.