Opponents of B.C.'s regulations that ban the exhibition of many reptiles and other restricted exotic pets are challenging the province in court.
Jozef Demcak and his wife Bibiana say they've lost income because they are now barred from taking their six pythons on a touring roadshow that was their main business for decades.
Demcak claims the shows were educational and the crackdown by the province has rendered the couple virtually homeless.
"We lost everything," the former school teacher said. "All our savings and livelihood. It has been horror upon horror."
The former Richmond residents now live in a trailer at Cinema Zoo in South Surrey, where their snakes and a monitor lizard are kept under permit but can't be exhibited.
The Demcaks say nobody can visit them lest they see the forbidden reptiles.
Their challenge of the Controlled Alien Species Regulation – which covers dangerous animals from crocodiles to big cats – is being heard by B.C. Supreme Court in New Westminster over the next two weeks.
Mike Hopcraft, an Aldergrove reptile rescuer who supported his now-closed Abbotsford operation with shows and presentations, is backing the Demcaks.
They contend the changes were made illegally, with insufficient consultation and without actual legislation.
"We're hoping the whole thing gets overturned," Hopcraft said. "We all agree there should be some sort of regulations in place to limit who can get these animals. But when you put a ban on education and rescue, it goes too far."
Only a tiny fraction of exotic pet owners in B.C. have obtained the required permits to keep their restricted or prohibited animals. New imports are banned.
"All they've done is create a huge underground market," Hopcraft said. "There are so many people in B.C. who have these animals but don't have permits for them."
Hopcraft questioned why the province allows "harmless" boa constrictors to be legally kept until they grow to three metres long, at which point they are banned with other big snakes like anacondas.
"If you're going to ban something, ban it," he said. "Don't allow people to breed something if it's eventually going to become illegal."
The province cited public safety when it outlawed dangerous exotic animals, after repeated escapes of snakes from homes and the 2007 death of a woman killed by her boyfriend's pet tiger at Bridge Lake.
Some banned species – like primates – are of concern over their potential to spread disease.
Hopcraft initially tried to get zoo accreditation for his reptile rescue centre but gave up because of the cost.
Most of his reptiles were sent to Ontario, while a few ended up at the Greater Vancouver Zoo.
PHOTO: Jozef Demcak, wife Bibiana and Cleopatra the python. The couple toured B.C. for decades with their exotic reptiles.