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Chaz Schilens | Courtesy Two of Thomas Cobb's boas.
Utah snake guy finds a new place to nest

Boa collector moves, but exotic-pets debate continues to rage in Cottonwood Heights.

First Published Jan 17 2014 03:01 pm • Last Updated Jan 17 2014 10:12 pm

Cottonwood Heights • Thomas Cobb, his family and his collection of more than 25 boa constrictors can now live in peace after moving from their Cottonwood-Heights neighborhood where controversy over the exotic pets became downright venomous.

"I left because of the harassment, the scrutiny, the threats. It was just an uncontrolled situation," Cobb says of the neighborhood where he grew up. "People of influence made minimal effort to protect my family from individuals that were forcing their opinion upon us, judging us for something they don’t understand."

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Beginning last May, concerned residents brought their complaints to the city council, along with a petition signed by several dozen neighbors seeking strict limits on the number of snakes and other exotic pets that could be legally maintained in a home.

Complaints ranged from health and safety to property values.

"[Cobb] has created an uncomfortable environment in the neighborhood and it’s not fair," resident Tobi Paulos, who started the petition, said in an interview with ABC4 news at the time. "We’re concerned about our property values decreasing. I mean that’s a reality — we now have the stigma of the snake neighborhood."

Paulos and others pressed the city council to adopt an ordinance making it clear a homeowner was allowed to have just one exotic pet.

Paulos did not respond to requests for comment this week by The Tribune.

Cobb has moved out of the city with his large collection of snakes, but the controversy he touched off is still reverberating in Cottonwood Heights City Hall.

This week city council members decided to move forward on a proposed ordinance that would limit the number of exotic pets allowed a homeowner — five without a permit and up to 25 with a permit. A vote is scheduled for Jan. 28.

Councilman Mike Peterson, who represents the neighborhood, said many residents there have grown so emotionally involved that they are no longer objective on the issue. However, he said residents outside the area are also concerned.

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"I bet you I’ve asked 50 people from every district and the common response is that they’d be concerned," Peterson said at Tuesday’s council meeting. "It seems like 78 percent of the people I talk to want greater restriction."

Experts from Weber State University have told the city that anywhere between 20 and 50 animals would be acceptable in a home from a health and safety standpoint. The council appears to have settled on 25 as a compromise.

Mayor Kelvyn Cullimore Jr. does not agree with the restriction, but he is willing to pass the ordinance in deference to resident concerns.

"I would be happy with 25 just to get this thing done and moving on," Cullimore told the council. "My personal opinion is I think we’re overreaching. We’re overreaching into people’s private lives as government because we’ve got some people who are being irrational about their fear of snakes."

Cullimore said whether the number is 25 or 50, some residents will never be happy with the ordinance.

"All they’re going to do is criticize us for not just saying no to all of it,’" the mayor said at the meeting.

Councilman Michael Shelton is concerned that this ordinance infringes on the rights of private property holders. He said as long as the pets are safe and do not have an impact on the neighborhood the government should stay out of it. He noted that there are dangerous possessions, such as guns, that people can have as many of as they want in their homes regardless whether they make neighbors nervous.

Cobb couldn’t agree more.

"I think it’s very important that individuals maintain their personal right to do what makes them happy as long as it has no effect upon anybody else and that regardless of situation the pursuit of happiness reigns supreme," Cobb says. He maintains his boas are safely maintained in separate enclosures inside his home and endanger no one.

"I’m a law abiding citizen," Cobb told The Tribune in a telephone interview. "I’m not going to break the law because I want to do something. I’ll go to someplace where I can do what I was doing without being judged."

He said things are working out fine in his new neighborhood. But Cobb, who has privacy concerns, would not say where he lives.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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