Sunday, September 24, 2023

Pender relies on non-profit for reptile rescue, but ordinance blocks some of group’s efforts

The non-profit Frest Start assists with reptiles, including larger and venomous snakes, in Pender County. But county code makes it illegal for the volunteer group to house those animals, or to use them as part of education events.

Pythons, like this albino Burmese species, are increasingly common as pets. But what happens when owners don’t know how to take care of the reptiles? (Port City Daily photo | Courtesy Fresh Start Rescue)
Pythons, like this albino Burmese species, are increasingly common as pets. But what happens when owners don’t know how to take care of the reptiles? (Port City Daily photo | Courtesy Fresh Start Rescue)

BURGAW — Rescuing reptiles is a tricky business. In Pender County, neither the county’s animal shelter or the Sheriff’s Office Animal Control Division are equipped to handle reptiles — but the non-profit often brought in to handle the animals is having trouble operating because of county ordinances.

Fresh Start Rescue, run by husband and wife team Mike and Nicole Spencer, is a volunteer-run 501(c)3 non-profit that rescues unwanted or injured reptiles; officially founded in 2017 and based in Pender County, Fresh Start rescues, fosters, rehabs and adopts out reptiles of all types in Brunswick, New Hanover, Pender, Onslow and Duplin counties.

According to Mike Spencer, Fresh Start has been called in by Pender County animal control to handle both wild reptiles and unwanted pets dropped surrendered to the county. Spencer said that, so far this summer, Fresh Start had assisted Pender County in handing a ball python, a bearded dragon, and a spider.

Lt. Keith Ramsey, supervisor of Pender County’s animal control, confirmed his division has called on Spencer and Fresh Start on several occasions.

Spencer said having a non-profit on hand to handle these animals is a win-win, saving taxpayers money and making sure the animals are rehomed, not sent to a kill shelter.

‘Dangerous wild animal’ ordinances

Unfortunately, Pender County ordinances make it illegal to “possess or harbor an inherently dangerous wild animal,” including snakes and other reptiles that are venomous or weigh more than 25 pounds.

While Fresh Start does not house venomous snakes, it does regularly handle snakes larger than 25 pounds, including several varieties of python. Pender’s ordinance not only prevents Fresh Start from temporarily housing these animals, it also prevents Spencer and his wife from bringing the animals to educational events around the county.

The Spencers’ son, Hunter, at a recent Fresh Start event. (Port City Daily photo | Courtesy Mike Spencer)
The Spencers’ son, Hunter, at a recent Fresh Start event. (Port City Daily photo | Courtesy Mike Spencer)

Fresh Start has done after-school and summer camp programs through Pender County’s Communities in Schools program, where Program Director Sally Fields said “they have been an awesome group,” adding that Fresh Start was a “great wat to engage and educate the students about the different species of reptiles” as well as the value of non-profit volunteer groups.

Fresh Start has also been part of programs with Burgaw and Surf City parks and recreation departments.

Now, after being notified that they were in violation of county ordinances, Spencer has had to put these events – including this year’s Burgaw Blueberry Festival – on hold. According to Spencer, this not only deprives Pender residents, particularly students, of an educational opportunity, it also cuts into Fresh Start’s ability to fundraise.

Special permit request

Spencer and his wife have contacted the Pender County Board of Commissioners, asking for a special permit to allow them to work around the ordinances, something they say they have been granted in other counties. In their letter, the Spencers wrote:

“Because in order to properly do our job, we have to have the ability to house banned animals. There is nowhere else to take them. What will your animal control do if they remove a large constrictor from someone’s home? We are not asking you to remove the ordinance or change it. We agree that the average person doesn’t need to own a large reptile. We are asking for a special permit to allow us to effectively do our job helping animals and educating the community about them.”

Spencer said Pender County Commission Chairman George Brown’s reply focused largely on the education aspect of Fresh Start’s mission and less on its relationship with animal control. Brown’s response, which Spencer shared, read in part:

“After speaking with school officials, it was clear to me they are not seeking any flexibility of our current ordinance for their purposes or needs. They indicated they would not be asking for organizations like you represent to come into the schools. Since that was a primary motive in your request as an educational tool for the children of our county, it is unclear how any ordinance changes would benefit our schools as they would utilize existing facilities in other areas through field trips, etc.

“Although we can appreciate the purpose and function of your rescue, that in itself does not change our position for our ordinance or the reasons we implemented the changes regarding reptiles or exotic animals. I hope you understand our position and we appreciate any help Lt. Ramsey may provide to your organization or your help to our Sheriff’s Department as you have indicated.”

When asked about Spencer’s request, Brown said, “based on the feedback from the schools and lack of feedback from the Sheriff’s Office (Animal Control), there did not seem to be sufficient reason to adjust the ordinance.”

Brown continued, “Hearing Mr. Spencer’s reasons is not the same as hearing from the agencies that he claims “Needs” his services. We asked for feedback from applicable departments to consider his e-mail request and did not receive the answers he believes we should have received.”

Open to changes

Brown concluded by saying that the board was open to making changes — if there was justification.

“I am willing to sit down with Mr. Spencer and leadership from Animal Control to work our some kind of arrangement for the Commissioners to consider if our AC needs their services and wants that meeting. I have asked our Manager to reach out to AC one more time for feedback,” Brown said.

Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

Related Articles