One of my pet hates

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When I heard the terrible story of the family attacked by a nine- foot python in a hotel room in San Diego, California, my initial reaction was to blame the hotel management - who increasingly cut costs by hurrying chamber-maids through their duties. Unemptied ash-trays, drawers full of sequinned posing-pouches, and strange tears in the bed-sheets testify to the predilections of previous tenants. For some reason Christian guests seem always to be leaving their Bibles in bedside tables, where presumably they place them after night-time devotions.

But even allowing for such routine carelessness, it would take a very casual cleaner to overlook a two-stone snake; there is so very little that is serpentine in the decor of the modern hotel. Constricting snakes will not blend in with shower curtains, bidets, pile carpet and trouser- presses.

So I was relieved to discover that the unfortunate victims of the reptile had actually brought it with them; Brad Carter, his pregnant wife, Mary Ann, and their toddlers, Joshua and Ashley, were sharing one room with their pet python, Selena. The kids were in one bed, the parents and the snake in the other. Early in the morning, the usually docile serpent, obviously tired of live guinea pigs, banished its ennui by plunging its fangs into the ample derriere of the sleeping mother. One can only speculate what species of animal it thought it was eating, and how it thought that it was going to swallow its prey.

Unsurprisingly, the bite woke Mary Ann, who describes how she was simultaneously "frozen with horror", and "screaming hysterically". So the python decided that it had better constrict her quickly. Brad then woke, sized up the situation pretty quickly ("my wife is being eaten by a snake") and started belabouring Selena with a penknife. Eventually, a passing paramedic, Ron Hawkins, decapitated the reptile with a Swiss army knife, that had been bought for his birthday only a fortnight earlier - a happy accident indeed.

Brad, it seems, had purchased Selena from a "street trader" for $100. She was a happy snake, who liked to lick his face after her guinea-pig. "Like a slippery puppy dog", he said ruefully. But today he is a wiser man, for he knows that it is very rare for a chap to go on holiday, and find his wife being throttled to death by the family's Jack Russell.

Obvious, you might think. But don't be too smug; Brad has his counterparts in this country, and plenty of them. In Britain every year more and more exotic pets are sold. One company - Pet City - has made a fortune selling (among other things) giant boas and pythons (500 in 1994), chipmunks (350), scorpions (300) and, of course, tarantulas (600).

And, like pit-bulls before them, all these pets are harmless, friendly even. Take this statement, for example: "Tarantulas are not particularly aggressive," says the honorary secretary of the Tarantula Society, Ann Webb (yes, that is her name). Of course they aren't, Ann; they don't have to be. They only need to turn up unexpectedly on your pillow and instant myocardial infarction will do the rest. There is only one point to owning such an animal, and that is to scare the crap out of family and friends.

Yet Pet City will do you a "Tarantula starter kit", (akin to the "hanging basket" starter kits you can get at garden centres), complete with baby spider, warming pad (for those palp-freezing winters) and "tunnelling material" for just 33 quid. So why didn't the Menendez brothers just nip down to their local Pet City and invest in a few starter kits? That's the problem with kids today, no imagination.

Face it. We'll have more caymans in the canals, more kinkajous in the countryside, more lizards in the lounges - and the rest of us will have to live in fear, simply so that the Brad Carters of this world will be able to boast that theirs is nine-foot long, and gives the missus a scare.