A Coon Rapids homeowner appears to have violated city code by housing 360 snakes.
No hissing, please.
Scott Nellis says there's nothing venomous about keeping 360 snakes -- and 150 rodents to feed them -- at his Coon Rapids home.
But the Coon Rapids building and inspection department has declared his residence unfit for human habitation. And the city's non-domestic animal ordinance would prohibit Nellis from housing pythons and boa constrictors -- or nearly half of the snakes that live with him, his girlfriend and their two cats.
"When the city changed its code about domestic and non-domestic animals in 2010, nobody told me about it," said Nellis, 55, who has been breeding snakes since 1996. "The city never had a problem with me before that. If I don't know about a change in the law, how would I know that I was keeping an illegal species?"
Nellis, who has lived in the house since 1985, said Friday that his neighbors were well aware that he was breeding snakes and selling them at shows and through his Internet site, SNSnakes.com. Some became keenly aware that he was using soiled rodent litter as a compost for his garden.
"It smells," Nellis said. "Manure always smells."
It's one thing to smell a rat. Last October, one of Nellis' neighbors "objected" to smelling rat manure. A call was made to the city inspector's office.
Three inspectors arrived at Nellis' home with four Coons Rapids police officers, three firefighters and a pollution-control expert, Nellis said. The rodent manure in Nellis' flower garden wasn't the problem, they told him.
"There was a health issue in the house," said City Attorney Stoney Hiljus. "The ammonia readings in the house were 20 parts per every million. Minnesota doesn't have a specific ammonia guideline, but in Wisconsin, for instance, it's considered dangerous to have air readings of one part ammonia for every million."
There were also fire-code violations -- from the many extension cords in the basement to the excessive number of storage units needed to house snakes individually.
Bad for business
And then there was the matter of those estimated 150 pythons and boa constrictors.
"Would I want it next to my house?" asked City Council Member Scott Schulte. "But if we make him get rid of the boas and pythons, he'd be down to 150 snakes. At a council meeting, he said that would cripple his business."
Nellis, who was given 45 days to comply with the investigators' findings, wants to appeal. The council last week tabled the issue until it meets again this month.
But Council Member Jerry Koch said Nellis has already impressed him with his cooperation and with the way he has cared for his animals. Animal Humane Society inspector Keith Streff agreed, saying he rarely has investigated a home with this number of animals, all seeming "in good condition."
Nellis, who drives a UPS truck, says he grew up an Army brat. While living in Oklahoma, he became infatuated with reptiles, he said.
"I'm fascinated by the colors, by the varieties," he said. "The Argentinian boas are kind of cool. Some of the pythons have gentle, smooth scales. Some of these snakes are very tame.
"The problem is people have a strong bias [against] snakes."
Koch, for one, is keeping an open mind.
"Maybe we should re-address our snake ordinance," Koch said. "I'd like to see him get a conditional-use permit and see him get the number down. To maintain that many snakes requires a lot of mice and rats."
It also would seem to require a persuasive argument to persuade Nellis' partner to live with so many snakes.
"It's fine," Nellis said. "She's into reptiles, too.
"It's our two cats that I can't figure out."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419