She may be known as America’s sweetheart, but Reese Witherspoon’s latest acquisition has animal activists up in arms. The Oscar-winning actress has been spotted around Los Angeles toting a $4,000 Chloe Paraty bag made of genuine python leather. Considering that sales of the exotic skin have been banned in California since 1970—not least because of the unfathomable cruelty involved—it’s a pretty good bet that Witherspoon won’t be fielding nominations for PETA’s “sexiest vegetarian” anytime soon. In fact, the animal-rights group fired off a strongly worded open letter on Tuesday morning, condemning Witherspoon for her complicity in the animals’ “hidden suffering” for fashion’s sake.

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Under California Penal Code Section 653o, it’s illegal to import the “dead body, or any part or product thereof” of pythons to sell or with the intent to sell within the state. Luckily for Ms. Witherspoon, however, it’s perfectly legit to purchase python-skin products across state lines before heading back to California.

Every year, millions of snakes are impaled on hooks or nailed to trees by their heads and skinned alive, says PETA.

A spokeswoman for PETA isn’t impressed with the alleged subterfuge. “‘Every year, millions of snakes are impaled on hooks or nailed to trees by their heads and skinned alive,” she tells the Daily Mail. “Hoses are inserted into the mouths of large snakes—like pythons—and their bodies are pumped full of water to loosen their skin so that it will cut away more easily. The animals’ peeled, writhing bodies are then discarded, and it often takes days for the animals to die from the effects of shock and dehydration.”

Because of the abject cruelty, PETA has persuaded popular retailers such as Adidas, Nike, H&M, Cole Haan, and Victoria’s Secret to abstain from the sales of exotic skins.

Still, there’s a chance that Witherspoon’s cavalier attitude towards animal welfare is a result of ignorance rather than malice. PETA has promised to send her an undercover video exposé of the exotic-skins industry, hosted by none other than her Walk the Line co-star Joaquin Phoenix.

Update: Nov. 3, 2011
Gossip Cop reports that Witherspoon is giving up her python bag. As a token of its appreciation, PETA will be sending her flowers. “We’ve long known Reese to be a kind person, so we’re pleased—and not surprised—that she is hanging up her python bag for good,” the group says in a statement.

[Via Daily Mail]