FLORIDA'S BURMESE PYTHON:

BOTH PREDATOR AND PREY

BY E.M. FAY


Florida is a state rich in wildlife. The Everglades are especially welcoming to an abundance of bird, mammal, amphibian, and reptile life, and every year a huge number of nature lovers visit its magnificent wilderness. Wildlife-watching tourism is a big moneymaker for this vacation state, and the alluring presence of our own modern-day "dinosaurs," the alligator, is just one part of the attraction.

Alligators are not the only cold-blood­ed creatures found in Florida, of course. The year-round warm climate is recep­tive to all, including a multitude of tur­tles, snakes, lizards, and salamanders. Unfortunately, these native species of fauna have recently been joined by a non-native reptile: the Burmese python. This large snake has upset the eco-sys­tem in many parts of the state, changed the balance of the natural food chain - and was caused exclusively by people's carelessness.

Burmese pythons have been imported from Southeast Asia mainly to satisfy the exotic pet market; and considering that $10 million in sales were recorded last

year alone, many Floridians are ignorant­ly purchasing these impressive, non-ven­omous constrictors. However, after the novelty of having a "vanity" pet wears off, some people then compound their mistake by letting the snakes go in the Everglades and other wilderness areas, leaving them to fend for themselves.

The cruelty of abandoning any pet is obvious. But in the pythons' case, this act has backfired on the whole state of Florida. Situated as they are at the top of the food chain, these resourceful predators have found plenty of food sources available to them, particularly in the Everglades wetlands. They are eat­ing a wide variety of birds and mam­mals, including some endangered species, and are not only competing with the traditional top predator, the alli­gator, for their dinner, but consuming some alligators themselves.

Making matters worse, a private rep­tile-breeding facility near the Everglades was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. This may be the cause of the original influx of large quantities of pythons appearing in the wild. As such breeding businesses have to be licensed by the state, the question must be asked: Why would a state already well-endowed with native snake species per­mit such a risky enterprise in the first place? And how was it regulated if the apparent storm-related "spill" was possible? The state instituted some new ownership criteria last year, including annual $100 fees for possession and microchips to keep track of the snakes, but it is a case of too little, too late.

Wildlife officials have reacted to the proliferation situation with an all-too common deadly approach: sanction the killing of as many pythons as possible. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commissioner issued first-ever permits for snake hunting on state lands on July 17th. U. S. Interior Secretary Salazar has sanctioned snake hunting in Big Cypress National Preserve, and even though hunting is banned in Everglades National Park, he is considering making an exception for the pythons. Both Salazar and Florida Governor Charlie Crist are reported as being in favor of a placing a bounty on the snakes, in order to encourage hunters. So far, though, hunters are not getting a bounty, but they can sell the skins and meat.

An additional catalyst for this unusual­ly vigorous targeting of the species was the death earlier this summer of a two-year-old child. Her mother's boyfriend had an unlicensed pet Burmese python, and it allegedly escaped its cage during the night and attacked the child in its crib. At least one official had the sense to recognize the reality of this tragedy. "It's becoming more and more of a prob­lem, perhaps no fault of the animal, more a fault of the human," said Jorge Pino, a state wildlife commission spokesman. "People purchase these ani­mals when they're small. When they grow, they either can't control them or release them."

The culpability of persons who release former pets into the wild seems not to have penetrated into the thinking of some officials, though. Said Everglades National Park spokeswoman, Linda Friar, "These pets were released by owners that do not understand the threat to the ecosystem." If this is true, then surely such ignorance needs to be addressed by a comprehensive statewide informa­tion campaign. Friar's stated belief that "The pet trade is pretty supportive in educating people," seems woefully inad­equate. Surely, public safety ought not to be entrusted to an industry with a vested interest.

An estimated 30,000 pythons are liv­ing in the Everglades now, and over 100,000 are thought to exist statewide. In the Florida Keys, a careful capture program has been instituted by Alison Higgins, of The Nature Conservancy. Higgins is educating outdoor workers of many stripes - park rangers, wildlife experts, utility workers, and the police - to recognize the species and capture them safely.

Conservation Manager Higgins is especially concerned with preventing breeding by the snakes. "Our mission is to keep breeding populations from form­ing." She pointed out that this is not a problem exclusive to Florida or to snakes. "The Everglades problem start­ed from a handful of pets being released, and it can spread."

The procedure for volunteers who find a python is to put the snake in a bag, then into a crate for delivery to park service biologists. The snake is then studied and, usually, destroyed. One state-sanctioned snake hunter, Joe Wasilewski, was quoted on CNN as hav­ing a "soft spot" for the species. This purported affection did not deter him from exclaiming, after capturing one 12- foot specimen: "One down, 100,000 to go."

This cavalier attitude - "100,000 to go," as if they are things, not living creatures with feelings - is unjust to anyone who recognizes the intelligence and beauty of these beings. They were brought here against their will by people out to make a profit. Regardless of their putative sta­tus as "pets," they are routinely dumped in the swamps like so much trash. The resultant chaos caused by their prolifera­tion is clearly not a consideration for the heartless humans who abandon them. 'Let others clean up my mess' seems to be the prevailing mindset.

The media does no service to the truth by using sensational language such as "invading pythons," implying willful behavior by reptiles who were, in fact, kidnapped from their homeland to enrich sellers and flatter the vanity of buyers. Once again, an implied blaming

Florida Sen. Bill Nelson has introduced a bill banning importation of python species into the United States. But this is the equivalent of locking the barn door after the horse has been stolen.

"Prevention is the simplest solution. People need to know what they're get­ting into when they buy an animal. They need to understand that they should never dump a pet."

The unintended consequences of such profit-motivated importations are not only devastating for local fauna, but inevitably result in needless suffering such as that now being inflicted on the innocent Burmese pythons.

http://www.cnn.com/2009/US/07/30/flo rida.python.hunter/index.html

Please contact us at wildwatch@verizon.net if you would like us to forward a series of photos depicting the killing and skinning of snakes for fashion items such as shoes, boots, bags, and belts. Please don't buy these products.

Red-eared slider

Another example of the release of store-bought animals into the wild is that of the red-eared slider in New Mexico. Here are the reasons why it is not a good idea to release them into the wild - for their own sake as well. "Released turtles might not survive the winter if released at the wrong time, they might starve from lack of food. They don't have the same genetic line­age as the native turtles and may have different needs or behavior." They sug­gest that unwanted turtles be turned over to groups that specialize in turtle and tortoise conservation or rescue where a better, safer environment can be provided than a willy-nilly release or give-away. For more information you can visit:

http://www.wildlife.state.nm.us/publications/documents/NMWL_Winter_2010.pdf