Python problem continues to grow

FLORIDA CITY, Fla.—“Seeing a python in the local pet shop, I was immediately drawn to it,” said Deborah Wilson, a Miami resident and snake owner. “The way they move around is just so unique.”

Many residents of South Florida bought Burmese pythons in the early 1990s. The python pet trade grew rapidly as the snake could be purchased inexpensively and could be found easily.

“I and, I think, many other South Floridians when originally buying the snake didn’t realize how massive and destructive the snake could get,” said Wilson. “I was very stupid and part of the reason why there is such a big problem today.”

The Burmese python can grow to more than 18 feet in size and weigh more than 200 pounds, making it one of the largest snakes in the world. The python pet trade brought the snakes to the United States, where many South Floridians were buying the snake.

In 2007, the estimated number of Burmese pythons in Everglades National Park tripled from amounts recorded before. The park realized the snake wasn’t just coming in from people dumping it in the Everglades, but were now breeding at the park.  However, the park still can’t say for sure how the python issue originated.

“There are two opinions on this – one is that pets in cages got out during Hurricane Andrew or second that pet owners who did not want the snakes as they got larger released them – it is not know for certain,” said Linda Friar, chief of Communications at Everglades and Dry Tortugas national parks.  “However they got there — they have adapted to the habitat and began reproducing.”

In 2009, park officials estimated that between 5,000 and 180,000 Burmese pythons now live in the wild at Everglades National Park. With such a huge discrepancy, park officials know the problem is huge, but truly can’t know how big of a problem they have and how they should approach fixing the problem.

“We don’t know exactly how many pythons are out there,” said Friar. “The interagency effort to gain information and better understand the species to inform a management strategy is being developed now – it is a relatively new issue that has taken time to address,” she said.

Pythons released from captivity create a problem for the entire food chain in the Everglades. The python has no specific diet, and basically eats anything that comes across its path. The problem has gotten so out of control that many efforts have begun to reduce the amount of pythons in the park.

The first initiative to reduce pythons was done by Florida Gov. Charlie Crist in 2005. Christ attempt to weaken the Burmese python population was by hiring snake captures to kill as many Burmese pythons as possible.

“There are a set number of authorized agents with appropriate skills who have an annual permit to capture remove and provide the snakes to our science leads,” Friar said.  “As there is no official hunting allowed in the park, this tool has helped gather data to inform the scientists on better ways to manage the containment of this invasive exotic species,” she said.

While this initiative helped and many snakes were caught, there is only so much man can do. Pythons will breed and grow at a rate that is quadruple how fast hunters could possibly kill them. Therefore, national parks service people had to come up with another plan.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed Burmese pythons and three other species on the injurious wildlife list, which restricts importation and interstate trade.  Florida has also enacted legislation to restrict ownership in the state,” said Robert Reed, research wildlife biologist in an interview.

The only effective way to reduce pythons in the wild was to make laws not allowing people to illegally release exotic pets into the wild.

Non-native amnesty days were created across South Florida, where you could people can give away their non-traditional pets if they are unable to keep them without being prosecuted.

However, the Humane Society of the United States has called for even stricter rules on pythons and other exotic animals being released into the wild.

“We should not pursue wasteful and futile strategies like bounty programs and public hunts,” said Wayne Pacelle, the Humane Society’s chief executive, in an interview on the Humane Society’s website. “They won’t work, and could do more harm than good.”

Florida in 2011 passed a law that Burmese python owners will have to pay a fee of $100 each year and place a tracking chip into their snake. The hope is this will finally be a way to curb the pet trade.

“I hope these new rules will ensure people won’t make the same mistake I did,” said Deborah Wilson. “Hopefully we can make the best out of this situation and fix the python problem for good.”

If You Go

Everglades National Park

40001 State Road 9336.
Homestead, Fla. 33034-6733.

Phone: 305-242-7700.

Fax: 305-242-7728.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

Regional Office
3200 NE 151 St,
Miami, Fla. 33181.

Phone: 305-956-2500.

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