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Loose Pythons Thriving on Everglades Endangered Species

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by hearit

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In The News

The federal government's proposed plan, to block giant constrictor snakes and pythons in the Florida Everglades from slithering into other states, has snake sellers in a hissy fit.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to ban importation and interstate transportation of nine types of non-poisonous pythons, boas and anacondas, which can grow as thick as telephone poles and at lengths of up to 25 feet long-over four times the height of an average human. Boas and Burmese python snakes, intended for the pet trade, have escaped or been released by their owners-invading the South Florida ecosystem, where the snakes are thriving wildlife there.

No attacks on people in the wild have occurred but, in July, a pet python escaped its Oxford, Florida, home and strangled a 2-year-old girl. Pythons found in the Everglades have contained endangered Key Largo woodrats in their bellies, eaten by the snakes; only 200 of the half-pound endangered Key Largo woodrats survive in the wild. To the loose pythons, a meal is a meal.

"A wide range of species would be prey to a snake of this size, which is a top predator and has no natural predator of its own," Souza says. The proposed ban "can play a role if we can help prevent a breeding population of snakes from becoming established in the first place."

President of the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers, Andrew Wyatt, says a breeding population of the python snakes is already established in the Everglades, and a ban would hurt hundreds of thousands of the snake owners of an estimated 2 million pythons in virtually every state.

Owners pay between $400 and $1,000, or upward, for one of the snakes. "It would make your animals virtually valueless overnight," Wyatt says.

The U.S. Geological Survey says wild pythons, which are "presumably the result of released pets," could spread as far north as the state of Virginia, and their existence in the wild could threaten wildlife from the bayous of Louisiana to the reaches of the San Francisco Bay.

Many of the 67 endangered wildlife species existing in the Everglades, including the Key Largo cotton mouse, key deer and wood stork, could serve as food for Burmese pythons, snakes native to Southeast Asia.

"We already have seen wood storks in the stomachs of Burmese pythons," says Souza.

The Humane Society of the United States which opposes the possession of wildlife as pets, has supported a ban of the snakes since it was first proposed in 2006.

"These giant [python] snakes … people get them when they're small and don't know what they're in for," says the Humane Society. "They're [pythons] very good escape artists — particularly if not well-fed. I think it can lead to tragedy."

Once a breeding population [of python snakes] is established [in the wild], "it's nearly impossible to eradicate," says Pat Behnke of Florida's Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Based on genetic testing of those found, most of the Everglades pythons are believed to be descendants of 900 snakes originally released from a warehouse by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Behnke says, and she doubts the tropical animals could spread too far north.

"I don't think they can survive Tallahassee," Behnke says.

The commission has deputized hunters to exterminate the invaders and offered a class, dubbed "Pythons 101," to teach them how to do so.

Michael Cole, who holds a state python hunting permit and helped teach the "Pythons 101" class, says two days of sub-freezing temperatures during last winter has proved that the snakes can't survive outside of South Florida. "Somewhere between 70% and 90% of them [the pythons] are dead," says Cole.

Michelle Pearson of Colorado Springs breeds exotic strains of python snakes in colors and patterns not found in nature, and sells the pythons at trade shows and via the Internet. Pearson says the proposed rule would devalue the $50,000 investment made in her business, 'Art in Scales', as she would then be able to sell only to customers in Colorado, a state with a small market for the snakes.

"This is not a national problem. This is a South Florida issue,"says Pearson. "I like the fact they want to conserve (wildlife), but not at the expense of families and businesses."

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