Floridians are generally not flummoxed by the variety of reptile species that invade their state. Even when pythons started turning up on the peninsula in large numbers a few years ago, most residents laughed off the huge, not-native snakes as yet another imported nuisance, little worse than some condo developers.
But that nonchalance vanished in a heartbeat last week when 2-year-old Shaiunna Hare was strangled to death in her crib by a 9-ft. Burmese python kept as a pet, illegally, in her house near Orlando. (The owner, a live-in boyfriend of Shaiunna's mother, killed the python with a knife as it squeezed the girl, but it was too late.) Suddenly Floridians, and the rest of the country, are paying more sober attention to the warnings of wildlife officials and environmentalists that proliferating pythons are a threat to critical ecosystems like the Everglades as well as to people. On July 8, Florida Senator Bill Nelson turned up the heat when he told a Senate subcommittee weighing his bill to ban the importation of Burmese pythons, "The crown jewel of our national park system has been transformed into a hunting ground for these predators. It's just a matter of time before one of these snakes gets to a visitor."
The threat to humans, however, is still slight compared with the eco-damage the invasive serpents can wreak. Officials, for example, fear pythons may be on the brink of wiping out what remains of the endangered Key Largo wood rat and that other South Florida animals like the Key Deer could be next. The Everglades are estimated to contain as many as 150,000 pythons now, preying on rare bird and mammal wildlife. "If we don't get on top of this, they're going to eradicate the indigenous species of the Everglades," Rodney Barreto, Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission chairman, said during a visit this year by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. Or beyond: the pythons are believed to be moving northward into other parts of Florida and the U.S.
A few states, like New York, already ban large constrictor snakes. A House bill, introduced by Florida Representatives Ron Klein and Alcee Hastings, would not ban but more closely regulate python importation. Even that legislation has met resistance from business lobbies like the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC), which insists the problem can be contained, via regulatory programs like Florida's, without clamping down on imports. "Bans often just drive the commerce underground, which can instead worsen the situation," says PIJAC CEO Marshall Meyers. Python sales, which include the smaller and more popular ball python, are still robust in the U.S., especially in Florida, where they register about $10 million a year.
The python problem started in the 1990s, when many Americans decided that big constrictor snakes like pythons and boas, often imported from Southeast Asia, would make cool house pets. It didn't take them long to realize that the snakes are not quite the exotic delights they thought. Burmese pythons can grow as long as 20 ft. (6 m) and weigh 250 lb. (113 kg). As they grow larger, they require more-spacious homes and bigger, more-expensive animals to eat, like rats and rabbits. They also get more difficult and unpleasant to clean up after. And as last week's tragedy drove home, they can be quite dangerous.
It's not easy, however, for disillusioned owners to get rid of them. Because there aren't many python-rescue agencies available, the snakes get dumped in the wild a practice that's gotten out of control in Florida since 2000. It's a big reason the state laid down regulations last year that make it more difficult and expensive to own reptiles like these in the first place. The reptiles now require $100 annual permits and, if they're wider than 2 in. (5 cm), a microchip embedded in their skin to help owners and the state keep track of their whereabouts. Owners must also prove their handling skills. "We want to curb the cheap impulse-buying of these snakes," which can cost as little as $75 each, says Scott Hardin, exotic-species coordinator for the Florida Wildlife Commission. (More colorful "designer" varieties can run in the thousands of dollars.)
Florida officials, including Governor Charlie Crist, propose putting a bounty on the snakes' heads. But hunting elusive and barely visible pythons in the wild is difficult at best though that hasn't stopped South Florida hunters and hunting clubs from tramping out to state wildlife preserves to whip up enthusiasm for python extermination and then posting trophy photos of themselves with 10- to 15-ft. snakes on the Internet. And any effective bounty program in Florida would require lifting the ban on hunting in the federally managed Everglades, something U.S. officials say they are considering.
At the Senate hearing on July 8, Nelson laid the skin of a 16-ft. Burmese python across the witness table and urged colleagues to "address this ecological crisis." But even if the Senate doesn't pass Nelson's measure, last week's tragedy at least ensures that more Floridians will take the python threat seriously.