By James W. Astrada
According to the USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) and the FWC (Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission), The Everglades ecosystem and most of South Florida is overrun by the nine invasive species of snakes (including non-native boa, anaconda and python species). Out of the nine species, their result concluded that only five of the snakes posed a high level of threat to the surrounding environment, and the other four were medium risk. The cause for such an influx of invasive species to South Florida has been the result of the pet trade according to the authors of the report. The most dangerous of snake species within the group that has been cause for the greatest decline of mammals within the area were the Burmese pythons and boa constrictors; which are reported in the tens of thousands. According to the results, the authors claimed that they were the most threat due to four main reasons: firstly, they were known to mature early. Secondly, their species produced large numbers of offspring. They were able to travel long distances, and finally their diets were broad enough to include most native birds and mammals. Another startling fact was that according to the authors, the animals and reptiles within the area, never had to deal with such massive predatory snakes before which could explain the quick decline of most of these species (according to some specs, the largest of the pythons reach up to lengths more than twenty feet and upwards of two hundred pounds).
Are the necessary steps being done to help save the natural habitat of Florida? According to Rodney Barreto (Chairman of the FWC) stated they were doing their best. Many already see the potential threat to human habitats within metropolitan areas although the experts claim it would be highly unlikely that any python would be able to digest a human being. The danger is evident as many of these snakes are tolerant of urban and suburban areas including the boa constrictors and African pythons. If they are to eliminate all species in the designated area, what is to stop them from changing their diet to include the human species as well? In their native lands of Asia, there have been reports of pythons killing people and using them as a food source, so it is a logical assumption that the species here in Florida will adapt the same principle if faced with food shortages. Barreto back 2008, stated he was committed to eliminating this threat as it violated many of the Endangered Species Act (the elimination of Key Largo Woodrats). According to his statements, a python permit program was initiated on July 17, 2008 which the FWC handpick seven herpetologists to receive special permits for euthanizing pythons and other “Reptiles of concern.” This program was to eliminate all snakes on site to ensure that none escaped into other areas. No firearms or traps were permitted by the FWC, however, special “hand-held instruments” would be used. Barreto himself was not concerned for the pythons, in terms of the guidelines issued by the American Veterinary Medical Association. For their terms of the euthanasia of animals in research and laboratory settings, he called the idea “not always practical in the wild” and mentioned they were not mandatory. Some positive initiatives have been accomplished however, by the FWC in terms of regulating these species by requiring that any owner planning or obtaining one of these “reptiles of concern” must do so by permit of the FWC. A license is required and costs $100 per year and must follow certain caging requirements. Snakes that are two inches in diameter also have to be implanted with a microchip in case of escape or abandonment from their residential location. Because of the result of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 which destroyed most pet shops containing these snakes, the microchip would have been ideal to locate and track the escaped snakes. Barreto seemed very confident that his program would be a success no matter the what the results were, he even went as far as to state “how the pythons are disposed is not the problem, how we work to solve the problem is..” Could this problem have been avoided if the Obama administration focused more on the pet trade and regulation of what type of animals entered the country on boats? Could it be that any anthropogenic changes within the environment always seem to change ecosystems and habitats for the worse? It seems every time we introduce changes ignorantly (like keeping pythons for pets and then releasing them into the wild because they grow to big for comfort), other species have to suffer heavy losses. It seems that whenever situations caused by us get out of control, we then step in to take “initiatives” to rectify the issue.
Not all people complain about the invasive species issue, in fact, many welcome this boom of pythons to Florida due to its increase in financial capital. Burmese pythons have been a economic boom to those turning the skins of the snakes into clothing, handbags, and shoes that can cost up to $1200 in many south Florida businesses. According to a report in 2012, the python skin is in fashion for apparel and accessories. So even though the alligator is in decline, the pythons are making up for the loss. Their skin has been in high demand for such items as shoes, furniture, pants, and cater to a very expensive clientele ($800-$1,200). One shop owner named Wood even stated “these pythons are down the road, might as well start using them.” Many business are taking advantage of this boom that threatens the environment but increases profit. Could this be a reason for the reluctance to solve such a dangerous problem so quickly? Since the economy is not getting any better, many view this as an opportunity for economic advancement. Wood went as far as stating “I’ve opened the door to this business, the invasion of snakes is definitely a foreseeable problem in the future, and I’m ready for it.” Other businesses such as fishing rods and hunting the snakes for hides go as much as $50-$100 for each bounty. Job security and business seem to be favored in this case as many are wishing for more on the west coast. “The python population isn’t the same on this coast as it is on the East, I would be using more python skin now if I were seeing more of them here.” This problem for the environment seems trivial than compared to business opportunities that many humans are willing to adapt to for profit. Even overseas companies are calling in orders for python skins that could make this a very successful business in future times. Is the cost worth the degradation and potential threat to humans? Back in July of 2009, one Burmese python strangled a little 2-year-old girl as it escaped out of a glass cage in a residential home in West Palm Beach. Another case in Oxford, Fla. On July 1st killed another young girl. These examples display that the experts who claim it is unlikely for pythons to kill humans, are incorrect. Small children, and domestic animals would probably be next for pythons in their diets if they were to move in to urban areas with more frequency. Since according to authorities the snakes live on Interstate 75, and Tamiami Trail children have now been warned to stay away from grassy thickets and water that are known python habitats. The Obama administration as mentioned before, has passed proposals in 2010 on the restriction of interstate movement of certain reptiles, however, the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers has fought against them. Their reasons involved job security and care for the reptile industry. It seems this debate will still continue as the ecosystem and the environment take a back seat for more important issues such as profit and job security.
After careful analysis of the reports and facts concerning the threat of Burmese pythons within the Everglades and South Florida, I suggest that the situation will only go downhill from here. Humans spend most of their mindset within the realms of the DMV (Dominant Western Worldview) or the HEP (Human Exemption Paradigm). Either way, we are exempt from any changes we due to natural systems since they are there to serve us anyway. Whether we introduce an exotic invasive species just because they are appealing or pretty, ignorance usually plays the culprit in our decision making. Other species take the brunt of the result due to our changes and actions and most of them end up losing their dependency on food (like the Florida Panther who depend on small mammals for their diet). Because of the influx of pythons, many populations of mammals have decreased so rapidly that these animals are being ambushed due to their lack of preparedness for this unknown species that haven’t existed within the Everglades for 16 million years (snakes). We are changing the environment and these effects will eventually reach our urban neighborhoods and population. Do we have to wait for more deaths of small children to finally look past profit and greed to correct the mistake we started with the allowance of pythons of pets? I suggest that pythons who have been known to eat deer and alligator, will look at humans as the next plentiful food source for their diet due to the elimination of small species.
“The Burmese Python is a threat to Florida.” A Letter to the Editor by Rodney Barreto, Chairman, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation. 2008 (rolemodels.jou.ufl.edu/didyouknow/index.sthm)
David Fleshler. “Authorities say Everglades pythons pose little threat to people.” Sun Sentinel, October 31, 2011.
Palm Beach Post Staff. “Fatal python attack shows threat from invasive species.” Palm Beach Post, July 8, 2009.
Justine Griffin. “Craftsman seek profit in Everglades python boom.” Sun Sentinel, February 18, 2012.
LiveScience Staff. “Giant Invasive Snakes Threaten U.S. Ecosystems.” Livescience.com, October 13, 2009. (livescience.com/5769-giant-invasive-snakes-threaten-ecosystems.html)
Dorcas, Michael E. John D. Wilson, Robert N. Reed, Ray W. Snow, Michael R. Rochford, Melissa A. Miller, Walter E. Meshaka Jr., Paul T. Andreadis, Frank J. Mazzoti, Christina M. Romogosa and Kristen M. Hart. “Severe mammal declines coincide with proliferation of invasive Burmese pythons in Everglades National Park.” Edited by Peter M. Vitousek, Stanford University, Stanford ,CA, and approved December 21, 2011.
©James Astrada 2012.