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Python Pete is not a snake's best friend

The puppy is learning to sniff out the abandoned and fruitful pet serpents that enjoy the Everglades.

Associated Press
Published March 20, 2005

EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK - Visitors to the Everglades expect or even hope to encounter some scary swamp creatures.

But a 20-foot snake draped across a two-lane road?

That's a postcard moment wildlife officials want to erase.

The Burmese pythons increasingly seen by tourists are not native to the Everglades. But the Asian reptiles are multiplying in troubling numbers, competing with native, endangered species for food and crossing the paths of startled tourists.

But now help is on the way, in a beagle puppy named Python Pete, who's being trained to sniff out the creatures so they can be captured and killed.

In a recent training session, wildlife biologist Skip Snow dragged a 6-foot python in a mesh bag in a twisting path through tall grass to lay down a scent.

Pete plunged after the trail, intent on his reward: a treat and a tug at his favorite toy, a small stuffed animal.

"He just loves doing it. It's a big game for him," said caretaker and wildlife technician Lori Oberhofer.

Oberhofer sought out a beagle to become her daily sidekick at Everglades National Park after working on a research project in Guam, where U.S. Agriculture Department officials use the breed to find invasive brown tree snakes in airport cargo. Customs officials also take advantage of the dog's sensitive snout to track down harmful pests, fruits and vegetables at airports.

Like his counterparts at airports, Pete already can tell the difference between bananas, socks and snakes. Oberhofer tests him by hiding those objects in plastic containers and asking the puppy to pick out the python. Only one answer will net him a treat and a toy session.

To make sure Pete does not become a snack for a big snake or alligator, Oberhofer keeps him on a short leash during training and says he will never roam free in the wilderness.

Burmese pythons are not poisonous. But their size makes them a threatening presence in the Everglades, where they have no predators. Tourists have seen the reptiles attacked by large alligators only to escape.

"They do have a nasty bite and they clearly do have the tools to injure if not kill someone," Snow said. He added that the larger reptiles seen stretched across roads could cause a traffic accident. Some tourists have gotten out of their cars to move what they thought was a large branch from the road, only to be alarmed when a huge snake slithered away.

The size of the Burmese python is one reason wildlife officials think pet owners dump them in South Florida's vast swamplands.

The snakes are a popular pet, especially as hatchlings that can curl harmlessly around an owner's wrist.

But when they grow to 20 feet or more with jaws that can overtake a basketball, Burmese pythons become challenging to house and feed. More than 50 were removed from the park from the mid 1990s to 2003.

That number jumped to 61 in 2004. And in January, park officials took out 15 Burmese Pythons, the equivalent of a snake every other day.

A skinny, 2-foot python curled around Oberhofer's arm on a recent morning reveals why the numbers are multiplying.

The snake was recently discovered as a hatchling, proving that the species is breeding. Necropsies on captured snakes show they also are thriving on a diet of rabbits, rats and squirrels, as well as the storks and other birds.

The smaller eastern indigo snake, which is listed as a threatened species, depends on that same food supply in the Everglades.

While other nonnative creatures threaten to displace native species, wildlife officials want to focus on the Burmese pythons because their numbers still are small enough that they might be eradicated.

Park officials also are aiming a new educational campaign at pet stores and importers with the slogan "Don't let it loose."

"We want pet owners to realize if they take on the responsibility of a pet, they should keep that pet for life," Snow said. He encouraged those who cannot keep a pet to find someone to adopt it or return it to the store.

At the park, visitors who spot a Burmese python can call a "python hotline" to describe where they saw it. From there, Pete will pick up the trail.

[Last modified March 20, 2005, 01:06:08]

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