He'd put the squeeze on python dumpers

Published April 13, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - Florida's newest environmental problem is roughly the circumference of a telephone pole. It snacks on rabbits.

It's the Burmese python. And in South Florida, the problem is growing in numbers and in feet.

"Last year, we caught 95 pythons," said Skip Snow, a biologist with Florida Everglades National Park. That's not counting the 13-footer that exploded while trying to eat an alligator, or two others that got loose and ate a Siamese cat and a turkey.

To keep the problem from sliding further out of control, state Rep. Ralph Poppell, R-Titusville, wants to add Burmese pythons to Florida's list of regulated reptiles. His bill (HB 1459) could require people who buy pythons to complete state training, buy a license and face jail time if they let their snakes loose.

The giant, nonnative snakes take other animals' homes and prey on fragile native species, Snow said.

The problem starts with impulse shoppers, he said. "People buy them when they're small. I've seen them as cheap as 20 bucks in flea markets."

The inch-long hatchlings start off cute. But "by the end of the year, they're 7 feet long," Snow said. "By the end of two years, they're 10 feet long. And that's more snake than anyone can handle."

Overwhelmed by pets that eat more than they do, python owners release them into the wild, which often means the Everglades. There, the Asian natives find the water, heat and vegetation to their liking. No predators bother them. They reproduce.

Pythons have also discovered suburbia, said Capt. Ernie Jillson, who helps run Miami-Dade County's snake squad. it catches around 20 pythons a year.

In recent years, a 15-footer stopped traffic on a four-lane road. Another 15-footer gave a woman a jolt when she walked outside to find it sunbathing on her patio. Rescue workers had to save a cat from a 10-foot python that was chasing it around a backyard pool.

Lawmaker Poppell says he doesn't understand people's fascination with the creatures. "I don't want (a pet) to look at me as food; I'd rather they come to me for food," he said.

"They aren't known to hunt people, but they are known to kill people," Snow said, citing cases where python owners made mistakes while handling their pets. They are nonvenomous but "have a mouthful of teeth." Even without human encounters, Snow has enough to deal with. When they're not sunbathing, pythons are hunting precious species like wading birds, cotton rats - even bobcats. And they're stealing homes from other hole and log dwellers, or spreading diseases that could kill native snakes.