by Whit Gibbons

February 5, 2012

National news media are abuzz about a scientific study conducted in Everglades National Park. The study's findings are dramatic: Native mammals everyone is familiar with (coons, possums, rabbits, foxes) have virtually disappeared from hundreds of square miles of southern Florida. The presumed culprit? Burmese pythons, giant snakes people are becoming all too familiar with.

The study suggests that invasive Burmese pythons are having a severe, tangible impact on the Everglades ecosystem. In response to such findings, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar last month announced a U.S. ban on the importation of Burmese pythons, which are native to Asia. Selling or transporting them across state lines will also be illegal. Many consider the pet trade to be the original source of the pythons now ravaging the Everglades, the current snakes being the progeny of former pets released into the wild when they got too big for their owners to keep. Not surprisingly, among the most vociferous groups complaining about the new legislation, and disputing the scientific findings, are those in the pet trade who breed and sell pythons.

Pythons have been released in many parts of the country by bewildered pet owners who started with a 3-foot pet snake that became a 10-foot eating machine and who felt they had no other choice. In most places, released pythons did not reach critical population sizes and begin to reproduce. But in the subtropical Everglades, populations are now estimated to be in the tens of thousands, possibly even hundreds of thousands. Few herpetologists would argue that Burmese pythons are now part of the naturalized fauna of Florida.

Burmese pythons more than 16-feet long and nearly a foot in diameter have been found in Florida, and they will eat virtually any animal or bird they can catch. A snake that big could easily kill a deer or an alligator, which means, of course, it could also devour a child. That is an unpalatable yet incontrovertible fact. They can, and they have.

How do you keep your children from becoming a prey item for a big python? Being a responsible parent will pretty much take care of it. Reported U.S. deaths have occurred indoors, not in the wild (although the potential is always there), and they have been the consequence of pet snakes that were improperly housed or cared for. Because of their popularity, thousands of Burmese pythons are now pets around the country. Should we pass laws restricting people from having captive-bred pet pythons? Absolutely not! Not unless we make laws that keep people from having dogs or horses, which injure and kill far more people every year than do pythons. The number of accidental deaths attributed to large constrictors worldwide is miniscule, although any such death is tragic.

Letting responsible people keep any animal they want, including dogs, snakes, and horses, is far healthier for society than imposing restrictions based on isolated, highly sensationalized incidents. In virtually every case of a python-related death, having a snake in the house was not the problem. The problem was having an irresponsible pet owner in the house. Let's keep legislation focused on people's behavior, not on the millions of animals, plants, and inanimate objects they could potentially use to harm themselves or others.

Meanwhile, let's accept what reputable scientists are telling us about the impact of pythons on the environment: Giant, invasive snakes are eliminating medium-size mammals in the Everglades. What will the environmental consequences be if Burmese pythons expand their geographic range outside of southern Florida? Observing their behavior under different environmental conditions and understanding their ecological capabilities are key steps in preparing to deal with this invasive species if it moves northward, as I believe it will.

Scientific study and educating the public are essential to ensure that we respond intelligently and effectively to a possible expansion of the geographic range of Burmese pythons or any other invasive species, whether plant or animal. Public support of such ecological research and its dissemination is vital to the environmental health of the country.

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