Samuel L. Jackson may be tired of snakes on his plane, but Florida’s got a bigger problem: snakes in their Everglades. For more than a decade, Burmese pythons and other exotic snake species have been making themselves at home in this vulnerable ecological area, and despite substantial eradication efforts, the snakes just keep spreading. The state isn’t ready to throw in the towel just yet, but the scope and scale of the invasion is a grim illustration of invasive species gone out of control — and, indirectly, of the consequences of irresponsible pet ownership.
An estimated 100,000 pythons call the Everglades home, dieting on a variety of rare, beautiful and unique species like wood storks, and competing with Florida alligators and other native predators for the top of the food chain. They play an extremely disruptive role in the local ecosystem, eating indiscriminately and voluminously. While they aren’t a threat to humans, they will chow down on bobcats and alligators, illustrating how seriously big they get.
How did all those pythons get there in the first place? Some are escapees from various stages of the pet trade, and others are pets that people released into the Everglades in the mistaken impression that a wild release was an appropriate way to get rid of an unwanted animal. There’s a lot to love about the Everglades for the pythons, including ample sources of prey and water with lots of great hiding places — and these majestic creatures are seriously stealthy, making it even harder for people to catch them (observers can be a few feet away and not even know there’s a python in close proximity).
Once settled in, the pythons started breeding, and they can reach 13 feet in length within five years. As their population has exploded, so have efforts to contain them. On a governmental level, the Army Corps of Engineers as well as Fish and Game have become involved in python control in an attempt to reduce the number of snakes on the ground. The government even ran a challenge offering a bounty for the person to bring in the most snakes, but the hundreds of people who descended upon the state to take advantage of it managed to bag only 68 pythons in total.
The animals have become close to uncontrollable, though agencies are by no means giving up. The sheer scale of the invasion is such that many measures may seen futile, but the risks of inaction are simply too high. Florida’s native species are counting on environmental agencies to protect them from exotic invasives they’re ill-equipped to defend themselves from.
Meanwhile, private groups like the Nature Conservancy are also hard at work on the python problem. These groups have partnered on the 1-888-IVE-GOT1 service, which encourages residents to call in sightings of pythons in their areas (there’s also, yes, an app).
What else can individuals do about the python invasion? Pet owners can start by getting familiar with Florida’s Pet Amnesty Days, which allow people to surrender exotic animals, no questions asked — and if it’s not possible to attend one, pet owners can make arrangements with wildlife officials. The animals are evaluated, and if they’re healthy, they’re placed with preapproved adopters. Furthermore, individuals can support legislation to ban the interstate commerce in invasive species like Burmese pythons, which can help reduce the number of animals being brought into the state.
Army Corps of Engineers officials inspect the Everglades on an invasive species tour. Photo credit: JaxStrong.