A growing population of giant snakes, which devour native species and spread disease, poses a threat to the Florida Everglades ecosystem and could move into other states, according to a new government report.
Florida lawmakers are also concerned that the giant snakes, imported to the country as pets, settle in the state's urban areas, finding their way into backyards, traffic intersections and local businesses. A 9-foot python was found slithering around a Vero Beach neighborhood last week, for instance.
Congress is considering a ban on the importing and selling of certain kinds of pythons commonly kept as pets and found to be reproducing in southern Florida.
"These snakes are a threat to our children, our pets and our environment, and there is simply no safe way for them to be here," said Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Fla., who introduced the bill.
But the pet industry opposes the new measure. "An import ban does not address the real issue," said Marshall Meyers, CEO and general counsel of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council.
A ban could push the trade underground and cause more people to euthanize their snakes or release them, he said.
"In our opinion, the federal law they would be using is not equipped to deal with the specimens that are already in private hands," he said.
Since 1980, at least 12 people in the United States have been killed by pet pythons, including a 2-year-old girl who was strangled in her crib in Orlando in July by an 8-foot-long python belonging to her mother's boyfriend.
The girl's death ignited legislative efforts to curb the sale and interstate trade of snakes -- a $3 billion yearly industry -- for three popularly sold pythons: the Burmese python and two kinds of African pythons, worth up to $10,000 each.
Stretching out a 15-foot python skin before the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security today, Meek lobbied to add the pythons to the "injurious animals" list, an act that would prohibit the snakes from being imported as exotic pets into the United States and moving them across state lines.
Burmese Pythons Appeal to Pet Owners
"We can still hope to stop other snakes from being introduced and endangering the environment and the public safety," Meek said.
Exotic pet owners like to buy Burmese pythons because of their docile personality but they mature rapidly into giants -- up to 23-feet long and 250 pounds -- and soon become unmanageable for some pet owners who release them into the wild, wildlife experts say.
Hurricane Andrew was also blamed for the accidental release of the giant snakes from South Florida pet stores damaged by the 1992 storm.
"With the rate that these snakes breed and move around, we simply can't afford to wait," he said.
Meek points to a new U.S. Geological Survey report that says the invasion of Burmese pythons now spans across thousands of square miles in south Florida and numbers in the tens of thousands.
Although the uptick is higher in Florida than in other states, the U.S. Geological Survey report lists Texas, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Pacific islands as other places where the climate could be right for incubation and further spread.
Dr. Elliott R. Jacobson, a professor of zoological medicine at the University of Florida, said in testimony he doubts that the giant snake problem in Florida is worthy of major concern and that the government report overstates the possibility of the problem spreading to other states.
"The fact that the boa constrictor ranges into northern Mexico, but has never entered the U.S., suggests there are ecological factors that have limited its spread into the U.S.," he said.
Florida state law requires pet owners to pay $100 a year for any five species of large snakes identified as species of concern, and that a microchip be implanted if the snake is bigger than 2 inches in diameter.
Hunting for Giant Snakes
There has never been a successful eradicating of an invading snake population over such an extensive area and, experts say, it may be too late to stem the Burmese python explosion in South Florida.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission issued 15 python permits earlier this year to experts to hunt the giant snakes, in order to study their patterns.
Legal to Kill Pythons
The researchers hunted at night and recorded the snakes' coordinates, size and the contents of their stomachs for the 37 giant snakes they killed, half of which were juvenile.
"That tells us there's a breeding population there," said Pat Behnke, spokeswoman for the state commission.
The python permits expired last week when regular hunting season began but, now, any regularly licensed hunter who runs into one of the giant snakes on state-managed lands can legally kill one, in order to prevent it from slithering back into the wild and reproducing.
"They do have to euthanize it on the spot," Behnke said. "They leave it there, but we ask them to give us a little bit of information about the snake."
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has hosted Pet Amnesty events since 2006, where several hundred Burmese pythons have been turned in by their owners who no longer want them.
It's an effort to prevent more snakes from being released into the wild by owners who believe they have no other recourse, Behnke said.