Pythons: Docile, powerful - and closely regulated


Published: Wednesday, July 1, 2009 at 5:45 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, July 1, 2009 at 5:45 p.m.

Gainesville herpetologist Kevin Enge said the Burmese python is a docile species, but that pet owners still should avoid feeding any large snake while alone.

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Wildlife biologists and technicians implant a radio transmitter in a Burmese python, similar to the one involved in the death of a 2-year-old Florida girl.

JEMEEMA CARRIGAN/UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA

"Even just a 10-foot Burmese python can kill a full-grown dog," he said.

The lesson was learned in a tragic way Wednesday, when a 2-year-old Oxford girl apparently was killed by a 12-foot-long Burmese python. The girl's father told police the snake had escaped from a glass aquarium in the home's living room and strangled the girl while she slept.

The snake's owner lacked a state permit, which requires owners of designated species of concern to pass a test, pay $100 a year and meet caging requirements. Burmese pythons more than 2 inches in diameter must be implanted with a microchip, a requirement that comes as the snakes have spread throughout the state.

Gainesville-area snake breeder Eugene Bessette, who helped develop the regulations, said the vast majority of snake owners comply with the rules and that the public should not fear for their safety. He said the regulations, which took effect in January 2008, were developed over the course of several years and are effective when followed.

"We needed to do something to protect the public, protect the environment and also protect those people that want to do the right thing," Bessette said.

About 450 individuals throughout Florida now have licenses to possess reptiles of concern or venomous snakes, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Eight reside in Alachua County and four in Marion County.

Pangaea Pets on Southwest 34th Street, informally known as "Snakes," no longer sells Burmese pythons because of the regulations. Store employee Abby Heit said the store knew the regulations were coming, so it sold out of its pythons and just didn't get more.

"We're kind of trying to keep them out of the hands of people that don't need them," she said. "It's just a hassle dealing with all the paperwork."

The Burmese python, native to Southeast Asia, is one of the largest snakes in the world and can grow to 18 feet long and weigh 160 pounds. Enge said the species is popular with University of Florida students, but students tend to lose interest when the snakes get large enough to require rabbits for feeding.

Enge has long dealt with snakes as the owner of a Gainesville pet store in the 1980s and in his current job as a research herpetologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. He said he's unaware of any Burmese pythons being found in the wild in Alachua County.

Pythons have been found throughout the state, from the rafters at the Marco Island Executive Airport to a farmer's chicken coop in Dade County. UF herpetologist Kenneth Krysko said illegal releases of pet pythons are to blame for the invasion.

"There's no question that's how they got here," he said. "They didn't float over here from Myanmar."

Frank Mazzotti, associate professor of wildlife ecology at UF, fears the population could continue to spread. He has spent the past four years tracking Burmese pythons in South Florida's Everglades region.

In late May, officials reported a population of about 150,000 pythons in the Everglades. The giant snakes are gobbling up whatever they can find, including endangered species such as the Key Largo wood rat and the wood stork.

"The only roundtail muskrats we've found this year were in the stomachs of pythons," said Mazzotti, who has also found alligators, bobcats and deer inside the snakes.

The Everglades' python problem captured worldwide attention when park officials snapped a photo of a 13-foot python that burst open while trying to swallow a 6-foot gator. Mazzotti said the species have similar diets, and the python now is competing with the alligator as the dominant predator in the Everglades.

The snakes no longer are populating solely within the Everglades. Mazzotti said he believes the snakes could potentially survive anywhere in the Southeastern U.S., or anywhere alligators thrive.

"They definitely have the potential to move farther north," he said. "I'm not sure how far, but nowhere in Florida is safe."

A recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey found the Burmese python could find comfortable climatic conditions in about a third of the U.S.

Last month, seven Burmese pythons were released in South Carolina to determine if they can survive there. Researchers will use implanted radio transmitters and data recorders to monitor the pythons' physical condition.

Right now, Mazzotti and his crew are catching about 300 a year in the Everglades alone. He remembers when bunnies used to scamper freely around the Everglades National Park, but now the only place he finds them is in pythons' stomachs

He said the goal is eradicating the snakes, but reducing their numbers to a manageable amount is more realistic.

"In 10 years, if we have no pythons on the roads and the bunnies are back, we'll have been successful," Mazzotti said.

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