The death of a Florida toddler in the coils of a 2.5m Burmese python has sparked an official crackdown to eradicate a menacing population of slithering predators in the sun-drenched holiday state.
A small band of newly licensed trappers hit the trail this week, hunting pythons living in the swampy wetlands of southern Florida. Experts believe that as many as 100,000 of the reptiles are loose in the region — an unfortunate outcome of a fad for keeping exotic pets.
Earlier this month, a two-year-old girl, Shaiunna Hare, was strangled to death in her bedroom near Orlando by a python belonging to her mother’s boyfriend. The snake had escaped its glass cage during the night and wrapped itself around the child’s crib.
The tragedy galvanized Florida’s politicians into action over mounting alarm about the danger posed by pythons, which grow as long as 8m, weigh up to 89kg and can eat animals as big as deer.
“It’s just a matter of time before one of these snakes gets to a visitor in the Florida Everglades,” said Bill Nelson, a Democratic senator from the state.
Native to Africa and southeast Asia, pythons are interlopers to Florida and face no predator to keep them in check. Florida locals blame a booming wild population on irresponsible pet owners who release pythons into the wild when they become unmanageably large.
Others trace the problem back to Hurricane Andrew, which destroyed pet shops, hatcheries and zoos as it swept across the Floridian peninsula in 1992. Wildlife experts fear that if left unchecked, the snakes will decimate the population of smaller mammals, birds and reptiles.
Florida’s governor, Charlie Crist, last week licensed an initial group of fewer than 10 python hunters to begin trapping the snakes. Pursued by a pack of photographers, the hunters snared a 3m long python during their first foray on Friday.
“[Pythons] don’t make a lot of noise, when they’re agitated, they may hiss,” said Shawn Heflick, a licensed hunter. “They can hold on pretty tight but they’re well camouflaged and when they sit in vegetation, they’re pretty hard to see.”
Accustomed to alligators, Florida locals are not easily fazed by wildlife. The subtropical state numbers black widow spiders and fire ants among its more exotic residents. But pythons are proving particularly chilling. The snakes reproduce rapidly, laying as many as 100 eggs at a time.
“We do have a serious python problem, and this program is a good first step in helping to stop the spread of this exotic species,” said Rodney Barreto, the chair of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.
Curbs have been imposed on keeping pythons as pets — including a compulsory annual US$100 permit and embedded microchips to track escaped pets. But animal rights groups have called for more radical steps.