Commentary: Send in the pythons to eat the politicians

The Miami HeraldJanuary 5, 2012 

Job-killing government regulators are at it again. Now they want to take away our beloved pythons.

Well, to be clear, not my beloved python. I’ve never been quite comfortable with the idea of a pet that would devour me without compunction. (I’ve enough trouble maintaining personal relationships with cold-blooded humans.)

But these days, all right-thinking citizens are so conditioned to oppose government regulators that it doesn’t much matter that the thing they want to regulate, all 13-feet of it, came slithering into the backyard swimming pool of a Palmetto Bay home on Christmas Day.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed banning the importation and interstate sale of nine different big constrictors. Pythons, boas and anacondas, aside from having starring roles in our collective nightmares, have been deemed “injurious” to the environment. South Floridians figured that out years ago. Burmese pythons, tossed out by dim-witted pet owners, have been breeding in the Everglades and devouring indigenous animals like tourists at an all-you-can-eat restaurant.

Last year, Frank J. Mazzotti of the University of Florida’s Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Research and Education Center in Fort Lauderdale told a congressional committee that researchers have found 23 species of birds, 15 kinds of mammals and the occasional alligator in the bellies of captured pythons.

Wood storks, snowy egrets, great egrets, great blue herons, little blue herons and limpkins were on the python menu. Along with the endangered wood rat. Mazzotti said that where Burmese pythons have become common in the glades, marsh rabbits have turned scarce.

“The only muskrats that have been seen in [Everglades National Park] in the past three years have come from the stomachs of pythons,” he said.

Other big constrictors seem to be flourishing too. William Thomas of the state’s Invasive Species Strike Force spoke Wednesday of finding Northern African pythons hereabouts. South Florida, by the way, is a long swim from northern Africa.

Not that the big snakes are content to stay put in the southern reaches of Florida. Art Roybal, a senior fish and wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Vero Beach, talked Wednesday of persistent sightings of a big constrictor near Sebastian Inlet that has survived three hard winters. (Perhaps the Burmese pythons, weary of the upstart new constrictors moving into the neighborhood, are fleeing South Florida.)

Michael E. Dorcas, a biology professor at Davidson College and author of Invasive Pythons in the United States, told me that nearly all the studies he has seen show that, based on climate, pythons can survive throughout the state of Florida. Many of the models, he said, indicate that the big snakes could move even further north. Roybal thinks they could spread west along the gulf coast into Texas.

The specter of 15-foot pythons invading all 25 of Florida’s congressional districts (27 after redistricting) has created a kind of a political miracle. Eleven Florida lawmakers, both Republican and Democrat, have written the White House in a show of bipartisan unity demanding that President Obama stop equivocating and approve the proposed snake ban.

Except, these days, any talk of new environmental regulations sets off a hellfire of a reaction. Republicans get angry. Democrats get cowed. An outfit called the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers has hired a bigtime lobbying firm (yes, in Washington even pythons have their lobbyists) to sell a wildly embellished claim that a ban would “put approximately 1 million Americans in jeopardy of becoming felons, destroy thousands of jobs, and threaten the annual $1.4 billion national and international trade in high quality captive-bred reptiles.”

Powerful members of Congress, adopting their default anti-reg position, came out against the “job-killing” ban. It seems instructive that the two leaders of the pro-snake faction, Senators Orrin Hatch and Lisa Murkowski, hail from states likely to remain unaffected by the python invasion, at least until global warming heats up Utah and Alaska.

The mindless opposition to a big-snake ban illustrates the great lesson of contemporary politics. Americans are fervently opposed to job-killing regulations unless nature gas fracking has happened to ruin their drinking water, or drilling for deep water oil has spoiled their beach, or strip mining has filled up a nearby mountain stream with coal silt or sugar cane fertilizer has spoiled their fishing in the Biscayne National Park, or a python has swallowed the family’s toy poodle. We’re united in opposition to job-killing environmental regulations unless it’s our particular environment that needs regulating.

Not that a constrictor ban would do much, at this point, to save South Florida from the slithering descendants of pet snakes. It’s too late. There’s too many on the loose. Down here, they’re beyond eradication.

But maybe, when the constrictors have wiped out the wading birds and the small mammals in the Everglades, they’ll turn on the Nile monitors and green iguanas and tegu lizards and other exotic discards of the pet reptile industry that are fast taking over South Florida. Our only hope is that these creatures, like the industry, will adopt a policy of self-regulation.

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