Commentary: Despite ban, those big Burmese pythons are here to stay

The Miami HeraldJanuary 25, 2012 

Now that federal regulators have outlawed the importation of humongous, gator-eating pythons, all Floridians can breathe a grateful sigh of relief. Finally we are saved from this insidious reptilian plague!

Sorry, but no. We might as well try to ban fleas.

As anybody who knows anything about the Everglades will tell you, the giant Burmese python is here to stay. If last year’s hard freeze didn’t kill off the tropical snakes, nothing short of a nuclear disaster will do it.

The import ban on the Burmese and three other species of constrictors — which was announced last week — is being hailed by the Obama administration as a victory for Florida’s native environment. In reality, it’s just a classic lesson of how Washington mulls and stalls until things are out of hand.

That there was an actual debate about the invasive snake crisis is incredible to the point of satire. Some reptile dealers and breeders, joined by a few clueless Republican lawmakers (none of whom had experienced a 15-foot python in their swimming pool), claimed that a ban on imports and interstate sales would be “job killing.”

As one who once collected and bred snakes, I cannot overstate how laughably bogus that position was. The realm of commercial reptile dealing, which has always had a sketchy element, is full of clever folks who always find ways to market different exotic species when one becomes unavailable. Not one real job would have been lost.

Still, the “herp” industry — wholesale and retail herpetology enthusiasts — hired lobbyists to fight the proposed ban, and the big-snake argument dragged on for six ridiculous years. During that period, untold thousands of baby pythons were hatched in the wilds of South Florida and dutifully commenced to devour the local fauna.

By the time the ban was approved, the government’s original list of “injurious” snake species had been politically pared to four — the Burmese python, the yellow anaconda and two species of African pythons.

Spared from the blacklist was the common boa constrictor, one of the most popular species among pet owners, and one of the most likely to be turned free when it becomes a little too interested in the family poodle. Boas don’t grow as hefty as pythons, but they are equally fond of our sunny climate and tasty bird population.

The fact is, there are already so many of these snakes being captive-bred in this country that a ban on imports is essentially meaningless. Most serious reptile dealers buy from U.S. breeders who specialize in extravagantly hued strains, the product of years of genetic tinkering.

It’s true that certain exotic species won’t mate in captivity, and must be caught in the wild and then shipped here. However, that’s not the case with the four snakes named in the new federal ban.

Pythons and yellow anacondas reproduce exuberantly, with no shyness, in robust, rat-like numbers. The time is long past when their importation is necessary to the trade.

The significant part of the federal ban, which takes effect in March, is the illegalizing of interstate sales of Burmese pythons, their eggs and hybrids. That will sure impact the sales of some reptile dealers, but there’s nothing to prevent a customer from purchasing as many snakes as they want from an in-state breeder.

And it doesn’t matter if you’re a reptile fancier in South Florida or North Dakota. If you’ve got a nice warm room in your house and a lovestruck pair of pythons, you will have bushels of fertile python eggs.

The snakes that now roam the Everglades are most likely descended from those set loose when Hurricane Andrew flattened rural reptile farms in the summer of 1992. The jumbo specimens might well be original refugees from that storm, their love lives spiced by chance encounters with ex-pet pythons whose owners had lost (or purposely ditched) them.

So ubiquitous is the python presence that the notoriously slug-like Florida Wildlife Commission last year took steps that practically bans private ownership of the Burmese and seven other species, for new collectors. Herp lovers who already owned the snakes could keep them if they bought a permit and agreed to implant microchips before July 2010.

When it comes to environmental protections, rarely does the state of Florida take a leading role over the feds. The delay speaks to the embarrassing gridlock in the nation’s capital, where even a pernicious snake infestation generates pious, ideological fuming.

Sen. Bill Nelson and others worked long and hard to get the Department of Interior to do something, and a ban is a probably a good thing to have on the books as a precedent before the next invasive species settles in.

But as a way of containing the Burmese python, it’s way too little, way too late. They’re here, they’re hungry, they’re happy — and they’re getting it on.

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