Commentary: Congress forgets science and stands up for exotic snakes

The Miami HeraldDecember 7, 2012 

Giant pet constrictors have clearly been denied their rightful place in the national mythology. American children grow up unexposed to the lovable reptilian equivalents of Snoopy or Garfield or Clifford the Big Red Dog.

Popular culture has been inundated with drooling fleabags like Lassie or Rin Tin Tin. That mutt Buck has been immortalized six times over in the movie adaptations of Jack London’s Call of the Wild. Yet, notable serpents of the anthropomorphized kind pretty well disappeared from literature sometime after Genesis.

YouTube offers up several million kitten videos. The news media cranks out one story after another about heroic dogs. But where are the stories about the pet boa that dived into the swimming pool and saved the baby from drowning, or the Burmese python that pulled its unconscious owner from the burning house? Where are the heart-rending reports on seeing-eye anacondas or the drug-sniffing African pythons working tail-in-hand with law enforcement?

Obviously, reptilian bigotry has permeated our very culture. Particularly among South Floridians, who have damn few kind words for the 140 invasive reptiles and amphibians flourishing in their midst. None are more maligned than the Burmese python.

But a few heroic congressmen, siding with the United States Association of Reptile Keepers, have taken a courageous stand against rampant herpetophobia. Last week, the Republicans running the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs, pretty well snuffed out a bill that would impose a nationwide ban on the import and interstate sale of nine species of pythons, anacondas and boa constrictors.

The Republican leadership decided there was no need for such a ban. “A solution in search of a problem,” said committee member Steve Southerland. He denounced the measure as a job-killing attack on the exotic snake industry (A lot of us had never thought of snake commerce as a major industry, worth rescuing, but there you have it). “It’s open season on business. It’s open season on enterprise, on freedom.”

Such stirring words on behalf of exotic snakes. One could imagine Southerland interposing an anaconda over the rattlesnake depicted on the “Don’t Tread On Me” naval flag of the American Revolution. Except the old naval flag would need to be extended another 15 or 20 feet to accommodate that particular reptile.

The odd thing about Southerland’s tirade on Thursday was that he happens to be a congressman from Florida, a place overrun with the transgressions of the exotic pet trade. We’ve got iguanas, iguanas everywhere. We’ve got Nile monitors, interesting little pet shop lizards that, turned loose, grow to be vicious, fast, six or seven feet long creatures with nasty bites and powerful tails, threatening pets, native wildlife and snowbirds on Florida’s southwest coast (not to mention that herd of monitors lurking in the C-51 Canal in West Palm Beach). And now we have reports of a Nile crocodile on the loose near Homestead. (Last week the scientific journal Biological Invasions published findings that boa constrictors had established a breeding population in Puerto Rico, which gave South Floridians, with their own feral boas slithering about, yet another reason to worry.)

But mostly, it’s the pythons that have people worried. Yet the testimony last week at the congressional hearing, mostly from folks affiliated with exotic reptile commerce, seemed at odds with South Florida’s slithering reality. Andrew Wyatt, of the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers, testified that there was “no demonstrable connection with any decline in mammal populations” associated with those Burmese pythons spreading through the Everglades.

Wyatt’s testimony came as a jarring contradiction to the survey published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that found the glade’s raccoons had declined 99.3 percent, opossums 98.9 percent and bobcats 87.5 percent. Marsh rabbits and foxes seemed to have completely disappeared. A study out last spring from the Smithsonian Institute found that pythons were similarly devouring nesting birds. And their eggs.

The captains of reptile industry also wanted to argue with findings by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that pythons and other constrictors could potentially flourish in states north of Florida and “expand to colder climates.” Industry reps spent a lot of time and testimony trying to belittle work by Michael F. Dorcas of Davidson University that unpinned the Fish and Wildlife report.

Dorcas happens to be one of the country’s leading herpetology researchers and co-author of Invasive Pythons in the United States, and, outside the alternate universe of Congress, might have provided the definitive word on the subject. But, alas, no. “Opponents of this legislation, most of whom are affiliated with the pet industry, have expressed opinions questioning the scientific rationale behind the proposed listing,” Dorcas told me via email Friday. “They provide no scientific, peer-reviewed published information that actually contradicts the approaches or conclusions of any of our published studies.”

Of course, even if our elected representatives don’t want to believe pythons and other constrictors can take the cold up north, the prospect of climate change and global warming might cause lawmakers to consider the snakes as a future threat, worth banning. Except, the guys running the House are no more amenable to the scientific evidence behind global warming than they are to warnings about potential snake infestations. Herpetologists have obviously joined climatologists in the scientist conspiracy to undermine American competitiveness.

Not that this dust-up over snakes was a partisan political issue. The snake ban bill was championed by Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney of Tequesta, which is uncomfortably close to the creepy crawlers’ ever-expanding range. His fellow Florida Republican Southerland, who hated it, is from Panama City, up in the Panhandle, where there have only been two or three feral python sightings. So far.

So the exotic snake industry was rescued last week. It may be bad news for rabbits, opossums, chipmunks, foxes, herons and small, unattended children, but think of all those hundreds of thousands of snake breeding jobs Congress saved on behalf of a snake-bit American economy.

Besides, there’s always a chance that those discarded pet Nile monitors and those former pet Nile crocodiles will be able to proliferate fast enough to stanch the spread of the descendents of pet snakes. Or maybe, just maybe, Buck or Lassie or Old Yeller or Clifford the Big Red Dog will rush into the Capitol, nip a few reptilian congressman on the butt, and save the day, at least for mammals.

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