ORLANDO, Fla. — The pet python that strangled a 2-year-old Sumter County, Fla., girl 18 months ago hadn't been fed in about a month and had escaped its tank 10 times since its last meal — a road-kill squirrel, according to newly released documents.
Gypsy, the 8-foot-6-inch albino Burmese python, was most likely hungry when it escaped its terrarium and attacked Shaianna Hare in a crib, according to investigative documents.
A review of reports in the July 1, 2009, tragedy show that the child's mother and the mother's boyfriend had kept the snake in violation of wildlife rules and apparently could not afford to feed it.
The death spurred a statewide hunt of exotic reptiles and fueled a crackdown on the imported constrictors. But nature may have accomplished what outraged lawmakers had aimed to do — thin the snakes' numbers. Below-freezing temperatures killed pythons in South Florida wildlife areas, where the powerful constrictors have established breeding populations and threatened to tilt the balance of the fragile ecosystem, preying on birds, mammals and other native species that take refuge in swamplands.
"We can't say for certain what impact last year's cold weather had on the South Florida Burmese python population," said Joy Hill, a spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "However, anecdotal information indicates that possibly 50 percent of the population may not have survived."
Permitted python-hunters captured and euthanized 13 constrictors in Florida in 2010, down from 39 in 2009, Hill said. She noted that they also found three dead pythons, the largest of which was estimated at 14 feet.
She said it was too early to say how the current cold snap has affected the snakes.
The snake attack in the rural community of Oxford, about 60 miles northwest of Orlando, was believed to be the state's first instance of a non-venomous constrictor killing a child. The criminal case, likely to be tried this year, revolves around reckless behavior of the child's caregivers, Assistant State Attorney Pete Magrino said.
"It was a tragic loss of a young life as a result of the criminal negligence and child abuse on the part of two adults. It's that simple," he said. "I don't take prosecuting parents lightly."
Shaianna's mother, Jaren Hare, 21, and Hare's boyfriend, Jason Darnell, 33, face up to 15 years in prison if convicted of manslaughter or third-degree murder. They also are charged with child abuse and have pleaded not guilty.
The albino python, bought at a flea market about six years ago for $200, slithered through the doublewide trailer to the child's room after escaping from a mesh laundry bag with a baseball-sized hole in it.
The snake had slipped out of its tank twice that night.
"It's beyond stupidity," said Jim Peters, president of the Central Florida Herpetological Society, when informed of the large snake's feeding history and its unsecured enclosure, a 150-gallon glass aquarium with a quilt as a lid.
The snake, which weighed less than 13 pounds, was emaciated, said Andrew Wyatt, president of the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers. A healthy python of that length should have weighed at least twice as much.
"You keep it hungry and don't secure it, you're asking for trouble," Wyatt said.
The python has recovered from a cleaver wound inflicted by Darnell and is in Fish and Wildlife's custody.
According to a death investigation by the state Department of Children & Families, Hare's mother, Sheryl, was concerned about her daughter's ability to care for her pet snakes, Gypsy and Dixie, a smaller Columbian red-tail boa.
Hare told a DCF investigator that a week before the python attack she offered to buy rats for the snakes because Hare and Darnell had neither jobs nor money. She said she also had offered to keep the snakes at her home or provide a sealed container.
The offers were rejected.
According to sheriff's and DCF reports, the python was regularly handled — with adult supervision — by kids, including Shaianna, who showed no fear of the snake. Darnell told investigators the kids were not permitted to take Gypsy out of her tank or feed it and he likened it to a "loaded gun."
But he also described Gypsy as "real gentle," saying she never coiled up on the kids who carried her draped around their necks. He recalled swishing a dead squirrel's tail in front of Gypsy and how the snake snatched the meal from his hand.
"She was coming up due (for a feeding)," Darnell told sheriff's detectives. "But I don't think hunger would have been the motive. ... There's no way that she could possibly in her mind think that she could eat that baby."
Sobbing during the interview, Darnell said his two older children, then ages 12 and 7, were watching "Family Guy" on TV and the snake was in its tank in that room when he went to bed about 11:30 p.m.
He awoke an hour later to use the bathroom and found the python in the hallway.
"I almost stepped right on her," he said.
Darnell said he scooped up the snake, stuffed it in the mesh bag and put it in the tank. He then walked to the toddler's room and checked on Shaianna then headed back to sleep.
When he awoke about 9:30 the next morning, he peeked in on the child and was aghast. The long yellow constrictor had escaped again and was wrapped around Shaianna's head. Its fangs were sunk in her forehead.
In her interview with detectives, Hare called Gypsy "tame." She shrugged her shoulders when a detective asked how she could tell if the snake was hungry. She said she thought the snake had escaped the tank "'cause it can."
"She might have been hungry," Hare said. "But I don't think she would come right out and do what she did."
( Hudak reports for The Orlando Sentinel.)