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Friday, January 17, 2014

Finish the Job on Deadly Snakes

We’ve long reported that non-native boa constrictors, Burmese pythons and African rock pythons are living in the wild, breeding, wreaking havoc on the ecosystem, frightening residents and killing pets in residential neighborhoods, all here in the United States. The question isn’t if these non-native predators are going to colonize other areas, but when and where they are going to become established.

Scientists confirmed in 2012 that non-native boa constrictors are now breeding in Puerto Rico and spreading across the island. A 444-acre preserve in Miami has had a population of boa constrictors for decades and they’re spreading to the adjacent residential area where children playing in their yards, as well as unfortunate pets, are encountering these dangerous snakes.

Snake-burmese-python-hkuchera-istock-184x265Boa constrictors, in fact, have established more invasive populations than any of the other constrictor snakes. In addition to parts of Florida and Puerto Rico, boas are also established in Cozumel and in Aruba, where they consume an estimated 17,000 birds annually. Boa constrictors have been found in the wild in Hawaii, too, another state where the snakes could thrive.

These invasions might have been triggered when an owner who could no longer care for his pet snake dumped it outdoors. Too often people purchase pet snakes when the animals are young and manageable, but there are very few options for placement once the animals grow too dangerous to handle. In South Florida, the non-native snake invasion caused by irresponsible pet owners may have been exacerbated when a hurricane destroyed a reptile dealer’s facility, setting captive snakes loose where they and their descendants now prey on native wildlife, including endangered species, and have wiped out as many as 99 percent of small and medium-sized mammals in one area that was surveyed in the Everglades.

“Once non-native snakes become established across a large area, especially in densely forested areas, they become much more difficult to find and almost impossible to eradicate,” U.S. Geological Survey scientist Bob Reed told CBS News about the Puerto Rican boa constrictor invasion. In fact, not a single invasive reptile species has ever been eradicated through management efforts and taxpayers will continue to spend millions of dollars to try and control the snakes already thriving in the environment. Once the genie is out of the bottle, there’s no putting it back.

With clutch sizes of up to 124 eggs, these snakes reproduce rapidly. The release or escape of a single pregnant snake in a hospitable habitat could result in colonization in a new area. The more humane and fiscally responsible approach is to prevent the problem in the first place.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had a proposal under consideration to ban the trade of nine large constrictor snake species that the U.S. Geological Survey identified as posing a significant risk to the environment. But after pressure from reptile dealers, the administration moved ahead with a half-measure and banned the trade in just four of the nine species: the Indian python (including Burmese python), Northern and Southern African pythons and yellow anacondas. The White House’s rule addressed just 30 percent of the problem and leaves 70 percent of imported large constrictor snakes unchecked—including reticulated pythons and boa constrictors, which represent more than two-thirds of those snakes in the U.S. pet trade.

281x144_burmese_python_NPSAnd now, reptile dealers have filed a new lawsuit suit to overturn even those minimal protections—they insist on trying to spread these invasive and dangerous snakes far and wide, and we are paying the price. As the Orlando Sentinel wrote in an editorial, “it’s hard to shed tears over what the industry has lost, and might lose in the future, when you consider the damage these reptiles have already done, and could do in the future without a ban.” As the South Florida Sun-Sentinel put it, “They have to be kidding.”

This very industry that first weakened the rule—then sued over the scraps that remained—is the same one that peddles high-maintenance dangerous predators to unqualified people at flea markets, swap meets, and over the Internet. Constrictor snakes have killed 15 people in the United States, including seven children. Banning just nine of the most dangerous species has little impact on businesses, since there are literally hundreds of less risky snake and reptile species available to pet purchasers and not impacted by this rule.

Just last summer, two boys, ages five and seven, sleeping in an apartment over a Canadian pet store zoo were tragically killed by a 100-pound African rock python that had escaped from its enclosure and slithered through the ventilation system. In 2009, a two-year-old Florida girl was killed in her crib by the family’s albino Burmese python, which had grown to more than eight feet long.

When you consider the danger to humans, the damage to the environment and the suffering that the snakes themselves endure in the trade, the case for a trade ban for all of these giant snakes is clear-cut. It’s overdue for the Obama administration to finish the job and ban the trade in the remaining five species of large constrictor snakes—including reticulated pythons and boa constrictors—before it’s too late.

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