Florida crackdown targets reptiles, other exotics

Invaders like the Burmese python are a threat to the ecosystem, and owners would get rules.

By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published December 26, 2006

It was the shot seen ’round the world.

When Everglades National Park biologist Skip Snow saw the intertwined carcasses of an alligator and a Burmese python, apparently locked in a struggle that was fatal to them both, he took a picture that wound up making global news.

That photo from September 2005 did more than stimulate watercooler discussions.

It spurred state officials to confront Florida’s ongoing invasion by exotic reptiles, a problem reptile experts say first cropped up after Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida 14 years ago.

Now, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is considering new rules that would, for the first time, require anyone who bought a “reptile of concern” to get a permit and meet certain conditions for cages. Owners also would have to implant a high-tech identification tag in snakes of more than 2 feet in diameter. That way, if it got loose state officials would know whom to hold responsible.

In addition, the wildlife commission plans in March to sponsor an “Exotic Pet Amnesty Day” in Clearwater as a way to persuade Tampa Bay area pet owners to turn in their unwanted snakes and other critters, no questions asked, instead of turning them loose in the wild.

State officials hope their efforts will mark an end to the current anything-goes trade in pythons, which can grow to more than 20 feet long.

“We can still have the reptile trade, but everyone is going to be held to a greater level of accountability,” said Gene Bessette, a longtime snake dealer from the Gainesville area.

But efforts to halt the proliferation of pythons already have hit several rough spots.

A bill that would have allowed the state to charge $100 for a python permit stalled in the Legislature this year. Unless lawmakers change their minds, the proposed permits for pythons won’t cost anything. That raises the question of how the state would pay for the wildlife officers who would be needed to enforce the new requirements.

The state’s first attempt at an Exotic Pet Amnesty Day, held in Orlando last spring, drew only six people. They turned in a gecko, some turtles and a cockatiel – but no snakes. Part of the problem, explained the wildlife commission’s Scott Hardin: “Unbeknownst to us there was a large reptile expo going on virtually next door.”

– – –

Florida has been a magnet for exotic wildlife for 500 years. The Spanish explorers turned loose hogs whose feral descendants leave a path of destruction across ranches and state parks all over the state.

Now, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Tampa are all major portals for exotic plants and wildlife that are sold across the country, Hardin said. And when anything exotic gets free, whether it’s iguanas in Boca Grande or Gambian rats in the Keys, Florida’s tropical climate ensures it’s likely to thrive.

These days hundreds of exotics infest Florida, from feral goats to walking catfish. Starting in the 1970s, state officials began listing the species they didn’t want anyone to own. And it became illegal to turn any nonnative species loose in the wild.

But that didn’t stop the practice of dumping exotic wildlife in the woods, Hardin said, because it’s so difficult to prosecute anyone.

“We have to be there and watch the release and then recapture the animal,” said Hardin, the state’s exotic species coordinator.

Big snakes have been a particular problem, he said, because they’re so easy to obtain, but people who buy them on impulse often don’t know what they are getting into.

“Without a permit and without signing anything, you can go buy a young Burmese python for $20,” he said. “But within a year it’s going to be 6 feet long and in two years it’s 12 feet long, and now instead of eating mice, it’s eating rabbits. And you only have $20 invested in it, so it’s disposable.”

– – –

Pythons were first seen slithering through the Everglades in the 1980s. But the first time it became clear how big of a problem this could be was after Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida in 1992, said Bessette, the snake dealer.

Hundreds of people who owned exotic wildlife — not just snakes but water buffalo and monkeys — saw their homes, cages and everything else blown away by the storm, he said. Some of the wildlife was rounded up, but many animals got away.

That alerted reptile dealers and state officials to the potential problem of having many huge snakes roaming a delicate ecosystem, Bessette said.

But no one did anything about it, he said, until Snow’s photo of the gator-vs.-python encounter hit the newspapers and airwaves — along with the news that more than 200 pythons had been captured at the national park over the previous decade.

“That spurred a lot of interest by the public in where the pythons came from,” said Capt. John West of the wildlife commission.

The state convened a group that included West, Bessette, several veterinarians and wildlife rehabilitation experts, Hillsborough County’s animal control director and representatives from Ringling Brothers, Disney’s Animal Kingdom and the Humane Society. They came up with the proposed rules, which will be voted on by the wildlife commission in February.

Bessette said reptile dealers are willing to go along with the new rules because they want to avoid further bad publicity such as Snow’s photo.

However, buyers accustomed to the state’s previous laissez-faire attitude would likely find the proposed regulations revolutionary. They would have paperwork to fill out, and there would be inspectors showing up at their door to check their snakes.

When state Rep. Ralph Poppell, R-Titusville, proposed a bill this year to regulate the purchase and sale of big snakes, it sparked a rebellion among reptile collectors. They circulated a petition that said snakes aren’t as big a problem as feral cats and therefore, “We do not need more laws.”

The bill died in committee, leaving the wildlife commission with no way to charge for the permits and inspections that the new rules would require.

“Quite frankly we don’t have the people to inspect every reptile of concern in the state,” said Col. Julie Jones, who heads up the wildlife commission’s law enforcement division.

So at least at first, they would not, she said. Instead, they would “inspect upon complaint.” In other words, if no one reported a problem, no wildlife officer would call.

After all, she said, at this point the agency doesn’t even know how many permits would be needed because “we have no idea how many of these things are out there.”

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