By David L. Brown
So, shall we kiss the bio-diverse Everglades goodbye? Probably, thanks to an invasion of Burmese python snakes that grow up to 26 feet long and are rapidly multiplying. There are now several thousand of these happy huggers lurking in the fabled ‘Glades, munching on native wildlife including raccoons, possums, muskrats and native cotton rats and even birds such as the house wren, pied-billed grebe, white ibis and limpkin.
For this we have to thank the many morons who actually buy the cuddly snakes as pets (yes, I know, it’s hard to believe but trust me on this) when they are small enough to wrap around their owners’ necks without fatal results, only to give them their freedom in the swamp when they become large enough to strangle and ingest everything up to and including small children and large dogs.
According to an Associated Press report on the invasion of these alien monsters:
The Burmese python, one of the six biggest snakes, does not possess fangs and is not venomous. Rather, it is a sit-and-wait ambush hunter of the first order. Typically, it bites prey with six rows of needle-sharp, back-curving teeth, which dig deeper when its target tries to pull away. It then coils itself around its victim, squeezes the life out of it, and swallows it whole. Its stomach acids quickly dissolve even bone, [wildlife biologist Skip] Snow says.
In the wild, pythons often reach 20 feet in length, weigh more than 200 pounds, and grow strong enough to overpower a grown man. Hinged jaws, in fact, enable the snake to open its mouth wide enough to accommodate humans.
“Once they reach 8 to 9 feet in size,” Snow says, “you don’t want to be alone with a python.”
Native to Southeast Asia, the Burmese python – Python molurus bivittatus – has come to the Everglades by way of the burgeoning, global trade in exotic pets, creatures of many kinds shipped to America legally and distributed through pet shops and flea markets. Today, Americans may own 22 of the 24 python species that exist.
Since 2000, slightly more than 1 million pythons have been imported by the United States for commercial sale; nearly half are shipped to Miami, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service says.
Python hatchlings, which can cost as little as $20 at a flea market, tickle armchair herpetologists. “They’re so darling when they’re tiny,” Oberhofer says. “Later, the big attraction at home is being able to watch your python kill something – like a rat – and gobble it whole in its tank.”
Wow, talk about entertainment! Just imagine the thrill of zoning out on your couch and watching living creatures actually dying and being consumed right there in your living room, not on the TV or video game screen but in real live action! Makes you want to run right out and buy another six pack of lab rats to keep the thrill going, doesn’t it? No? Well, me neither. I used to have a pet white rat, and I wouldn’t have wanted to let a snake anywhere near it. If you haven’t already tuned out in disgust, here’s a picture to keep your interest:
This picture from Google Images is identified only as “a boa constrictor,” so it may not be the actual Burmese python breed presently taking over the Everglades. However, it does give you an idea of what a fun pet these giant snakes can be, fun for the whole family. This one is just about big enough that it’s time to take it off to the swamp to join its friends, before that little girl becomes Purina snake chow.
I recall a story my father told of his time in the Pacific Theater of World War II when some of the men in his unit brought a huge python into the camp. This was in the Philippines I think. The giant snake had swallowed an entire adult pig, and was thus unable to escape due to having a lump the size of a Barcalounger in its middle. As my father related it, it took about six soldiers to carry the beast into camp. I don’t recall how the story ended, but the memory has lurked in my mind for well over a half century.
So what does this mean for the Everglades? Frankly, I think we can say goodbye to that great swamp and its unique and diverse ecology, at least as it has existed until now. There is no practical way to stop the expansion of the snake population, and as they get bigger and more ferocious they are capable of killing ever larger prey, up to and including boy scouts, alligator hunters, and yes, even the alligators. More from the AP story:
Three years ago, a party of bird-watchers walking along the eastern Everglades’ Anhinga Trail stumbled upon a death match of super predators – python versus alligator. The gator, it appeared, had the upper hand: Its jaws, capable of a bite pressure of more than 3,000 pounds per square inch, were clenched on the snake, and for hours the gator carried its prey about, waiting for the python to go limp.
But it didn’t; after nearly 30 hours the python wriggled free of the alligator’s jaws and swam off into the high grass. “We looked for buzzards feeding on a snake carcass,” Snow recalls, “but we never found any.”
That a python could survive a gator attack was a red flag, and it was soon followed by others.
In February 2004, tourists at the Pa-hay-okee Overlook watched, stunned, as a python wrapped itself around an alligator, which countered by rolling over and grabbing the snake in its mouth and swimming off. And then, last fall, the carcasses of a 13-foot python and a 6-foot gator that had squared off were found later floating in a marsh, the gator’s tail and hind legs protruding from the split-open gut of the python.
Note that the snake in that last report was only half grown, a mere 13-foot teenager, and that a 6-foot gator is nothing to be taken lightly. Imagine when some of those snakes reach the 20+ foot range. Well, OK, don’t even think about it.
I seem to remember reading somewhere not long ago that the Everglades is also now home to South American anacondas (once more thanks to moronic pet owners). Now those are really big snakes that could probably swallow a hippopotamus! Hmmm, perhaps all is not lost. If only the anacondas will eat the pythons … but then we would need to up the ante and find something even bigger to take out the anacondas, so that isn’t a very good idea.
Whatever the fate of the Everglades, I have stricken if off of my list of favorite places to visit. It was bad enough with the gators and cottonmouths. Let the pythons and anacondas have it, I guess. I’m not taking any chances. Hey, maybe global warming will kill the snakes, and that would be a good thing? Well, not really. Sigh.