2009-08-05 / Top News

Putting the Squeeze on Snakes

Experts go after the growing and elusive python population
BY ROGER WILLIAMS rwilliams@floridaweekly.com D


DAVID TETZLAFF IS A BOW HUNTER. He spends a lot of time way down south and east in the Big Cypress, watching, tracking,

Above, the Burmese python, subject of intense media coverage and hunters' wrath.
tracing and wondering.

Arnie Sarlo is a cattleman. He spends a lot of time way up north in Charlotte and Lee counties on the big Babcock Ranch, watching, tracking, tracing and wondering.

Neither man (and none of Mr. Sarlo's cowhands) has ever seen so much as a single Burmese python in the wild, they say. That fact doesn't make Mr. Tetzlaff or Mr. Sarlo deniers of the proposition that tens of thousands of the big snakes may inhabit the Everglades and be spreading beyond them. Instead, experience has made each skeptical of the hullabaloo, or the estimates in numbers, or even the concept of python spreading en masse.

"I believe there are pockets of habitat that Burmese pythons occupy," explained Mr. Tetzlaff, executive director of the Naples Zoo. "But I don't believe it's widespread."

Others, including state and federal politicians, wildlife biologists, and officials of such organizations as The Nature Conservancy, do indeed fear that pythons have spread across the Everglades and will ultimately invade geographies far beyond, if they aren't stopped or contained now.

FLORIDA WEEKLY PHOTOS
"Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, and the Water Conservation Areas represent the core areas of the python infestation," according to a July 16 press release from the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, who went on to describe snakestopping strategies.

The announcement was one of only several events that muscled into the news last month, adding luster to Mr. Salazar's concerns. Among the others:

n Florida's U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson proposed organized python hunts on federal land (Everglades National Park is now about 1.5 million acres, so there's a lot of federal land for pythons and hunters to get acquainted). He is also pushing to ban python imports to the United States.

State officials licensed a few hunters, about 10, to capture and kill pythons on state lands. One, Shawn Heflick, found a 9-foot python on a boardwalk an hour after a press conference in Broward County on the eastern edge of the Everglades to announce the hunt, but hasn't found a single snake since then, after skittering around the 'glades from island to island, says Mr. Tetzlaff, a friend of Mr. Heflick's.

TETZLAFF
An escaped in-house python killed a small girl in her bed in Oxford, and two more escaped pythons rambled around Lakeland worrying residents before they were killed.

And last week, a 17-foot, 207-pound Burmese python had the misfortune to appear on the grounds of a veterinary hospital in Okeechobee, where the chief doctor killed it with a .22. That animal may have come out of the wild since it carried no microchip, which has been required by state law in all such snakes since 2007 (pet stores can sell the young pythons at a foot or two in length for prices ranging from about $20 to $50, but now those creatures must be microchipped).

How many are out there?

PHOTO COURTESY EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK This 13-foot burmese python bit off a bit more than he could chew. He and the alligator were both found dead in 2005 after the python ate the 6-foot gator.
Although federal and state officials have traditionally cited figures ranging from 5,000 to 30,000 as rough estimates of python numbers in the Everglades, in recent weeks the number tripping off the lips of Sen. Nelson, and other officials, was 100,000. Their precise origin in the wild here is unknown. Theories suggest that pet owners overwhelmed by the huge growth and eating needs of pythons released them, or they escaped from pet stores, or they escaped from owners or sellers during Hurricane Andrew in 1991, and moved into the Everglades.

Interior Sec. Salazar has promised not only to find funding to deal with the python problem, but to develop such technologies as pheromone-scented baits to attract them, or drone aircraft with python-spotting thermal imaging, an ironic return-serve to the python, which operates with finely tuned biological heat sensors to locate prey.

COURTESY PHOTO Shawn Heflick, second from right, stands with fellow hunters and the first python captured in a new state eradication program.
And all of this in a recession, no less.

Meanwhile, Mr. Tetzlaff of the Naples Zoo, a man who has spent some intimate time with pythons — including a memorable few minutes in which a 14-footer tried to kill him — spotted about 40 whitetail deer during a ninehour sojourn in the Big Cypress last week. But no pythons, although he admitted they're hard to see in the woods and they might emerge at night.

And Mr. Sarlo, vice president and general manager (that is, top hand) of the 73,000-acre Babcock Ranch, also thought about exotic species that can threaten the status quo, last week — but not pythons. Instead, he was marveling at the tough, adaptive ability of coyotes to inhabit a range and survive by finetuning their behaviors. Some of them — those on the southern part of the Babcock Ranch, for example — will try to eat his calves. But those on the northern reaches of the ranch won't. And they can travel a lot farther than the python, with its 1.5-mile per-day range, and its need for warmer climates.

"We don't want any exotics on our land," Mr. Sarlo said — pythons, coyotes or plant species. "If you get one or two, it can escalate into something of a real problem. So we shoot coyotes, if we see them. We don't want them stalking our deer and turkey and quail, either. One the main problems is, they'll stalk the wildlife."

That problem — stalking the wildlife — has been the biggest worry about pythons for active scientists such as Skip Snow, a federal wildlife biologist stationed in Everglades National Park. He's discovered by necropsy that Burmese pythons, which can grow to more than 18 feet and weigh significantly upwards of 200 pounds, enjoy a widely varied menu that includes almost any breathing creature, including endangered Florida natives.

"Native cotton mice, native cotton rats, rabbits, squirrels, possums, even a

bobcat (and) deer," Mr. Snow told The

 

 

New York Times. They've also eaten "everything from a house wren up through wading birds and water birds, pipe-billed grebes, coots, egrets, limpkins and at least one big alligator."

None of that surprises David Piper, owner of Everglades Wonder Gardens in Bonita Springs, or Scott Gregory, resource naturalist at the Calusa Nature Center in Fort Myers.

"The devastating effect of the python is probably on the bird populations, young nesting birds," Mr. Piper has postulated

to Florida Weekly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

"The climate here is a lot like that in Burma," added Mr. Gregory. "We have plenty of things for them to eat, like raccoons, 'possums, skunks and even alligators. In South America you see those reticulated pythons eating caimans — alligators — every day."

The skeptics speak

While that may be true, survival for pythons — even in an environment where no natural python predators have evolved — is not a given, says Chris McQuade, owner of Gulf Coast Reptiles and another skeptic of the big-number population projections.

"They lay their eggs once a year, and the typical clutch is between 30 or 40, but it can be much lower or it can go as high as 70," he explained in a 2007 conversation

with Florida Weekly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

"But survivability can be very low. In Southeast Asia, one in 50 might survive. For the occasional 'gator or deer a big one might eat (here in Florida), there's a balance. The babies are food items for lots and lots of animals: turtles, raccoons, 'possums, hawks, eagles, other snakes, even big bass.

"So the concern is extremely overdone. I think there are natural boundaries that would keep them from spreading further, and I think nature and other predators will balance them out."

Perhaps the sharpest critics of the call-to-arms against pythons are a husband and wife from Texas who sell the snakes and write in their defense from a business called Vida Preciosa International.

In an online essay appearing last month, David and Tracy Barker had this to say about the problem: "To date the Burmese python has not caused harm to humans, environment or agriculture."

They added this, questioning the veracity of Skip Snow and a now-famous photo of a dead python and alligator that appeared to be trying to eat each other, taken in the Everglades four years ago.

"It seems a curious coincidence that one of the persons who will benefit the most from federal funding to fight the python problem would be the one passenger in the helicopter flying over the enormity of the Everglades National Park that just happened to pass right over this very bizarre scene. Dr. Skip Snow, the National Park Service biologist stationed in the Everglades and the on-site biologist most involved with Burmese pythons, and pilot Mike Barron happened to notice the carcasses as they flew over the swamp. After making this absolutely extraordinary discovery, they flew back to base and retrieved a National Geographic photographer who was apparently just waiting around until someone could find him something to shoot. They returned and took the photos that shook the Internet. Never before have pictures of two dead rotting animals been so popular online."

Voices of reason and comedy

Mr. Tetzlaff, at the Naples Zoo, certainly won't go so far as to say pythons don't harm people or the environment, or question Skip Snow.

"Every time a python takes out a possum or a raccoon, it's taking food from a bobcat or a cougar," he explains. "And they'll eat anything."

Or try to. "I've been wrapped up by the big guy, and it's not a pleasant experience," Mr. Tetzlaff says. "They can exert 80 pounds of pressure per square inch and hold it for more than 10 minutes, and if a big one gets you in a coil like that, it's all over."

When he was showing a 14-foot python to Zoo supporters, it locked onto him with a mouth of backward slanting teeth that number as many as 140, he recalls. A creature's natural instinct is to pull away from that bite — which the snake uses to anchor the prey until it can coil around it and apply enough pressure to stop the heart — and that only sets the teeth more deeply.

Mr. Tetzlaff managed to pry the snake's jaws apart and then uncoil its grip on his legs.

"You can't underestimate them," he concludes. "Pythons have heat pits, like pit vipers or rattle snakes, and they can pick up temperature changes to within tenths of a degree. If he's hungry and you walk by, and he senses heat, he might have a go at you. He can kill you, even if he can't eat you."

In the end, "this is a multi-facted issue — you can't pop an umbrella over the whole thing," Mr. Tetzlaff suggests. "Although I'm one who thinks government spends too much time in our lives, on this issue I think there needs to be some regulation. I do think we need to restrict the larger constrictors. The average person has no need of one in a house.

"If the state really wants to get rid of these pythons, hunting season is coming up, from September to January," Mr. Tetzlaff points out. "You've got thousands of guys in the woods. You don't need to be a rocket scientist. Much as I like snakes, if I'm out there and I see a python, I'm going to put an arrow in its head."

And Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," is going to put an arrow in the alarmists.

After Alison Higgins appeared on a Fox television news broadcast in Miami talking about the problem, Mr. Stewart couldn't resist doing a spot about pythons and people, characterizing the whole thing as "hissssssteria."

Ms. Higgins, the Florida Keys conservation manager for The Nature Conservancy, devised a program to stop pythons from spreading in the Keys (eight have been found there, so far). Here's what she told Fox Television reporter Orlando Salinas last spring. (Mr. Salinas called his news report, "A whole lot of snakein' goin' on.")

"A lady found one eating a dove off her bird feeder. We've found reptiles, we've found amphibians, we've found every single mammal except the Florida panther (in the bellies of pythons). They've eaten a full-sized deer. They could pretty much survive in one-third of the U.S., including all the way up the coast to you guys (Fox News) in D.C., and up to San Francisco. It's a nationwide issue."

And here's how Mr. Stewart responded, complete with eloquently farcical facial expressions.

"A NATION WIDE issue… Yes….

"WAIT! How are the snakes going to get from D.C. to San Francisco? (Here, he played a short segment from the 2006 movie, "Snakes on a Plane," in which snakes start crawling all over the passengers of an airliner, while a character played by Samuel L. Jackson jumps to his feet, says he's tired of "these m*#!*ing snakes on this m*#!*ing plane," and decides to do something about it.)

"So, this is how it ends," Mr. Stewart concluded. "I had my money on accidental nuclear annihilation, with a little hedge bet on global pandemic. But for those of you who had humanity devoured by escaped Florida pet store snakes… Kudos.

"By the way, thanks, Florida, for starting almost every sh***y thing in the world, ever." (To see this segment, go to http://blog.nature.org/2009/03/natureconservancy on-the-daily-show.)

A python hunter speaks out

 

Shawn Heflick, one of about 10 professional hunters newly licensed by the state of Florida to kill pythons with firearms or other means on public lands, and a python expert, recently answered a few questions of

curiosity for Florida Weekly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

FW: Is the python problem in the Everglades overblown in your opinion? Are they out there in the numbers some say — about 30,000?

Mr. Heflick: This is a guess based on an extrapolation of numbers taken from a high concentration area known as the frog pond, which is an agricultural area with high numbers of rodents (food) and thus "high" numbers of younger pythons as well. Skip Snow (a federal wildlife biologist based in Everglades National Park) took this number and extrapolated it to the rest of the 95 million acres of the greater everglades to come up with these numbers. It is an "educated guess" at BEST!

FW: How do you hunt them, how do you find them?

Mr. Heflick: We currently go out on foot, airboats, trucks and hunt areas where we think the rodent/ rabbit populations are high in order to find them. At this point there is no science to it, which is why we are gathering data from every python capture — sex, GPS location, length, weight, stomach content.

FW: How much of a threat are they to people?

Mr. Heflick: They are not a public safety issue. They don't hunt people or chase people, so it isn't an issue at all. If someone sees one they simply have to leave it alone to be safe.

FW: And a final flip question: Have you ever eaten python, and if so, what's it taste like?

Mr. Heflick: Not yet, but as many people as are asking, I might have to try it.

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