Overrun with snakes, Florida looks to bounty hunters

Florida considers bounty hunters to deal with pythons, which threaten people and endangered native species.

By , Staff writer

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    A 10-foot-long albino python captured in Florida.
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Unrolling the skin of a 17-foot Burmese python at a congressional hearing Wednesday, Sen. Bill Nelson (D) of Florida focused America’s attention on the biggest invader on the continent, saying it’s only a matter of time until one of the 150,000 suspected pythons in south Florida nabs a tourist.

But of all the ideas floated to get a grip on pythons and other exotic imports creeping and crawling through America’s undergrowth, only one stands out to Florida snake experts as having a real impact: bounty hunters.

“Right now, the alligators are losing battles with exotic pythons, but python skins and meat aren’t worth anything. You’ve got to give incentives for guys to go hunt them. That’s what it’s going to take,” says Patrick Barry, owner of Wildlife Removal Services in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

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Two weeks before a toddler was killed in Florida on July 1 – the 12th known python casualty in US history – Mr. Barry was called to a scene where a nine-foot-long pet python had been on its way into a kiddie pool occupied by two toddlers before the parents spotted it.

“I don’t know if the snake escaped or some guy let it loose,” says Barry.

Among a variety of proposed measures, Congress is looking to create one port of entry for exotics, but it’s not clear if that will have a measurable impact on the trade. Pet smuggling, after all, is second only to drug smuggling in the international black market.

Senator Nelson’s bill seeks to tackle the import and export of pet snakes, some of which make their way into the wild either through escape or release by their owners. The legislation would classify pythons as an injurious animal and would prohibit the transport of snakes between states. The law, Nelson hopes, would lead to the end of Americans keeping pythons as pets.

Pet sellers stand opposed to Nelson’s plan, saying it will kill the exotic pet industry. It’s a powerful lobby: An estimated 100 million Americans own some kind of exotic pet, and critics worry a ban would drive more of the trade underground.

Burmese pythons took hold in the Everglades in the early 1990s and now range as far as Tallahassee, Fla. More than people, they threaten a native and endangered animal, the Key Largo wood rat.

Even without bounties, some python hunters are crashing into the Florida wilds to chase pythons, often posting photographs of their conquests on the Web. The snakes are notoriously difficult to catch, however, and the US Park Service is experimenting with different traps. Most of the snakes, in fact, are killed on roadways – called the "rapid-acceleration removal method" by some biologists.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist has floated the idea of a bounty hunt, and it's gaining favor in the state. The US Park Service would have to waive regulations against hunting in the Everglades. But given the threat, the feds are considering the idea.

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