'Python posse' set to hunt Florida snakes. Is it overkill?

Most are feral – the offspring of pets let loose in the wild. Some say their danger to humans is actually low.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist is convening the nation's first "python posse," an extraordinary hunt to cull a population of up to 150,000 slithering beasts from state lands and, potentially, Everglades National Park.

The bounty hunt proposal comes after the recent death of a Florida toddler by an escaped pet python and a congressional hearing last week where Florida Sen. Bill Nelson (D) unrolled a 17-foot skin from a python captured in the Everglades.

Senator Nelson says it's just a matter of time before a python of similar size attacks a tourist in the Everglades.

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"There's one way to do this: kill the snakes," Nelson told The Miami Herald in an e-mail.

To be sure, a hunt for feral snakes in the "river of grass" responds to many peoples' primal and mythical fear of snakes and other man-eating animals, especially non-native ones.

The Burmese python, which can grow to 20 feet and is known to eat alligators, established a wild population in the 1990s after being released by humans who'd kept them as pets.

But is killing the pythons really the right answer?

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the animal rights group, says no.

"This is the alligator in the New York City sewer times 100,000, and all this could have been avoided by common-sense legislation," says Martin Mersereaux, a spokesman for PETA in Norfolk, Va. "It's not these snakes' fault that they're proliferating, and now we have a massacre at hand."

PETA plans to write a letter to US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who will ultimately have to approve any python hunt in a national park. The letter will call for a ban on exotic pets in the US and assurances that a hunt will be humane, since snakes are notoriously difficult to kill without causing suffering.

But what do snake experts have to say about the legitimacy of a first-ever US python hunt?

Harry Greene has loved snakes since he was a kid growing up in Texas, then followed his passion to become an ecology professor and resident snake expert at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

Dr. Greene's view as a pro-snakes guy: A hunt is sad for animals unlikely to claim human victims. But in the end, it's probably necessary. Over the years, pythons have killed 12 people in the US.

The greatest danger, he says, is to both common and sensitive species in the park, including rare wood rats, Florida panthers, birds, and even alligators – who are hunted in Florida outside the Everglades National Park.

"It doesn't trouble me personally," says Greene. "If there's good evidence that management is needed and if a bounty hunt is the most efficient way to do that, I'm all for it. I don't think [the risk to humans] is hyperbole, though I think it's very low."

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says as many as 20 professional trappers could be ready within a week to capture and kill snakes on state lands. It will be a humane hunt, the commission's chairman, Rodney Barreto, told The Miami Herald. A separate hunt in the Everglades, where most of the snakes live, is also in the works.

"This is not the wild, wild West. These people will be licensed, trained, and managed by us," Mr. Barreto told the Herald.

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