Officials are making great strides in their effort to vanquish the Giant African Land Snail, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said Thursday. But authorities urged the public to remain on the lookout for the brown, fist-sized pests that can chew through stucco walls.
Since the snails appeared in 2011, state and U.S. Department of Agriculture officials have collected more than 120,000 of the mollusks, but Putnam refused to speculate on when his department might declare victory.
He said the voracious snails are not just a threat to Florida homes and office buildings but also to the state's $100 billion agriculture industry. Like other snails, they can carry a parasitic worm that can cause meningitis in humans. Officials said giant snails pose a greater risk, though, because their size makes them attention grabbers, especially for children and animals.
"We see a lot of strange things in Florida, but this one is top of the list," Putnam said.
The snails are occasionally used for cosmetic procedures and in the practice of some African religions, said Richard Gaskalla, head of the Agriculture Department's Division of Plant Industry.
"They let the snails crawl on their faces, and they're used for sort of an abrasive cleaning," he explained.
In 2010, federal and local authorities raided the home of a man who used the snails in his practice of the Orisha religion.
Gaskalla said a lot of people in Florida also just like collecting strange objects and often bring them in — sometimes unwittingly — from abroad. Florida is the state after all, where snake hunters were invited this year to track down the invasive Burmese Pythons that have made their home in the Everglades.
Last time the snails invaded Florida was 1966, according to State Plant Health Director Paul Hornby. Officials believe that outbreak was caused when a boy brought back three of the snails from Hawaii as pets. His grandmother later let them loose in her garden. It took $1 million and about 10 years to eradicate the animals.
The snails, which lay about 1,200 eggs a year, can live up to nearly a decade. They like stucco — a popular South Florida construction material — because the calcium is good for their shells. A Miami homeowner first spotted the snails in September 2011, and they have since been found in several clusters throughout Miami-Dade County. Hornby said officials have tested thousands of sites elsewhere in the state but so far have found no evidence the snails have migrated outside the county.
According to Agriculture Department data, the average number of snails found per day has dropped from more than 1,000 in 2011, to fewer than 100 in July. Now, more snails are found dead than alive. Officials attribute the drop to the work of the 45 agriculture specialists, who spend their days sweating under the Florida sun hunting for the mollusks, and to a new and stronger pest killer, metaldehyde.
And they are now adding a new weapon: Bear, a 3-year-old black Labrador Retriever, part of a pilot effort to bring in canine detectors that can sniff out the snails.