Florida's Python Problem: Snakes Reshape The Everglades
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
But in Florida, there's a python problem. Experts estimate there could be as many as 150,000 invasive Burmese pythons living in the Everglades. And with has no natural predators in region, pythons present a tricky problem for the native ecosystem. To confront the issue, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has issued a challenge to licensed hunters and the general public; harvest as many pythons as possible between now and February 10th, and claim thousands of dollars in cash prices. Approximately 800 competitors have registered for Florida's first ever Python Challenge. So we want to hit your big fish stories today - not about fish, but about snakes. Have you had a memorable encounter with a big snake in the wild? Give us a call at 800-989-8255. Our email address is email@example.com, or you can join the conversation at our website, it's npr.org and then click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Joining us now, Frank Mazzotti, a professor of Wildlife Ecology at the University of Florida. University of Florida is providing scientific support to the Python Challenge and Frank joins us now from Fort Lauderdale where the contest launched over the weekend. Welcome to the TALK OF THE NATION.
DR. FRANK MAZZOTTI: Good afternoon, Celeste. How are you today?
HEADLEE: I'm doing well. Thanks. Better than the Everglades, I guess. The hunt has actually taking place miles from where you are. For those of us who have never been to the Everglades, perhaps, or have never seen a python, certainly up close, paint a picture of this for us. Are there python all over the place?
MAZZOTTI: The pythons are definitely concentrated in certain locations in the Everglades, but they are fairly widespread. They go as far north for example as the boundary between Broward and Palm Beach Counties. As far west as to Naples and a few have been headed - heading south towards the Keys.
HEADLEE: Meaning, that if I were driving through the Everglades and got out of my car and started walking, I might come up and meet a Burmese python.
MAZZOTTI: That, well, that is certainly something that could happen. It is very, very, very unlikely.
HEADLEE: Okay. Thank goodness.
MAZZOTTI: We spend a lot of time looking for pythons and we don't see them most of the time when we're out.
HEADLEE: So how dangerous an animal are Burmese pythons?
MAZZOTTI: In the wild, simply because of their - of the very low encounter rates with humans, they pose very little danger.
HEADLEE: But the problem is that they're an invasive species, right?
MAZZOTTI: But the problem is that they're an invasive species, and the danger that they cause is really to the ecosystem. And they're a top predator and, you know, so much has spoken about the importance of top predators in nature shows and their role. Well, this isn't top predator, it's like an invader who is coming to a system that completely lacks defenses against it. And so we have very much serious concerns about the potential of that Burmese pythons, and indeed other invasive species, might be causing in the Florida ecosystem.
HEADLEE: Where are they coming from? Where did they start? Was this just somebody who bought a Burmese python as a pet and let it go?
MAZZOTTI: What is fair to say is that the Burmese pythons and many of the invasive species today have their origin in the pet tree. Now, that said, it's not like there's a hoard of people running out into the Everglades letting animals go. In this case, it could've been maybe as few as one or two animals let go in the early 1980s. If a female has mated and has sperm, she can store her sperm and lay eggs for a number of years. It would not have taken a lot of animals to cause this problem. It could perhaps have been aided by animals that were released by Hurricane Andrew. A lot of that we don't know. But what we do know is that the origin of this and other invasive species in Florida has come from the pet trade.
HEADLEE: Well, let's take a call here because we're asking for, well, in this case not big fish but big snake stories. And we have a call here from Holt, Florida. If I know my geography of Florida, that seems farther north than what Frank Mazzotti was talking about. You have a snake story for us?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hi. Yes. It actually goes into just over the line into Alabama. But a couple of years ago, my brother-in-law and sister who lived just over the line between Pensacola, Florida and Mobile, and not too far from Interstate 10 where there's a very large, well-used truck stop, big production, and when he was traveling home on the side of the road of the interstate, I-10, was a very large dead python. And perhaps they can easily climb up into some of the big rigs and travel. So you know, we're pretty far north.
HEADLEE: That is very far north. Well, let me take that to our python expert here, Frank Mazzotti. How far can a python travel?
MAZZOTTI: I have to answer - let me answer that in kind of three ways. First of all, if you were to Google released pythons, you would find that there's a number of locations in the United States, even considerably farther north than Alabama, where people have found pythons that had been released into the wild. They get to be quite large. They're very much kind of a Houdini escape master. And so pythons showing up in unusual places doesn't necessarily mean that, you know, it hopped on a vehicle or travel from South Florida. Now, that said, there has been a few instances where pythons and also boa constrictors have been found in, I guess I'd say close association with automobiles. And, again...
MAZZOTTI: ...I'll bet you could find some of these on YouTube, you know, people extracting a boa constrictor from a car. So you know, that's not - that's also not an impossible scenario.
HEADLEE: Well, let me test out this email that we just got from Roy in Tucson, Arizona. He says he's a retired National Park Service employee. Let me read this to you, Frank. Roy says: I recently retired from a 32-year career with the National Park Service. Many national parks have serious problems with invasive species but few are as serious as the problems of pythons in the Everglades. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission does not have jurisdictions in national parks. But it would not be unprecedented for the National Park Service to undertake a program of exterminating an invasive species. In this case the problem is so serious that there is no way park staff could make a dent in it without the assistance of a huge contingent of trained volunteers. Your response to that?
MAZZOTTI: The park service is definitely cooperating with the Python Challenge. Now, and there are people who are permitted to catch pythons in the park, and they've all been encouraged to catch pythons in the park. And I hope they do. I think that in this instance, the caveat is that you can't benefit financially from pythons caught in the park. So if you do catch a - say, for example, the largest python in Everglades National Park, you couldn't win the award.
HEADLEE: Oh, I see, I see.
MAZZOTTI: But that doesn't mean that people can't hunt, the people who have permits, and a number of people do. It's the same as in the python - there's two categories in the commissioned python hunt. One for general hunters and one per permittees.
HEADLEE: Yeah. OK. I get it.
MAZZOTTI: And so there - no, there are people who are definitely encouraged to hunt for pythons in the park.
HEADLEE: All right. We...
MAZZOTTI: It's just not open to general hunting.
HEADLEE: We have this email from Lisa in Florida: I lived in South Florida, commuted to the Florida Keys daily. It was very common to see these large pythons basking on the side of the road. They looked more like speed bumps than snakes. I once saw one that reached from broken centerline to broken centerline along the middle of the road, and it was not even stretched out.
And then we have this call here. We're asking for big snake stories, and we have a call here from Zack in Iowa City. Zack, our snake story.
ZACK: Hello. We have a fun story in our family. My wife, who is working on and has been working for a long time, a pretty strong snake phobia, she went to the Naval Academy. And her - the story she tells is that she was on a training mission where she had to - she and her company had to sneak up on another position and they had to be absolutely silent. They were in the woods, I believe in Virginia. And she heard the wriggling though the underbrush and tried to be as quiet as possible. And the way she tells it, a wrist or arm-size snake fell down out of the trees, and it was in the process of trying to wrap up a squirrel. And she said it was close enough. She could have reach out and touch it, and so naturally she had to...
HEADLEE: She screamed.
ZACK: It was a challenge to not make any noise in that situation.
HEADLEE: I can imagine. That's Zack - oops, I accidentally cut - I accidentally hung up on you, Zack. I didn't mean to do that. Thank you much - so much for calling in. Well, let me go back to you, Frank Mazzotti, because one of the benefits for somebody like you, who is a professor of wildlife ecology, is that people through this Python Challenge are bringing in specimens for you to see exactly what the pythons are doing in Florida, right? What are you seeing?
MAZZOTTI: So far we're all - you know, of course, one day in for the hunt. We have personally received seven snakes and we have two more on the way into the lab. The snakes ranged in size from six to nine feet. And they came from a variety of locations in South Florida. So the hunt has gotten off to a successful start. No non-native - no native species were brought in.
Everything they brought in was a Burmese python. And the other thing that we're seeing is that people are doing a very clean job of euthanizing the snakes. People were concerned about what might happen, and we're seeing that everybody is absolutely following the guideline for how to do that properly.
HEADLEE: Let me ask you: If I am in Florida and I come up against a Burmese python, what do I do?
MAZZOTTI: You get on your phone - you take a picture of it, you get on your phone, you call 1-800-IVE-GOT1 and you send them a picture, and somebody that knows what to do comes out.
HEADLEE: Am I doing this while I'm running? Or what am I doing...
HEADLEE: Do I - it's safe to run away from it? I mean...
MAZZOTTI: Oh, it's safe to run away from it. I mean, don't, you know...
HEADLEE: Because I will run.
MAZZOTTI: I'm sure you're not asking me if you should catch it. The answer to that is no. You don't - it's not going to chase you. It's really not interested in you. In most instances, if you do see one, it's either going to run away from you or it's just going to sit where it is. And if it does, again, please take a picture of it and send it to us so that we can send somebody out there that knows what they're doing it.
HEADLEE: All right. Let's take another phone call here because we're asking for big snake stories, and you can call in as well at 800-989-8255. Dan in Rochester, New York, you have a snake story?
DAN: Oh, yes, I do. I do. How are you doing? I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines back in '99, and I was on an island called Apo, which is a very beautiful coral atoll island. And it was my first day as a volunteer on the site. And I swam out in the bay and I was doing a back float, looking up in the beautiful blue sky, and all of a sudden this huge water snake just went across my chest. And it was instantaneous and maybe, I'm guessing, five feet.
But it frightened me, and I swam back as fast as I could to the beach. And there was a local man there and I told him what happened, and he said, oh, that's bad luck. And about three months after that, it was because I had to come home on an emergency leave and I never made it back.
HEADLEE: Oh, that may not have been the fault of the snake.
Thanks so much. That's Dan in Rochester, New York. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And with us is the croc doc, I guess, is your unofficial title - Frank Mazzotti, professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Florida. You know, I can't imagine that the - with 150,000 of these estimated Burmese pythons in the Florida Everglades, no matter how many the Python Challenge brings in, it's just a drop in the bucket, right? Is there another - what are the other strategies you have for controlling this invasive population?
MAZZOTTI: It's hard to say that we don't have, there doesn't exist a single or silver bullet. What we're hoping out of the Python Challenge in particular is that, you know, we can - one of the questions we'd like to answer is if we incentivize people to hunt snakes, will they remove more snakes? One of the things we know, most of the snakes now are caught by people who like to and know how to catch snakes. I mean, you know, that might seem strange to some people, but there's people that like to do that.
If there's some way we can give them incentives to spend more time hunting, are they going to catch more snakes? And then if we add that to other things, like we have developed a python trap, it has some uses. Dogs have been evaluated for their effectiveness by Auburn University and the park service.
HEADLEE: Haven't pythons been eating some of the dogs in Florida?
MAZZOTTI: Well, pythons have been eating a variety of things. We have - I don't think we have found a dog inside a stomach of a python yet.
We have found a domestic cat. We have found chickens. But by far and away, most of what we find in the stomachs of pythons are wild animals - you know, wading birds. We have found a bobcat. We have found a deer in the stomach of pythons. So we are finding a variety of native prey in their stomach.
HEADLEE: Well, Wendy wants to ask - wants to make sure that you're teaching people how to tell a medium-sized python from the large native snakes, how to identify them.
MAZZOTTI: We are. We have training online to do that. We conducted training at the opening. The Nature Conservancy has really been helping the Fish and Wildlife Commission and helping us with that. We think that's absolutely a very reasonable concern that people have and one that we're addressing. And we're also keeping track of what people bring in at the check station.
MAZZOTTI: So if people are making mistakes, you know, we're going to be honest about it and tell that.
HEADLEE: All right. It's probably not fair to have you answer this question with only one minute to go, Frank, but Dan in Shawnee, Kansas says: Don't forget pythons are just one of hundreds of species introduced in the U.S. House cats also introduced by the pets trade are far more dangerous to native ecosystems. Why no house cat challenge?
MAZZOTTI: There are different strategies for different species. I'll say several things. There are challenges for different species. My answer to you is: Why doesn't the media cover them? And also within my lab we are working on a feral cat project. We do recognize what a problem it is, and we are trying to deal with it.
HEADLEE: Besides just telling people to keep the cats inside, right?
MAZZOTTI: Oh, that's - that is truly the number one thing to do.
HEADLEE: All right. Frank, last question for you. How many pythons would it be to be a banner take? What's your pie-in-the-sky goal?
MAZZOTTI: My pie-in-the-sky goal is 1,000 people about have registered. If one in 10 catches a snake, we get 100 snakes out of this, I'm going to extremely satisfied.
HEADLEE: OK. That's Frank Mazzotti, professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Florida. He joined us today from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He's observing the 2013 Python Challenge. Thanks so much for your time, Frank.
MAZZOTTI: Thank you.
HEADLEE: Tomorrow we will mark 125 years of exploration with National Geographic. I'm sure they've come in contact with lots of pythons. Join us for that tomorrow. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.