You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Florida Pythons: Now Even More Out Of Control

For the last 15 years, the Burmese python has been the biggest, most ruthless snake in South Florida. The python's not exactly native to the region—it's an invasive species, imported from abroad, gradually introduced into the wild after hurricanes start ripping apart the state's many "exotic species" shops, or after various python-owners grew weary of their 200-pound pets and set them free. So the pythons have now made the Everglades their home, and are wreaking all sorts of python havoc, chowing down on local wildlife and endangered species like the Key Largo wood rat. Burkhard Bilger wrote a terrific New Yorker piece on Florida's invasive-species nightmare back in April that focused on the Burmese python:

One January morning in 2003, a group of tourists were walking along the Anhinga Trail, not far from the park's main entrance, when they noticed something splashing in the shallows nearby. When they went to take a closer look, they were witness to a death match. A full-grown alligator had clamped its teeth on an adult python and was ensnared in the snake's coils. The fight went on for more than twenty-four hours, with the alligator, by all accounts, getting the better of it. By the time it loosed its jaws and the mangled snake slithered away, thousands of pictures and hours of videotape had been taken, and accounts later appeared in outlets as disparate as the National Examiner ("GATOR VS. PYTHON!") and National Geographic. "The park superintendent called me after that," Snow recalls. "He said, 'We've got a problem.' "

Within months, Snow was finding pythons of all sizes in the park, including hatchlings-proof, if any more were needed, that the snakes were breeding. That summer, he took one of the hatchlings to a meeting of the state's wildlife managers. "Here it is 2003, and we've spent all these years waiting for the standard of guilt to be met," he says. "So I show up with this little python and pass it around." The others took one look at it, he says, and told him that he was out of luck-Burmese pythons were in Florida for good. "In one week, we'd gone from 'No problem at all' to 'You might as well give up.' " …

Pythons aren't venomous, but their upper jaws are fitted with a quadruple row of sharp, inward-curving teeth, their lower jaws with a double row. They use the teeth to gain purchase on their prey until they can coil their body around it. Snow's advice is simple: "Stay away from the pointy end." Even a small snake can cause a sizable wound and squeeze your arm hard enough to cut off the blood flow. The large ones have been known to swallow leopards whole. "It's just an absolutely absurd animal to have to deal with," he said. "The fact that they're even here. The fact that we even have to have this conversation. It's just off-the-charts crazy."

Point is, it's a gigantic snake on the loose. Back in July, the python claimed its first human victim, a two-year-old girl. And there are 150,000 Burmese Pythons slithering and breeding uncontrollably in the wild. Oh yeah, and I forgot to mention but plus now it's no longer even the nastiest python in the state: The Miami Herald reports today that the considerably more ruthless African rock python has, it appears, successfully infiltrated the Everglades, as well. Here's a primer from one herpetologist: "You couldn't get a worse python to become established. A Burmese python is just a docile snake. These things will lunge at you."

Lovely. So by now, Florida lawmakers have been frantically straining to figure out how to deal with their python problem. Cracking down on the exotic pet trade hasn't been easy: As Bilger notes in his piece, the industry rakes in some $40 billion a year and has been pretty successful at fending off any attempts to tighten animal-import laws. Another option, floated by Charlie Crist among others, has been to modify the federal ban on hunting in the Everglades and put a bounty on the snakes' scaly heads. (Tracking the hard-to-see pythons in the swamp isn't easy, but there's, evidently, no shortage of South Florida hunters keen on the idea.)