Florida – in particular, the Everglades – is the land of invasive species. More than a quarter of all fish, reptile, bird and mammal species in southern Florida are exotic, which is higher than any other region of the United States. It's also got one of the highest proportions of exotic plants of any ecosystem in the world. Perhaps the best-known exotic species, the poster animal for Florida's reptilian invasion, is the Burmese python. And the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has a plan to control the spread of the serpents: a civilian python patrol.
The Globe and Mail reported this week that wildlife officials there are training ordinary people, with no particular background in wildlife handling, to identify and capture invasive snakes, the Burmese python included, as part of an effort to reduce their impacts on the ecosystem. According to the report, officials hope to train hundreds of volunteer snake scouts during a series of classes to be held in the upcoming months. "After taking the class and applying for a permit, volunteers can hunt for snakes on some FWC-owned properties," they say. "Those who do so are encouraged to turn snakes over to wildlife officials to be euthanised or kept for research."
If this seems like a bad idea to you, you're probably right. For one thing, there are human safety concerns. Burmese pythons aren't venomous, but they can still deliver a nasty bite. And some can grow up to five and a half meters long (more than 18 feet). If they can put up a fight with a Florida alligator, they can certainly put up a fight with a puny human. They kill their prey through constriction, squeezing in the centre of a coil made by their own bodies. In addition, the place most folks are likely to find a python is on a road, which introduces the risk of attempting to capture a python in the middle of traffic.
Then there are the animal welfare considerations. They might be unwelcome visitors, but like your in-laws who come to visit and never leave, they still deserve to be treated with respect. Qualified wildlife officials with the proper equipment and safety gear can humanely capture a large, aggressive python. Civilians (who are taught to "use poles to pin [the snakes'] heads") may not be quite as careful, even with the best of intentions.
And even if you could train enough volunteers to carry out a humane form of python control, would it even make a dent? There are some 150,000 Burmese pythons in southern Florida. David Steen, a wildlife ecologist at Auburn University, wonders whether the effort to train the volunteers is worth the payoff. "Burmese pythons are already well-established so the occasional python removed by a volunteer is not going to have population-level impacts," he says. But, he concedes, a volunteer program could "play a role as a part of a larger and more comprehensive management strategy."
Top header image: William Warby, Flickr