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Senator pushes for stricter regulations on pet pythons after child strangled to death

By Staff | Jul 9, 2009

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., lobbied Congress Wednesday to consider a federal ban on pet pythons.
Nelson testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife to discuss a piece of legislation he introduced in February to reclassify pythons as an “injurious animal” and to end the importation of the snakes between state lines.
“It’s time for the federal government to step up and address this ecological crisis,” he said in a prepared statement. “We must change the law and we must do it quickly.”
Last week’s tragic death of a 2-year-old girl living in Sumter County reignited a debate on the dangers of pythons. According to reports, the girl was bitten and constricted by an 8-foot-long albino Burmese python after it escaped from its terrarium.
Paramedics who responded to the home found the child had died from asphyxiation. The snake later escaped from the house and officers from the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office found it alive days later.
Besides the potential risk of owning a snake for families with children, the non-native python species has been dominating the ecological landscape of the Florida Everglades.
“The crown jewel of our national park system has been transformed into a hunting ground for these predators,” said Nelson in his testimony. “It’s just a matter of time before one of these snakes gets to a visitor.”
Python owners have been illegally releasing their snakes into the Everglades for decades, leading to an infestation of an estimated 100,000 pythons.
According to Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Commission, the Burmese python is capable of growing as large as 26 feet long. Not native to Florida, it threatens other species.
Scott Hardin, an exotic species coordinator for the wildlife commission, said there are a number of theories around the infestation of pythons in the marsh lands of South Florida.
One speculation is that Hurricane Andrew destroyed large breeding facilities resulting in loose snakes, while another is that exotic pet dealers attempted to establish their own populations for financial gain.
“We really don’t know,” said Hardin. “We have found over the years many individual pythons here and there. It’s not a new phenomenon — the only new thing is that they are reproducing.”
He said large Burmese pythons may pose a risk to humans, but there is not a great likelihood of an encounter.
“Humans in Florida are more likely to encounter alligators than Burmese pythons,” Hardin said.
Officials are concerned about the large snakes preying on endangered species, although some of the snakes are turning their back on the smaller prey.
One 2005 media report highlighted the case of a brazen 13-foot Burmese python that attempted to eat a 6-foot alligator.
Hardin said there have been other cases of snakes attacking alligators, but officials are not worried about the trend, especially because in a fight between the two species, alligators have typically come out victorious.
Florida residents are currently allowed to possess a Burmese python, but they have to acquire a $100 annual license for any “Reptile of Concern.” While applying for the license, they have to demonstrate their knowledge of the species.
Every registered snake is implanted with a micro-chip to assist wildlife officials in tracking escaped snakes.
Cape Coral snake handler Stan Delano is selling some of his ball pythons. Unlike the Burmese python that can grow to over 20 feet, the African-native ball pythons do not grow any larger than 5 feet.
“What happens is people get them and don’t realize they get 20 to 24 feet, and they dump them because they can’t feed them,” he said.
Owners of Burmese pythons can spend hundreds of dollars each month purchasing rabbits and other food for the snake and, as a result, inexperienced snake handlers find that caring for such a large snake is daunting.
“I don’t think regular people should have that big of a snake anyhow,” said Delano.
State law also requires the snake’s container to be locked at all times to prevent escape. In the case of the child attacked outside of Orlando last week, the cage had no lock.
According to the Humane Society, at least 17 people have been attacked by pythons and seven of those died.
Since the early 1990s the city of Cape Coral has been victim to another invasive species, the Nile monitor.
The monitor eats a number of species — fish, birds, mollusks and turtles — but is threatening to the burrowing owl population for consuming owl eggs out of the nests.