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Florida’s Invasive Wildlife

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

A battle red of tooth and claw among species is playing out under Florida's placid skies.

A battle red of tooth and claw among species is playing out under Florida's placid skies.

Burmese pythons, feral pigs, and other introduced species are causing enormous damage to Florida’s native wildlife and habitats. The state’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has declared open season on green iguanas; residents are encouraged to kill them on sight. Burmese pythons and feral pigs also pose serious threats to Florida's ecological balance.

Burmese Pythons

Picture this image: A Burmese python is curled up in the family room, it’s 20 feet long, has the girth of a linebacker’s thigh, and is quietly digesting the bunny rabbit it had for supper.

Show of hands: Who thinks Burmese pythons are really cute?

Thought so.

A small number of people have acquired the reptiles as pets and lived to regret it. The Spruce Pets' website comments that Burmese pythons are " . . . both expensive to keep and potentially dangerous. Owners have died due to handling mistakes with these snakes . . . ”

The downsides of python upkeep prompt some owners to release the animals into the wild. In Wisconsin, the critter will be dead before Christmas; in Florida’s climate, it will thrive. They first started to show up in the Everglades in the 1970s and have bred prolifically. There are now an estimated 150,000 Burmese pythons in southern Florida, and they have voracious appetites.

floridas-invasive-wildlife

Michael Kirkland is an invasive animal biologist with the South Florida Water Management District. In 2018, he told Deutsche Welle about the carnage caused by pythons, “We have recorded a 99 percent reduction of fur-bearing animals. They are now preying on wading birds and even the occasional alligator.”

So, Florida has recruited people into a python-hunting program. This is not a career opportunity for everyone. The climate of the region is very hot and humid, there’s an abundance of biting insects, sawgrass has razor-sharp leaves, and some of the trees are poisonous. Then, of course, there are Burmese pythons and alligators.

Green Iguanas

Just as with Burmese pythons, irresponsible pet owners can be blamed for the invasion of green iguanas. They are native to Central and South America, and they did not walk to Florida. They're also not always green. Fully grown males can measure 5 feet and weigh 17 pounds. They chow their way through native vegetation, and their burrowing habits are a major concern.

Green Iguanas

Green Iguanas

Joseph Wasilewski is a wildlife expert at the University of Florida. He told ABC News that “They will destroy agriculture, undermine roads, cause electrical transformers to fail, they can transmit salmonella, and can be an FAA safety hazard.”

For this and other reasons, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has put a target on the lizards’ back. In a statement, “The (commission) encourages homeowners to kill green iguanas on their own property whenever possible. Iguanas can also be killed year-round and without a permit on 22 public lands in south Florida.”

The use of guns in the cull is fine. What could possibly go wrong? Well, just what you’d expect in a place sometimes referred to as Flori-Duh.

In July 2019, a young man doing pool maintenance in Boca Ratan was shot in the leg by an iguana hunter. Fortunately, the weaponry involved was only a pellet gun, but it seems inevitable that heavier artillery will come into play tragically at some time.

Wild Pigs

Feral hogs' appearance in Florida dates back to long before snakes and lizards became a problem. The Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto brought pigs to southwest Florida in 1539. A few escaped to live a life of freedom. And, they were fruitful and multiplied; there are now three million descendants of de Soto’s original porkers to be found in 35 states. However, with half a million, Florida has the highest concentration, especially north and west of Lake Okeechobee.

Wild Pigs

Wild Pigs

Bill Giuliano is a professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Florida. He says “Farmers are not happy when feral hogs root up their fields, and health officials say the animals carry ­diseases that could affect wildlife, livestock, and people.”

Because they dig for food, they disturb natural ecosystems and their tusks are not to be tangled with. In December 2018, a 475-pound behemoth was captured in Brevard County, east of Orlando. It had caused a traffic accident.

Getting rid of all the feral hogs in America would require the resources of the Defense Department, and human casualties would likely be collateral damage.

Eradication in New Zealand

The southern island nation has had a huge problem with invasive species, and it has embarked on an ambitious program to deal with it. New Zealand had an abundance of unique native species, but introduced mammals took care of much of it.

The kakapo, a flightless parrot, was once found in the hundreds of thousands throughout the islands. The bird is now down to fewer than 150 individuals and there is a massive conservation effort to try to save them from disappearing altogether.

Fledgling Kakapos

Fledgling Kakapos

In 2016, the government announced a plan called “Predator Free New Zealand 2050.” Introduced pests such as rats, possums, stoats, and feral cats are slated for extinction. This is more sophisticated than whacking them all with a big stick.

Scientists are proposing gene editing to sterilize the invaders and developing poisons that are species-specific. Then, there’s the idea of luring animals to traps with powerful pheromones or developing electronic “sniffing” devices to find the rascals.

These technologies don’t exist yet and they might not work, but the attitude in New Zealand is that if we don’t put in a Herculean effort, we won’t have any native wildlife left. Florida, take note.

Bonus Factoids

  • In 2015, biologists found a Burmese python in Florida’s Collier-Seminole State Park tackling an oversized dinner. The snake was digesting a 35-pound white-tailed deer fawn. The meal constituted 111 percent of the eater’s body weight.
  • According to the New Zealand government, introduced predators kill about 25 million native birds each year.
  • Starlings were introduced to North America by Eugene Schieffelin who wanted the continent to have all the birds mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare. There are now an estimated 200 million European starlings in North America, and flocks of several thousand can destroy grain and fruit crops.
  • British farmer Thomas Austin settled in Australia and mourned the absence of rabbits. In 1859, he brought some wild rabbits from Europe so he could shoot them from his front porch. Bunnies breed like, well, rabbits. By the 1920s, there were an estimated 10 billion in Australia stripping the land bare of vegetation. Introduced diseases wiped out a goodly number of them but there are still 200 million reproducing rapidly.

Who Is to Blame?

Sources

  • “Burmese Pythons as Pets.” Lianne McLeod, DVM, thesprucepets.com, June 22, 2019.
  • “The Burmese Python and the Fight for the Florida Everglades.” Maria Bakkalapulo, Deutsche Welle, November 7, 2018.
  • “Iguana Population in Florida Grows as Temperatures Stay High, Residents Urged to ‘Kill.’ ” Jon Schlosberg, ABC News, July 2, 2019.
  • “Hog Wild In Florida! Feral Pigs A Problem.” Chuck Woods, Extracts, Fall 2005.
  • “Florida’s Least Wanted: 10 Invasive Animal Species that Are Wrecking Native Ecosystems.” Rachael Thomas, Florida Today, April 13, 2019.
  • “These Mammals Must Die.” Arielle Duhaime-Ross, Vice News, October 27, 2016.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on July 20, 2019:

I can not imagine wanting a snake for a pet in the first place. It is so irresponsible for people to put their "pet" out into the wild, which then destroys the ecosystem. This article makes that point very well.

Liz Westwood from UK on July 12, 2019:

This is an interesting wildlife article. In the UK badger culls spark strong feelings on both sides of the argument.