Pythons in Florida Stalked by Hunters and Tourists Alike
May 7, 2010
FLORIDA CITY, Fla. — Thousands of Burmese pythons, the offspring of former pets, have invaded the Everglades, eating birds, bunnies, even alligators. It has gotten so bad that Congress is considering an outright ban on buying or selling nine kinds of giant snakes.
But an odd thing has happened here in the swamp: the pythons have become celebrities. The snakes are fast becoming an element of Florida lore, attracting “oohs” and “ahhs” from tourists, along with groans from biologists and even python hunters like Bob Freer.
“It’s a little frustrating and very strange,” said Mr. Freer, who figures that his 40 captured pythons — most of which he has euthanized — make him the state’s top private hunter. “They’re asking about pythons that don’t even belong here, instead of alligators.”
Trouble is, the newfound fascination obscures what biologists and Mr. Freer describe as a serious problem. In their view, python proliferation — still significant despite a cold winter that might have killed half the population — is simply the sexiest example of widespread disrespect for pets and the wilderness.
“People need to view exotic species invasions as pollution — biopollution,” said David E. Hallac, chief of biological resources for Everglades and Dry Tortugas National Parks. “In some cases, this form of biopollution can be even more difficult to remedy than chemical pollution, mainly because in most cases, we have no way of cleaning up exotic species from our natural environments.”
Nowhere is the problem more visible than in the open expanse of southwestern Dade County, where tract housing gives way to sawgrass and airboat engines. Mr. Freer, a grandfather who cuts the sleeves off his T-shirts, has lived here for a decade, giving animal presentations to tourists and running a wildlife refuge that doubles as his home.
He grew up in rural New York on a dairy farm with a pet alligator, and he used to live north of Miami with another gator (named Lazy) until his neighbors complained. Now Mr. Freer and his third wife are free to mix with whatever animals they like, and there are plenty.
Near the back of their five-acre property, for instance, sits Rocky, a tiger once owned by a stripper. Buc, an arthritic grizzly bear, lies in a cage next door near the hyenas, Chewy the camel, birds the color of daiquiris, and a lemur from Madagascar whose previous owner pulled out its teeth, so that all its food must now be mashed.
In nearly every case, pet owners gave the animals up or had them taken away by county officials. Pythons, Mr. Freer said, have been part of the mix since the mid-1980s.
“It was very exciting then to think about these giant snakes and being able to find them here in Florida,” he said. “I never really thought there would come a time when you would actually go out and hunt pythons.”
State officials say they had no choice — especially after last July, when an eight-foot python sneaked out of its cage north of Orlando and strangled a 2-year-old. It led to a six-week hunting season to reduce the python population.
“We really wanted the help, and still need it, to get rid of these things,” said Tony Young, a spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
With all the attention, the snakes became bigger stars. Reporters have interviewed officials at Everglades National Park around 300 times. Mr. Freer, meanwhile, has turned up on Animal Planet and the History Channel’s “Monster Quest,” after an episode about the Hillbilly Beast of backwoods Kentucky.
He said that he initially understood the alarm. Pythons are what biologists call “apex predators” that eat nearly everything, including endangered species. And there were financial benefits, too: a group of Canadian snake enthusiasts paid him to help find pythons.
But on a hunting trip in the Southern Glades, a 30,000-acre tract that abuts Everglades National Park, Mr. Freer struggled to shake a sense of melancholy.
The area has become a dumping ground littered with both human ruin — a shuttered fish farm, a closed juvenile detention camp and a former rocket test site — and abandoned animals. In addition to the pythons, Mr. Freer said he had come across cobras and black mambas, emus and ostriches. Since the recession started, he said, he has seen more horses that owners can apparently no longer afford to feed.
The python craze, he said, only illustrated a problem far larger than most people recognize. Mr. Hallac, at Everglades National Park, agreed.
“We have well over a dozen exotic fish that have invaded the park and may pose a threat to our native aquatic organisms,” Mr. Hallac said. “But being that they’re underwater, and not particularly scary to humans, their stories are rarely told.”
At Everglades Alligator Farm, an adventure park where Mr. Freer manages the animals and puts on shows for visitors, python presentations are still a hit. Rangers at the national park are regularly asked about how to avoid or see the famous pythons.
Mr. Freer said he now looked forward to a day when pythons were scrubbed from his routine. “People will be asking me about alligators again,” he said, “And that’ll make me happier.”
A version of this article appeared in print on May 8, 2010, on page A10 of the New York edition.