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Florida lawmakers wrapped up in ban on pythons and other animal legislation

A proposal bans the sale, breeding and import of Burmese pythons in Florida.

Associated Press

A proposal bans the sale, breeding and import of Burmese pythons in Florida.

TALLAHASSEE — As a bill banning the sale and trade of Burmese pythons and other invasive reptiles came up for a vote at a House committee hearing Wednesday, sponsor Rep. Trudi Williams made a mockingly stern request: "No hissing, members."

The week before, when the bill was presented to a different House committee, members noted their approval with a tongue-in-cheek: "Yessss."

Such is the life of an animal bill trying to become law. They draw bad jokes, dramatic anecdotes and scads of lobbyists. In a year when cost is key, proposals like the python bill — with no tax dollars attached but plenty of political juice — become exceedingly popular among legislators.

"It's a good year for these kinds of bills," said Janet Bowman of the nonprofit environmental group, the Nature Conservancy, "because they don't have fiscal impact."

Williams, a Fort Myers Republican, isn't anti-animal. She shudders at another bill that could allow cities to ban pit bulls. Her pit bull-Labrador mix, Bryn, is "cute," she said.

And she dreads a hearing on a bill that would prohibit sex with animals because she finds even the thought of it revolting.

The reptile bill, she thinks, is different. This summer, a pet python squeezed a 2-year-old to death in Sumter County — the fourth python death in as many years. Pythons let loose into the wild have become an environmental terror to the Everglades, destroying the natural cycle of life and even swallowing alligators whole.

Other reptiles have also become problems. Nile monitor lizards, clawed beasts that look like small dragons, are taking over foreclosed homes in the southwest city of Cape Coral.

For years, lawmakers have sought legislative solutions to curtail the problem. The proposed ban on anacondas, Burmese pythons and other so-called "reptiles of concern'' is the most ambitious effort yet.

The bill, as written, does not have the full support of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

"We really need to be careful about the unintended consequences of banning things," said Scott Hardin, who heads the agency's exotic species section.

Hardin said he's worried the bill might lead breeders who already have pythons to abandon them in the Everglades because they will no longer be valued.

The bill might also frustrate Florida's reptile industry, said Greg Graziani of the Tampa-based Graziani Reptiles Inc. Some retailers are still reeling from a 2008 law requiring new owners of dangerous reptiles to microchip them and pay $100 licensing fees.

In two years, fewer than 400 licenses have been distributed in the state. No one kept data on which reptiles were sold before the 2008 law, but Hardin said it's not a stretch to estimate that tens of thousands have been sold since the exotic species started being exported from Vietnam in the mid 1990s.

Banning further imports won't eradicate South Florida's Burmese python problem. A single snake can produce 50 eggs in a year, so the population has become entrenched over the last decade.

Don Anthony, spokesman for the Fort Lauderdale-based Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, which supports the bill, hopes the ban will prevent other invasive animals such as the anaconda and the African rock python from making the state home the way that Burmese pythons and iguanas have.

"This is one of the most important laws they could pass this session," Anthony said.

Significant though the issues might be, presentations of animal bills always seem to wind up sounding campy. Rep. Luis Garcia, a Democrat of Miami, quoted Clint Eastwood when presenting his bill that would toughen penalties for those who buy or sell horse meat ("Hang 'em high," he joked.)

And Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat sponsoring the reptile bill in the Senate, has given out snake-shaped bath toys she bought at a dollar store in Hollywood during her discussion of the issue.

The small snakes expand up to 600 times when put in the water — much like the reptiles of concern themselves, which can grow up to 12 feet.

"I thought this was good representation of what's happening," Sobel said. "It's a joke, but we all recognize that these are serious issues."

Robert Samuels can be reached at rsamuels@miamiherald.com.

Florida lawmakers wrapped up in ban on pythons and other animal legislation 03/10/10 [Last modified: Thursday, March 11, 2010 9:37am]
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