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Florida's first fatal python attack prompts concern, legislation

SEMINOLE — Vernon Yates tries not to ask too many questions.

Since a Burmese python strangled a Sumter County toddler last week, about two dozen people have called Yates' Wildlife Refuge and Rehabilitation in Seminole.

A local homeowner's association president wanted to know if he could ban someone's ball python (he can't). A mother unloaded two ball pythons and a boa constrictor. An Inverness woman had him pick up her Burmese python — she didn't have a permit and it was living behind a ripped screen.

"People are turning them in because they're horrified at what happened to that baby," Yates said. "It's gotten blown out of proportion."

Enter Florida U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who has proposed a ban on imported Burmese pythons.

Testifying at a Senate subcommittee hearing Wednesday, Nelson cited last week's Sumter County tragedy, in which an 8-foot Burmese python slithered out of its enclosure and strangled 2-year-old Shaiunna Hare in her crib.

"This is truly the scene of a parent's worst nightmares," Nelson told the subcommittee, which will make a recommendation to a full Environment Committee before any vote.

The bill would classify Burmese pythons as "injurious animals" and ban the import of the species — they are native to Southeast Asia — into the United States, as well as any interstate sale or trading of the snakes.

Breeders and other snake owners would not be allowed to ship or sell the pythons across state lines.

"The best way to describe it is, it turns off the faucet," said Nelson's deputy legislative director Susie Perez-Quinn.

The bill would not affect Burmese pythons that already are here.

South Florida has become a breeding ground for the species, and Nelson cited an estimated 100,000 Burmese pythons in the Everglades. Those pythons are eating 68 endangered or threatened species there, Perez-Quinn said.

In Florida, a permit is required to own a "reptile of concern," including several species of venomous or dangerous snakes. Only 18 people or businesses in Florida have permits to own Burmese pythons. Two have been issued in Pinellas County. Hernando has one. Hillsborough and Pasco have none.

But based on what he has seen over the years, Yates believes there are potentially hundreds of unlicensed Burmese python owners in the Tampa Bay area. In Pinellas alone, he guessed there were 100 to 150.

Gary Morse, spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, disagreed. His agency, which recovered the python that strangled the Sumter County girl and regularly tracks the species, has not gotten an influx of calls from people trying to dump their unlicensed snakes, he said.

"I don't think there's a great mass of people confessing their sins," Morse said. "Most people who own these kinds of species are fairly honest and are very interested in snakes."

Morse was aware of Nelson's proposed legislation and said the FWC is not taking sides.

Yates, whose facility houses every wild animal from venomous spiders to monkeys to tigers, said he has a problem with banning any kind of animal in Florida. He criticized state law enforcement agencies and judges for not enforcing regulations already in place.

The Burmese pythons are already in Florida, Yates said. They can live to be 50 to 60 years old.

The snake that attacked Shaiunna Hare is still alive. No charges have been filed in the incident, and the python is recovering from wounds inflicted by its owner after the attack.

The python will be held as evidence, Morse said. When the case is closed, the python will likely be sent to a sanctuary.

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8452.

Florida's first fatal python attack prompts concern, legislation 07/08/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 17, 2009 10:05am]
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