TARPON SPRINGS — The mystery surrounding the humongous python found sunning itself near the Anclote River last week has been solved. Turns out her name is Cleo, and she used to call the Tarpon Springs Aquarium home.
Now, her owner says he's having a hard time getting Cleo back. A trapper has Cleo and will only give her up for a price.
A chip inside the snake revealed she belongs to aquarium owner Scott Konger. He reported the 14½-foot African rock python missing from his aquarium about two years ago.
Konger had a valid permit for the python then, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The permit expired and the agency, which turned the python over to Seminole wildlife trapper Vernon Yates, issued Konger a new permit Tuesday.
Yates wants $350 to return the snake.
"That's ridiculous," Konger said.
Konger offered Yates $300, tops.
"I feel like I'm being victimized twice," Konger said.
Konger said Yates told him it cost $150 for the vet bill to scan the snake's ID chip, $100 to pick up the snake and $50 per day to board it.
Yates said he performs a service and he's actually giving Konger a break.
"Tomorrow, he would owe me $550. I've agreed to cut it to $350 and that isn't good enough for him," Yates said.
Tarpon Springs Aquarium, at the Sponge Docks, features a 120,000-gallon reef tank, feeding shows and hands-on exhibits. Cleo was added to the aquarium's collection of wildlife about five or six years ago, after someone from New Port Richey caught the snake in his back yard and gave her to the aquarium, Konger said.
Cleo was housed with another python, Chloe, for a while. But that didn't last long. Cleo was "real wild, and you couldn't get near her," Konger said.
Konger thinks Cleo slithered away in June 2009 after someone trespassed on his property. The aquarium occasionally kept Cleo, along with other caged reptiles, on the roof to get some sun. Someone jumped the fence, got on the roof, and tampered with her cage, he said.
He thinks Cleo escaped and made her way to the Anclote River. Cleo probably has been on the lam ever since, he said.
Loren Mell came upon Cleo while walking his puppy Bonnie in the woods near the Riverside Apartments Thursday. It took three police officers to wrangle the snake and hold it until wildlife officials arrived.
According to the wildlife commission, African rock pythons are a threat to pets and wildlife, but generally avoid humans.
The African rock python species are among eight species of lizards and snakes classified by the state as "conditional species," with strict requirements. Besides microchips, owners must provide cages that meet specific size, locking and safety standards.
Lorri Helfand can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4155.