By midday Friday, hunters sanctioned by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission had captured at least one of the estimated 150,000 Burmese pythons in the Everglades. And U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar assured more will die by agreeing to similar eradication efforts in the Big Cypress National Preserve. The effort is the latest aimed at preventing the environmentally devastating species from spreading to the rest of the southern United States.
But the hunts will do nothing for the other threat posed by the dangerous predator. They won't prevent another tragedy like the death of Shaiunna Hare, a 2-year-old Sumter County girl killed by a pet python earlier this month while she lay in her bed. Only greater state and federal regulation of the animals — from banning their import and interstate sale to potentially outlawing pythons as pets — will address the threats the Burmese python poses to Florida's environment and people.
Congress needs to embrace a bill offered by two Florida Democrats, Sen. Bill Nelson (S 373) and Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami (HR 2811), to restrict the import and interstate sale of the South Asian species. Nelson has pushed the measure for years, noting there are no natural predators to the pythons in Florida. The proposal finally won more attention after Shaiunna's death.
Nelson's office has said the plan "turns off the faucet" that imported 99,000 pythons to the United States between 1996 and 2006. It won't be that simple, of course. Pythons live for decades and there is already a huge population here — much of it breeding in the wild. But the Nelson-Meek plan will stem some of the growth.
It's also time for the state to reconsider whether constrictors like the python should belong in the category of Class 1 animals — dangerous exotic species — that can't be kept as pets. Florida law now requires owners of pythons, deemed a "reptile of concern," to register the animals with the state. But the law is rarely enforced. The snake that killed Shaiunna was not registered and experts have suggested the 8-foot snake, inadequately contained in a terrarium, was underfed. Supporters of the python pet trade say the owner, not the animal, is at fault. But the python isn't just another domesticated pet like a cat or dog.
Owners who enthusiastically buy a 20-inch hatchling have an 8-foot predator in their midst within a year. Scientists believe the responsibility has so overwhelmed some owners that they released their pets into the wild, threatening Florida's environment.
The irony is that the World Conservation Union has registered the Burmese python as a "near threatened" species in its native range of Southeast Asia due to exportation and hunting for skins. That's where the snake belongs — not in Florida homes or the Everglades.