For $10, about 50 pet owners bought a curiosity: a fist-sized snail with a pink snout, a hearty appetite for Florida oranges and unfortunate secrets.
The owners didn't know the banana rasp snail has a tendency to ooze large amounts of slime and suck the house paint from walls.
Even worse, Archachatina Marginata defoliates banana fields and vegetable crops. Since they are hermaphrodites capable of laying 400 eggs at a time, it would take the release of just one snail to trigger an environmental scourge, state agriculture officials said Friday.
That was enough for federal officials to ban them from the United States _ a fact unknown by either the pet owners or the Gibsonton fish farmer who sold them. And it sent state and federal officials this week on a frantic search for the missing snails now in private hands.
"Imagine!" said entomologist Harold Denmark. "You wake up one morning and 500 of these giant snails are on your lawn, eating your plants, leaving giant slime trails. You run the lawnmower on them. In three days it smells so bad you have to move out."
Denmark should know. He has fought giant snails before.
In the early 1970s, one giant African snail was released in South Florida. Soon, homeowners were filling bushel baskets with them.
They crawled up exterior walls, trailing slime in their search for the calcium that made their shells grow to almost 12 inches. They found it in some house paints, which they sucked off the walls, Denmark said.
Those snails, close kin to the banana rasp snail, were eradicated from South Florida in 1975 after six years of work and $700,000 in financing. Denmark thought he had seen the last of giant snails.
But last month, in a chance encounter on a Tallahassee vacation, a state agriculture inspector saw three at a pet shop. He quickly confiscated them. Agriculture officials traced the snails to Elwyn and Peggy Segrest's Gibsonton fish farm.
There, they seized another nine and learned that at least 70 had been sold. Through the distributor, they found that perhaps hundreds have come into the U.S. through New York in recent years, officials said.
The USDA jumped in with its own investigation. Inspectors returned to beat the Segrest's bushes for escapees. They scoured inventory records at private pet stores in search of buyers. On Friday, they pleaded with owners to turn their pets in without penalty.
At Denmark's Gainesville laboratory, the 14 confiscated snails sucked on sliced apples and oranges Friday, oblivious to media attention or their fate. Once the cameras leave, Denmark said he plans to dip them in a fatal alcohol bath.
Even one survivor, it seems, would be too many.
"If you've got one, you soon have a colony," he said. "First thing you know, you're up to your hip in snails."