NEW PORT RICHEY — When a Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services worker knocked on Jay Pasqua’s door three weeks ago talking about an infestation of giant snails, it took everything in him not to laugh.
“We’re not on Mars,” he said. And besides, he hadn’t noticed any snails.
Then the state worker took Pasqua to the yard next to his lawn mower repair shop on Massachusetts Avenue. There, beneath a large tree, she pointed out a giant African land snail.
“There’s a big one right there,” she said.
As Pasqua recounted seeing the four-inch snail, his face contorted — his mouth fell open, his eyes widened, his brows furrowed. He brought both his thumbs and pointer fingers together, making a rectangle to show its size.
Since the worker’s visit, the state has cordoned off several miles — it’s unlawful to remove snails or soil — and the exotic pests have made headlines around the world. “Calamitous snails that spew parasitic brain worms” and “Dangerous African snails in Florida spark quarantines,” they declare.
But for locals in Pasco, life moves on. Except maybe for Pasqua, who keeps finding the slimy mollusks in his machine yard.
“They’re telling me that I’m right in the middle of a target zone,” he said. “I’ve never been so wanted by the news.”
The latest ‘calamitous’ outbreak
On a recent morning, a Department of Agriculture worker in a face mask and black chemical gloves ambled through the yard where Pasqua first saw the giant snail. She turned the handle of a hand-held spreader filled with metaldehyde, a pesticide that overthrows the snails’ mucus production and triggers lethal dehydration.
Next door, Pasqua stood behind the register. A slight smile came over his face as he listed the media outlets that have stopped by his East Richey Lawn Mower and Equipment business.
He estimates he’s caught 100 or so of the snails alive. He’s also found several carcasses, which give off a pungent smell.
So why all the fuss since the outbreak was detected in late June? Start with size. The snails can grow up to eight inches long, about the size of a brick or the length of a man’s hand, from wrist to fingertips.
These hermaphroditic creatures also reproduce prolifically — one can lay up to 2,500 eggs a year. Described as “one of the most damaging snails in the world” by the Department of Agriculture, they eat hundreds of types of plants. When those aren’t available, they feast on stucco or plaster on buildings.
Keep up with all things Pasco County
Subscribe to our free Pasco Times newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
And the giant snails present a more direct threat to humans — some carry rat lungworm, a parasite that can burrow into brains and cause meningitis. None of the snails captured in Pasco have carried the parasite, state officials said on July 7.
Florida can’t seem to shake the pests. It’s now the state’s third battle against them, with the last infestation in Miami-Dade County spanning 10 years. The state only declared the snails eradicated last year, after workers tracked down and destroyed 168,000 snails at a cost of $23 million.
Nothing to see here
Less than a mile away from Pasqua’s shop, Robin Cahalane said she hasn’t seen a single giant African land snail. Since she heard about them, she’s been on the lookout.
“Here we go again,” Cahalane said. “We got COVID and now we’ve got snails.”
She noticed tiny snails latching onto the stucco exterior of her house, so she sent pictures to the Department of Agriculture. Staff replied that they weren’t the invasive ones, but she was concerned that they didn’t ask for further information, including her address.
Cahalane’s home is within the state’s quarantine area. The zone stretches from the northwest corner of the U.S. 19-Ridge Road intersection, east to Little Road and south to Trouble Creek Road.
She’s worried about her dogs biting the snails or her grandkids, ages 10 and 6, who often play outside in the yard, touching them. Cahalane said she hasn’t seen any state workers in her neighborhood.
“I’ve been waiting to see if someone will be here,” she said.
Five blocks north, Bill and Sue Lindfors sat on their porch in the afternoon July 13. Barefoot and eating sandwiches, they said they hadn’t seen any snails or Department of Agriculture workers.
They said they aren’t concerned about the pests, and won’t be until they see one in real life. But after 21 years of living in Florida, they were still surprised to hear about them.
Bill’s first question: Where’d they come from?
U.S. Department of Agriculture workers, along with state officials, are investigating if the giant African land snails were illegally bred and sold as pets, according to Richard Miranda, a state plant health director with the agency.
It’s illegal to import or keep the snails as pets without a permit. But authorities have caught people trying to bring them into Florida, including some that look like the snails they’re now finding in Pasco, according to state officials.
Workers will also contact landscapers to trace any host material that could have traveled out of a contaminated area before the snails were found, according to Miranda.
State officials say the snails could have reached Pasco a year ago or earlier, given how many have been caught.
Business as usual — mostly
On Wednesday afternoon, a man walked into Pasqua’s shop with a lawn mower that wouldn’t start.
“Have you checked for snails in your carburetor?” Pasqua said, deadpan. After a pause, the customer nervously chuckled as he pulled the mower out of his truck.
Pasqua was only partly joking — he now checks each repaired mower for snails before handing them back to his customers. Some have delayed picking their lawn mowers up because he’s “in that snail area.”
Pasqua tied a tag on the man’s lawn mower and said he would give him a call when he was done with repairs. He began to wheel the mower into the shop.
“If you find any snails,” the man called out behind him, “they’re yours.”