From left, University of Florida researchers Therese Walters, Alex Wolf and Michael R. Rochford hold a 162-pound, 15-foot Burmese python shortly after the python ate a 6-foot American alligator in the Everglades National Park, Fla.
ALBANY — In a move that many equate to shutting the barn door after the mule is gone, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published its final ruling in late January that adds several constrictor snake species to the Lacey Act list of injurious wildlife.
The ruling was prompted by the proliferation of constrictor snakes in South Florida and the possibility that these populations could spread north and west over time.
According to Steve Olson, the vice president of federal regulations for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the additional snakes include the yellow anaconda, Indian python, Northern African python, Southern African python and the Burmese python.
Trade in giant constrictors is significant, Olson said, with more than 1.8 million snakes of 12 species imported into the United States between 1999 and 2008. Effective March 23, the snakes may no longer be imported into the country, nor will interstate commerce of the snakes be permitted.
According to the USFWS, a typical pathway of a large constrictor snake includes a pet store. Often, a person will purchase a hatchling snake at a pet store or reptile show for as little as $35. Under captive conditions, pythons will grow quickly. A Burmese python, for example, will grow to more than 20 feet long, weigh 200 pounds, live more than 25 years and must be fed rabbits and the like.
Owning a giant snake is a difficult, long-term and somewhat expensive responsibility. For this reason, many snakes are released by their owners into the wild when they can no longer care for them. Other snakes escape from inadequate enclosures.
Enough Burmese pythons have been introduced into the south Florida wild to result in a breeding population in Everglades National Park.
Ben Kirkland, natural resources manager at Chehaw Park, said that even though the snake is many times bigger than when it was purchased at the mall or another pet store, many people remain soft-hearted about their pet, hesitate to see it euthenaized and so release it near their homes.
“What they’re doing — releasing an exotic, invasive species into the wild — is certainly illegal,” Kirkland said. “I don’t know if pythons can survive year after year in south Georgia, but even in one season they could injure a child or even make lunch of a small dog.”
John D. Willson, a post-doctoral research associate at Virginia Tech and co-author of “Invasive Pythons,” said he doesn’t believe Georgians will be seeing pythons in their yards anytime soon, though he admits the topic is controversial.
“Certainly in their native range, they do inhabit some fairly temperate areas, such as central China and the foothills of the Himalayas in India and Nepal,” Willson said. “But we conducted a study in South Carolina where we brought pythons from Florida and wintered them in South Carolina. They didn’t survive.”
Willson’s co-author, Michael E. Dorcas, professor of biology at Davidson College, points out, however, that all of the information is not in.
“The snakes were clearly acclimated to Florida temperatures and climate,” he said. “We don’t know what the result would have been had the snakes been raised in South Carolina. Also, we don’t know the rate at which these animals can evolve to meet the changes.”
C.C. Council, owner of the Albany Mall pet store Pets & Pals, said he was unaware of the USFWS development, but said he would be speaking to his supplier next week and would follow the law in any case. Council said he was as concerned as anyone about the Burmese python situation in Florida, though he felt strongly the snakes would not survive if released into the south Georgia wild.
“They’re not as hardy as a lot of people think,” Council said. “We have some of them die in the pet shop if the temperature isn’t high enough.”
Burmese pythons are the only snake on the USFWS list that is sold at Pets & Pals, according to Council, and only by special order. There are two large snakes of more than 12 feet that are kept for display so that people will see how big they get.
“Those are snakes I took back from military people going overseas,” Council said. “They had no way of taking care of them.”
For those who currently possess a constrictor snake now on the Lacey Act list and for whatever reason are unable or unwilling to care for it, call (770) 761-3044. According to John Danton, biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, help is available.