CELESTE HEADLEE: THE REMOTE WETLANDS OF THE FLORIDA EVERGLADES ARE HOME TO RARE AND BEAUTIFUL WILDLIFE. BUT TODAY, THIS WILDLIFE IS BEING DEVOURED BY AN INVADER THAT HAS ALREADY ELIMINATED 90 PERCENT OF SOME SPECIES. IT’S A GIANT SNAKE NOT NATIVE TO THE REGION, OR EVEN TO THE U.S. AND THAT’S GOTTEN A LOT OF PEOPLE’S ATTENTION. SO HOW DID PYTHONS FROM ASIA BECOME SUCH A PROBLEM IN THIS COUNTRY?
MASUD OLUFANI: FOR THAT, WE HAVE TO BLAME A DIFFERENT ANIMAL – HUMANS – WHO OVER THE PAST FEW DECADES, HAVE BEEN INCREASINGLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THE GROWING THREAT FROM INVASIVE SPECIES.
ARCHIVAL (CBS LOCAL 12, 8-10-14):
NEWS REPORT: This is a 12-foot long Burmese python caught by a Port Saint Lucie police sergeant in the middle of a neighborhood.
NARRATION: Encounters with wayward snakes – once pets in someone’s home – are a regular feature on the news in reptile-loving Florida today.
ARCHIVAL (CBS LOCAL 12, 8-10-14):
WOMAN: Oh my god. That’s on our street?
REPORTER: Yes, yes it was.
NARRATION: More than two-million constrictor snakes – pythons, boas and anacondas – have been imported into the U.S. Non-venomous, but still fearsome, they kill their prey by strangling it, then eating it whole.
Despite all that, the Burmese python, bred in a rainbow of colors, caught on with rock stars and regular folks.
BRIAN BARCZYK (REPTILE BREEDER): It used to kind of be the biker, long-haired, tattooed, you know, rebellious guy; now it can be a lawyer, a doctor. Really, the person next door could be keeping reptiles.
NARRATION: And often the person next door doesn’t understand what they’ve gotten into.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 1-22-05):
MIKE BERRERA (SNAKE IMPORTER): They buy them, you know, 12, 14 inches long, but then three or four years later they realize, you know, it’s a seven, eight foot snake, and they can’t take care of it anymore.
NARRATION: Snakes roaming neighborhoods are one thing. But how did they end up 80 miles from Miami, in a remote region of Everglades National Park?
It all began in the pre-Instagram 1980s, when park visitors filled out cards to report sightings of snakes that were bigger than anything they’d seen before.
WALTER MESHAKA (FORMER CURATOR, EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK): One time, I got a call from Royal Palm Hammock. And it was about an 11-footer, a female, didn’t have a mark on her. And when I opened her up she was just full of fat, no parasites, no nothing. This was somebody’s pet, clearly.
NARRATION: A pet most likely dumped out of the trunk of someone’s car.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 7-19-09):
NEWS REPORT: The problem isn’t just pets. Hurricane Andrew destroyed snake hatcheries in the Miami area, sending hundreds of baby snakes into the Everglades.
NARRATION: By 2000, Meshaka had published a study warning that Burmese pythons were reproducing in the southern end of the park.
WALTER MESHAKA: At the park it was not met with a sense of urgency that I felt it warranted. It is, in a way, a ticking time bomb. Will it be relatively localized? Will it explode, which, lo and behold, it did.
NARRATION: In the four years after Meshaka’s warning, python captures around the park went from 2 a year to 70. Park officials were caught behind the curve.
SKIP SNOW (FORMER BIOLOGIST, EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK, 1988-2013): We couldn’t go to the Home Depot and buy a can of Snake-Be-Gone and just figure out what the-what the right dosage was to kill it. We didn’t have those tools. Those tools weren’t there.
NARRATION: At the state level, Florida Fish and Wildlife officials hesitated to ban the sale of pythons, a move that would hurt the state’s $100-million reptile industry, hoping the snakes might die off on their own.
KRISTINA SERBESOFF-KING (FORMER ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENTIST, STATE OF FLORIDA): We keep saying, “Well, let’s just make sure we get this right, you know? We don’t want to ruffle any feathers. Let’s make sure we really know that this is gonna to be a problem before we go and really impact somebody’s livelihood.” Were we taking it seriously? I would—my personal—no.
NARRATION: What forced the issue onto everyone’s radar were clashes between pythons and the park’s top predator, the alligator.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 1-22-05):
NEWS REPORT: After a 30-hour exhaustive battle, a draw.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 08-11-06):
NEWS REPORT: What you’re looking at is a 13-foot python that ate an entire six-foot alligator, before bursting.
SKIP SNOW: That was the— sort of the very first, very public display of these two rather large reptiles and kind of a turning point for-for both management as well as the media, I think, to pay attention.
NARRATION: And pay attention they did.
ARCHIVAL (NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TV, PYTHON WARS, 2-09-10):
NARRATOR: An alien species is invading the swampland of America.
NARRATION: As python captures soared to 367 in one year, so did media speculation about how big and scary the problem was.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, EARLY SHOW, 7-27-09):
HARRY SMITH: Snakes are eating Florida.
ARCHIVAL (FOX, 01-14-13):
SHEPARD SMITH: 150,000…
ARCHIVAL (NBC 6 LOCAL, 01-17-12):
NEWS REPORT: 183,000…
ARCHIVAL (WPLG CHANNEL 10, 01-17-12):
NEWS REPORT: Over 200,000…
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 4-21-09):
ANDERSON COOPER: On the loose, traveling faster than you might think.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 2-4-09):
BRIAN WILLIAMS: A clear and present danger to people.
SKIP SNOW: What would come out would be “Big Snake. Be Afraid.”
NARRATION: Adding to the sense of panic, a tragedy in 2009.
ARCHIVAL: (911 CALL, 7-1-09):
OPERATOR: 911 - Do you need police?
MAN: Our snake, we have a Burmese python, and she’s about 12-foot long. She got out of the cage last night and got into the baby’s crib and strangled her to death.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 7-03-09):
NEWS REPORT: The autopsy report revealed the snake had in fact strangled two-year old Shianna Hare and may have tried to eat her.
NEW NARRATION: There have been 10 Americans strangled by constrictors since 1990 – all victims in homes where snakes were kept as pets. Pythons have never attacked a tourist in the Everglades, but that didn’t stop park visitors from being spooked.
ARCHIVAL (CNN 2-7-2012):
TOURIST: I was afraid that there’d be snakes everywhere, pythons and everything.
NARRATION: The real danger, park biologists argued, was not to humans, but to wildlife. With few natural predators to keep them in check, pythons were eating their way through the ecosystem, devastating populations of native birds and mammals, including a 76-pound deer.
SKIP SNOW: We know very little about them in their native habitat. So it makes it that much harder when they become an invasive species.
NARRATION: With their $10 billion effort to restore the Everglades under threat, federal and state agencies began spending a million dollars a year on python control.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 01-22-05):
WOMAN: Find it, Pete! Find it, find it, find it.
NARRATION: Enlisting a python-sniffing dog…implanting transmitters in so-called “Judas” snakes to lead scientists to mating areas. And setting traps. But the efforts barely made a dent. The snakes set new records for length – this one over 17 feet – and for eggs, 79 in one female.
WOMAN (AT REPTILE SHOW): Ready 1, 2, 3 smile.
NEW NARRATION: With Florida still allowing the sale of pythons as pets, the federal government in 2008 began considering a ban on imports of Burmese pythons and 8 other giant snakes. The reptile industry argued it would kill jobs in their $2 billion national industry.
ARCHIVAL (HOUSE COMMITTEE ON OVERSIGHT, 9-13-11 ):
DAVID BARKER (REPTILE BREEDER): It will destroy American businesses and it will damage hundreds of thousands of people economically.
BRIAN BARCZYK: There’s no second amendment that says I can keep a python. But you take the Burmese Python away, the next thing you know you’re taking a Leopard Gecko away and then maybe your dog or cat. You know, where does it stop?
ARCHIVAL (NBC 6 LOCAL, 01-17-12):
KEN SALAZAR (FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF THE INTERIOR): The action we’re taking today is a milestone for us in the protection of the Everglades.
NARRATION: In the end, after years of debate, as pythons expanded their range, the government went ahead and banned imports of eight giant snakes. One newspaper expressed skepticism, saying “It’s closing the reptile cage after the snakes have already slithered out.”
But pythons are not the only escaped or released pets that have become a public menace.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 08-25-09):
NEWS REPORT: Scientists are tracking an exotic invader, a small fish that has become one of the biggest bullies in the Atlantic Ocean.
NARRATION: Venomous lionfish, imported from Asia for aquariums, are preying on native fish from Florida to Rhode Island.
ARCHIVAL (FOX5, ):
MAN: And we have this nonnative species living here and it really likes utility poles.
NARRATION: Exotic birds from South America are causing headaches for power companies. And Florida’s latest pet gone wild…
ARCHIVAL (LOCAL 10, 03-05-14):
NEWS REPORT: It’s a cold-blooded killer eating its way through the Everglades.
NARRATION: A four-foot lizard with a nasty bite – the Argentine Tegu.
FRANK MAZZOTTI (PROFESSOR OF WILDLIFE ECOLOGY, UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA): There is nothing similar to this lizard in Florida, so when they get to a place like this, it’s kind of like walking into an untouched banquet table.
NARRATION: Tegus are eating the eggs of native birds and reptiles. Scientists are trying to contain it through trapping, but the lizard is already reproducing in three counties and spreading.
FRANK MAZZOTTI: To the west of us where tegus are heading towards rapidly, is one of the largest nesting areas for the threatened American Crocodile. A species that we brought back from the brink of extinction. Now may be threatened again by an invasive species.
NARRATION: In Florida, where there are now more nonnative lizards than native ones, officials say stopping the tegu is a top priority. And yet tegus are still for sale as pets, virtually guaranteeing more releases or escapes into the wild.
FRANK MAZZOTTI: I think overall, the problem that we’re having is that we as human beings do not react until we’ve demonstrated there’s a real problem. When you get to the point where you know you have trouble, then it’s too late to fix it.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 01-13-13):
REPORTER: What do you guys think your chances are of finding a python?
HUNTER: Good. Oh, real good. Yeah.
NARRATION: After a public hunt in the Everglades in 2013 bagged a disappointing 68 snakes, officials switched gears, hiring a posse of trained python hunters to track them down and remove them, paying minimum wage and a bounty of up to $25 a foot.
ARCHIVAL (CHANNEL 10, MIAMI):
ANCHOR: Take a look at this monster in the swamp! A gigantic python. More than 17 feet long.
ANCHOR: They just get longer and longer.
NARRATION: But so far nothing has stopped the python population from swelling to an estimated 100,000. And the National Park Service now admits the big snakes are here to stay.
SKIP SNOW: We don’t know what to bring to the battle, right? We really don’t yet have all that figured out.
NARRATION: Battling invasive animals, including those that arrive by way of the pet trade, costs taxpayers an estimated $50 billion a year.
KRISTINA SERBESOFF-KING: We really should have a proactive approach and we still don’t. Nobody’s screening all the nonnative wildlife that’s being imported into the United States, to say which one is going to be the next bad actor. I mean, that-that right there just-just floors me.
WALTER MESHAKA: Maybe the way to put it is that the lesson learned is that no one’s learned their lesson. How’s that for an awful lesson learned?