By Jonathan Vandina
It’s 4 PM. The hot Florida sun has warmed the thermo regulated American alligator (Alligator missipiensis) with the ability to satisfy its day long hunger. The tiny touch receptors on the mouth of the apex predator feel an unexpected yet familiar sensation. It’s a slight ripple, a change in water motion coming from the shore.
In the mangroves a sub-adult raccoon is cautiously entering the water. The gator sees it. With only its eyes and nostrils protruding from the water it slowly makes its way over to the raccoon as quiet and inconspicuous as a branch caught in the current.
It’s within 8 feet now. The raccoon is playfully digging up shellfish oblivious to the imminent danger. Four feet now, then two then WHAM! An invasive 9 foot Southeast Asian Burmese python (Python bivittatus) strikes from an above hanging mangrove. The gator stops and watches as this alien predator constricts, suffocates, and swallows its long sought after meal. The weather has cooled down. The gators body temperature and energy levels are too low to attack another meal. It will not feed today. What now?
I suppose under Pierson v Post (a property law case which held that ownership of wild animals occurs when the animal is captured or mortally wounded) this case would easily have been decided. That is, if the python had to defend itself in a court room. However, the swamps of Florida are not known for their litigation strategies. They are known for their natural beauty, their incredible fauna and their unforgiving environment. The Burmese python (Python bivittatus) has been introduced to these swamps and they are proliferating.
Briefly, bivittatus is an animal that can exceed lengths of 18 feet. They, like all snakes, are carnivorous and like many are constrictors. They arrived in South Florida through the pet trade. A baby bivittatus will sell legally for $40 dollars making them an affordable pet. As babies, they are about 1 foot long docile and tend to do well in captivity. Unfortunately, all too often after the novelty wears off, the animal is about 8 feet and extremely expensive to feed and properly house. This is when it is introduced to Florida, an environment not all that different from South East Asia.
So what now? Is it right to kill these animals? It is clearly mans fault that these animals have ended up where they are. If something is not done these animals will eat many other indigenous species. Do we let them stay? Should we extirpate them? The government is compelling the killing of these animals and is considering them a serious threat to the eco system. I suppose this is where the environmentalists and the animal rights people diverge.
Sure, the hatchlings (bivittatus may lay over 30 eggs) will undoubtedly feed hawks, gators, fish and other predators (which could be argued that they are feeding animals that otherwise would not have a meal and should not be surviving). However, if only one bivittatus reaches maturity it could eat and kill a sub-adult American Crocodile (Crocodylus acutus). That is an endangered species.
Now what? As if we have not destroyed enough animals in their natural habitat with our ships, our oil leaks, our highways. We have now successfully waged inter-specie biological warfare. Should we be extinguishing this threat to our only continental tropical paradise we have left? Owe it to the animals that have lived in these swamps for 100's of millions of years? Do we have the right to do that? Should we not follow the law, let the animals live, and just say “that python has every right to live in that swamp…even though it was put there by an equally invasive species…even though we know the existence of that animal will lead to the unnatural death of other animals, even though we know that other animals which otherwise wouldn’t, now may benefit from thousands of hatchling bivittatus roaming around, even though these animals may carry foreign diseases easily capable of wiping out the last bit of wildlife we haven’t directly wiped out ourselves?”
Zoos are packed to capacity with these animals, shelters will not take them any longer, and if someone is willing to buy them, they are more than likely looking to skin them (if you’re ever looking to sell a snake and they say they pay by the foot…I suggest finding another buyer if you love that snake). Florida’s invasive specie list is growing daily.
Cane toads (Bufo marinus) (toxins that kill dogs and raccoons), Nile monitors (Varanus nilotictus) (nest raiders that will eat gator eggs as well as anything that moves), as well as plant species that are taking over and blocking photosynthesis to lower level plant life which animals like the gopher tortoise (Testudinidae gopherus) need to live. Should we let them live? Let nature run its course? Is this even “naturally” nature any longer?
Still interested? Here’s a New Yorker article on the python and the Everglades.