Thursday, October 13, 2005

Python Pete: first responder

More problems with python snakes in Florida. Various non-native species have been released over the years by exotic pet owners who apparently didn't realize just how big the damned snakes would grow. First, the story making the rounds late last week about the 13 foot python that ate the 6 foot alligator and then exploded. Then this story from Monday about the year-old Siamese cat that ran fatally afoul of a python. And now this report from Florida about a 10 foot African rock python that sneaked into a nursery and devoured a turkey. The bulging belly of the python wouldn't pass back through the fence of the nursery, trapping the snake inside where police were able to capture it.

Now the giant pythons are breeding in the Everglades, threatening to overrun the national park. They are preying on native mangrove fox squirrels and wood storks, and they could be competing with the threatened eastern indigo snake (an endangered species) for both prey and space. Stunned parkgoers have even watched the pythons in battles with native alligators, including an epic 24 hour fight between an evenly matched Burmese python and a big alligator. The alligator held the python for 24 hours in its jaws before the giant snake managed to free itself and swim away. From the mid-1990s through 2003, park officials removed 52 Burmese pythons from the park. In 2004 alone, 61 animals were taken out. Fifteen snakes were captured last month.

So what are Florida's wildlife officials doing about this? They've called on Python Pete, their "first responder unit." Python Pete is a year-old beagle puppy who is in training to attack and kill 20 foot snakes. Just kidding about that last part. Python Pete would be no match for a big python in teeth-to-coil combat. Python Pete is being trained to hunt down the giant snakes and then bark like hell until the cavalry arrives to capture and remove the snake. Actually, Python Pete will be on some type of special leash to prevent him from going into the water after a snake and becoming a "snake snack".

He's being trained by Lori Oberhofer, an Everglades wildlife technician, who got the idea from Guam where Jack Russell terriers are being used to detect brown tree snakes in freight being exported from the island. The brown tree snake, for you ecological current events challenged readers, got onto the island in incoming shipments of fruit from Asia and has wiped out several species of Guam birdlife. The brown tree snake is a voracious predator and poisonous to boot. US authorities are desperately trying to prevent the snake from leaving the island and contaminating other locales.

Python Pete's training will be completed soon and he will be sicced on the invading Burmese pythons shortly. The only remaining task is to assure that Python Pete can successfully differentiate between the Burmese python and native Everglades snakes. The park rangers don't want to waste time dealing with harmless and cute native species like the cottonmouth viper, coral snakes, timber rattlers and the like.

Hey, I've got an idea. After Python Pete gets a little experience under his belt, er, collar, they should take him into the halls of our Congress. He'd go nuts, probably keel over from a heart attack at being surrounded by so many snakes in such a confined area.

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