Impact of Burmese pythons in the Everglades

A few years ago I applied to Columbia University to pursue my masters in journalism. Upon showing interest in the university’s journalism program, I was asked what story I would love to write. There are so many stories I want to write, but the one that popped into my head was a story about Burmese pythons.

I grew up in Naples, Fla., which is on the edge of the Everglades and was told stories about monster snakes — Burmese pythons — in the Everglades eating anything that crossed their paths from humans to giant gators. These snakes aren’t native to South Florida. Back in August of 1992, Hurricane Andrew slammed into Dade County, Fla., leaving nearly $25 billion in damage for the residents of Miami and Homestead to deal with. Another devastation of the hurricane, which has stayed out of the limelight, was the Burmese pythons that escaped from their owners’ houses during the storm. Naturally, the snakes gravitated towards the Everglades, a nearby and perfect mileu for a 13-foot-long serpent to thrive in. Since 1992, the population of Burmese pythons in the Everglades has exploded. Also, before Andrew, Florida residents dumped their snakes in the swampy ‘Glades after realizing these monsters were too big to keep at home.

In 2005, when I was a freshmen at Boston University, the impact of these serpents finally caught my attention after I read a BBC story about a 13-foot-long Burmese python that died while trying to digest a 6-foot-long alligator that was still alive and clawing inside it’s belly, trying to escape. The snake burst open, it’s guts spilling forth an equally frightening giant alligator that also died in the dual. The story is amazing and the wildlife professor that was interviewed for the story said, “Encounters like that are almost never seen in the wild.” That’s beyond amazing. A 13-foot snake eats a 6-foot alligator. That’s a scary thought. And the professor followed up in the story, saying, “Clearly, if they can kill an alligator they can kill other species.” (What came to my mind after reading this was the movie, “Anaconda,” starring J.Lo, Jon Voight and Ice Cube.)

In all seriousness though, I keep coming back to this story, thinking about the ecological impact of these snakes in the Everglades. The alligator, which to me was the most feared and aggressive creature in the Everglades, is now preyed on by something bigger, stronger, faster and hungrier. How does that throw off the food chain? Especially when these snakes are breeding and taking over the ‘Glades at the fast rate that they are. It blows my mind to think of how the hierarchy of creatures and food chain in the Everglades has changed over the past 20 years.

Last I heard, back in 2009, the former governor of Florida, Charlie Crist, started taking initiative with the python issue after a toddler was strangled to death. Read the story here. It makes me wonder what Florida’s current governor, Rick Scott, has planned. After all, he is a Naples resident and has lived in close proximity to the problem for the past few years. I’m a little behind on the issue, but definitely want to do some research. Last I heard, only a few people were allotted permits to hunt the snakes. Makes me wonder how things are going to progress legislatively.

Every time I see a tweet from the game and wildlife department or my hometown newspaper — Naples Daily News — about the matter, I can’t help but read up. After all, these kinds of battles, between monster and serpent are something you only think you’ll read about happening in the deep depths of some foreign equatorial habitat — not outside of one of the United States’ largest golf course communities. It’s bizarre.

There are so many angles to tackle with the Burmese python issue: the legislation behind it, the hunters, the ecological impact, the money (in “j-school” they always told me to follow the money), etc. But for me, the most interesting thing is the ecological impact. What happens when you throw a voracious 13-foot beast into a new habitat to claim it’s own? From what I know, 2-year-olds and 6-foot-long alligators die. That’s something worth fearing.

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