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One Man's Pet, Another's Invasive Species

Now he's in reptile heaven. He and co-owner Robbie Keszey have not only big snakes but also iguanas, geckos, skinks, tarantula spiders, crocodiles, tortoises and so on. A five-acre fenced enclosure is stocked with alligators.

The farm does most of its business by mail order. It's convenient and easy: The animals are sent to customers by UPS or FedEx, though venomous snakes go air freight on Delta (snakes on a plane).

In the rattlesnake shed he opens a plastic tub in which a rattler is in full rattle -- "just a snake with a particularly bad attitude." For the spitting cobras he keeps a welder's face shield handy, though sometimes the venom will get on his forehead and, if he sweats, can drip into his eyes, which he says is excruciatingly painful.

In the shed next door he opens a case and takes a peek at a 10-foot python. The creature doesn't slither so much as flow. MacInnes has learned to judge a snake by its eyes -- dilated pupils and jittery eyes can signal that something ugly is about to happen. This one, however, remains low-key, lazy, perhaps just colossally bored.

MacInnes, who is exceedingly understated (the people from Animal Planet have told him he's no Steve Irwin), tells the unhappy story of a Tennessee preacher who came to visit. He was from a snake-handling church, and he brought a couple of rattlesnakes that he wanted to barter for a cobra. MacInnes warned that cobras aren't very religious. If you handle a cobra the way you handle a rattlesnake, he told the preacher, you won't last long.

The preacher insisted. He bought the cobra.

"He didn't live a month," MacInnes said.

During a tour of the farm, he shows off Cuban crocodiles, which are man-eaters, and gopher tortoises, which are slow and not exactly fearsome, though if you put your shoe on one's shell it will try to drive you backward like a football lineman pushing a blocking sled.

The Experiment

What is happening in Florida illustrates a broader fact about life on Earth: We live in an age that favors generalists rather than specialists.

A generalist is a raccoon, a python, a cockroach, a white-tailed deer. The ultimate generalist is, arguably, a human being, who with the assistance of technology can live anywhere from Florida to Antarctica to outer space. It's no accident that the species that have become most abundant are often those that do best in and around humans.

A specialist is China's panda, which eats almost nothing but bamboo, or Australia's koala bear, which eats eucalyptus leaves almost exclusively.

MacInnes is not without an environmental conscience.

"We're degrading the Earth at an alarming rate," he said. "Will man go extinct before we reach the point where we figure it out?"

He added: "What favors generalists is change. What favors specialists is stability. Right now, mankind has chosen to make Earth a rapidly changing place."

Down in the Everglades, Skip Snow would agree with that part of MacInnes's philosophy. We are all part of a vast experiment in the blending of organisms from around the world, he said.

"The thing about the experiment is, it's not planned, and there's no one in control," Snow added. "It's an experiment run amok."

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