One Man's Pet, Another's Invasive Species

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 18, 2008; Page A01

BUSHNELL, Fla. -- RobRoy MacInnes is the man to see if you want to buy a crocodile. Or a scorpion, a rattlesnake, a boa constrictor. Got a hankering for a cobra? Just pony up $600 and you can have one of the more lethal species.

"It is a very effective threat display," MacInnes, 49, says as a Pakistan black cobra, six feet long, hissing, hood spread, writhes in its enclosure and strikes again and again and again at the thin glass separating the creature from a visitor. "A snake like that, coming at you, you'd leave him alone."

Or simply die of fright.

MacInnes is co-owner of Glades Herp Farms, an empire of claws, spines, scales, fangs and darting tongues. The reptile trade, he's happy to report, is booming. The pet industry estimates that about 4.8 million households now contain at least one pet reptile, a number that has nearly doubled in a decade. Reptiles are increasingly popular in a crowded, urbanized nation. They don't need a yard. You don't have to take a lizard for a walk.

But biologists see the trade in nonnative creatures as a factor in the rising number of invasive species, such as the Burmese python, which is breeding up a storm in the Everglades, and the Nile monitor lizard, a toothy carnivore that can reach seven feet in length and has found a happy home along the canals of Cape Coral. Under a new state law, a customer must obtain a $100 annual permit to buy a monitor lizard or some of the largest snakes -- four species of pythons and the green anaconda. The animal must also be implanted with a microchip. That tag could help officials identify the animal if it turns up later in the wild.

MacInnes contends that the government overestimates the threat posed by invasive reptiles. He says he's being blocked by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from importing some commercially attractive animals, such as Fiji island iguanas and radiated tortoises from Madagascar.

Even the term "invasive species" is unfair, he said. "They're 'introduced.' I think that 'invasive' is passing judgment."

Of the pythons, he said: "To me, it's a wonderful introduction. I think it's the best thing to happen to the Everglades in the last 200 years."

Biologists, however, say that invasive species, unchecked by natural predators, are major threats to biodiversity. Life on Earth has always moved around, but never so fast. Organisms evolve in niche environments. What happens when the natural barriers are removed? When anything can go anywhere?

Complications ensue.

Snakes Alive!

Skip Snow, a wildlife biologist for Everglades National Park, has helped drag hundreds of Burmese pythons out of the weeds, off roadways and even from under the hood of a tourist's car. He calls MacInnes's argument "ridiculous." The snakes, he says, are imperiling five endangered species in the Florida Keys, including the Key Largo wood rat, one specimen of which, tagged with a radio transmitter, was tracked all the way to the belly of a python.

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