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A reptilian nightmare: Florida bans nonnative species despite industry outcry

Tom Rahill handles a Burmese python in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The invasive snakes first appeared in the Everglades in 1979. (Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images)

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Florida's promoters like to sing its superlatives — best beaches, prettiest sunsets, perfect climate (except for the occasional hurricane). But there's a No. 1 distinction the boosters never mention.

Florida is infested with more exotic and invasive species than any other state and perhaps, some say, than anywhere else in the world. Though a few nonnatives have been running amok for centuries — today’s feral hogs descended from pigs that arrived with explorer Hernando de Soto in 1539 — most showed up in recent decades. Green iguanas, which now pop up in toilets and fall out of trees during cold snaps. Nile monitors, which terrorize tiny burrowing owls. Argentine tegu lizards, which gobble up native turtle eggs. And the poster child of invaders: the Burmese python, which first appeared in the Everglades in 1979.

The state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has tried for years to cope with the influx. Among other strategies, it has told homeowners to shoot the iguanas on sight and invited amateur hunters to compete for prizes in a python roundup. Then late last month, commissioners took more extreme action, deciding 7 to 0 to ban possession and breeding of both those reptiles and 14 other nonnative species.

“We have to put our foot down,” said chairman Rodney Barreto, a Miami developer recently criticized for his role in a Palm Beach dredge-and-fill project. “The time has come to take a bold stand against these real threats to our environment.”

The vote came at the conclusion of a four-hour online public hearing. More than 80 people had called in, from as far away as Oregon and Maine, many to object. Reptile breeders and dealers argued that the move would gut their industry, while herpetology hobbyists bemoaned the loss of pets they regard as part of their family.

One caller even cried, explaining that she relies on her pythons and iguanas to help her cope with lonely nights and difficult days.

“If you take them away,” she said, “I would be really messed up.”

As passed, the ban will be phased in over three years to give businesses time to get rid of their breeding stock. It does not require a roundup of pets. Their owners can keep them for as long as the animals live, just not replace them.

The wildlife commission’s action has drawn praise from the supervisor of Everglades National Park, environmental activists, animal welfare groups such as the Humane Society of the United States and others. All say it is critical to saving species that are native to Florida, including turtles, tortoises and imperiled wading birds. Most of the 5,000-plus comments collected in the months leading up to the vote voiced the same sentiment.

“We are very much in support of this,” said Mike Elfenbein of the Everglades Coordinating Council, an umbrella group of hunting and fishing organizations. “I cannot begin to express the devastation that this region has seen.”

Yet in a state where one island community voluntarily taxes itself to employ an iguana trapper — who has written an iguana cookbook — biologists who specialize in nonnative species say drastic measures are long overdue.

“Not only have they closed the door after the horses are gone,” said Don Schmitz, the former executive director of the North American Invasive Species Network, “but the barn has collapsed and been completely destroyed by now and the horses are all dead.”

The U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers condemned Florida’s ban as a betrayal of its attempt to find a compromise that would allow continued ownership and breeding of six types of pythons, plus green anacondas, green iguanas, Nile monitor lizards and every kind of tegu.

“People have literally spent millions and even moved to Florida from out of state, built cages and started businesses, and now they have to get rid of everything,” said Brian Love, a founding member of the group’s state chapter.

Legislators tried imposing a similar ban last year on a smaller group of reptiles, passing a bill that Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed into law. USARK of Florida sued, and a judge tossed out the law, ruling that only the wildlife commission has the power to impose such a ban. The same group seems likely to sue again.

“There are grounds for damages,” stressed Love, who owns Love’s Reptiles in Palm City on the southeastern coast. He runs the thriving business from his home and specializes in albino lizards and snakes. He said he rents out his scaly menagerie — some of his lizards grow to be 10 feet long — to zoos and aquariums around the country. Preventing him from doing that, he noted, won’t help round up all those pythons, iguanas and monitors already running loose in the wild.

Like others, Love blames DeSantis. The governor oversees the wildlife commission and has made ridding the Everglades of pythons one of his signature environmental policies.

At a 2019 news conference that featured two people holding a live python, DeSantis tied the importance of eradication to the millions of tax dollars being spent on replumbing the “river of grass,” as it has long been called. What’s the point, he asked, if these snakes wipe out all the native fauna?

“We’re putting a lot of money into restoring the Everglades,” he said. “We want to make sure that ecosystem is strong.”

DeSantis has since doubled the number of state-sanctioned hunters searching for the big snakes and expanded the area where they’re allowed to stalk their quarry. But the work is tedious and time-consuming, and their captures have barely made a dent in a population estimated to number in the hundreds of thousands. In the absence of actual progress, imposing a ban gives him at least the appearance of a win, according to his critics in the reptile industry.

“I like DeSantis. The problem is he’s trying to be an environmentalist,” said Eugene Bessette, who started his Central Florida python business, Ophiological Services, in 1980. “He wants things cleaned up and done.”

Rare is the Republican politician accused of being anti-business — especially a business as lucrative as Florida’s reptile industry. The wildlife commission’s staff calculated the industry is worth $50 million to $200 million, though Ariel Collis, an economist hired by USARK, has deemed that number too low because it leaves out such ancillary businesses as the companies supplying rats for the reptiles to eat and the veterinarians who treat the snakes and lizards.

The Port of Miami handles more herpetological imports, by dollar value, than any other U.S. port, Collis reported. About 500,000 reptiles, with a declared value of $6.4 million, arrived there in 2018, he said.

The people breeding and selling these creatures find Florida attractive for its year-round tropical climate, which mimics that of their products’ countries of origin. And for the past decade, they could do so under a state permitting program called the Controlled Species List. The rules required secure caging, extensive documentation and implanting identification tags under the skin. USARK counts some 266 reptile keepers with permits, and in comments submitted to the wildlife commission, the organization said there have been no escapes from permitted facilities and only six citations issued for violations. (Iguanas and tegus are not part of the program.)

Those opposed to the ban contend it will backfire, like a reptilian version of Prohibition. Some predict it will create an unregulated black market leading to escapes and releases that will exacerbate the invasive species problem rather than solve it.

“If people want something, they’re going to find a way to get it,” Bessette said.

Others say it will discourage the industry’s own efforts at controlling the most notorious interlopers.

Reptile expert Joe Wasilewski, who began fielding Everglades rangers’ calls about pythons in the 1980s, knows of South Florida dealers who pay a bounty to residents bringing them local iguanas. They in turn sell those iguanas to collectors in other states, he says, thus removing tens of thousands from Florida every year.

“If they have to stop doing that,” Wasilewski warned, “then whooo! You ain’t seen nothing!”

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