Below is a summary (albeit a lengthy one) written by a well respected friend and colleague of mine, Jonathan Brady, on this topic that may be of interest here:
A recent article in the New York Times addresses the Burmese python situation in the Everglades. Subsequent blogs by the author provide additional insight. Here are my thoughts on the situation.
Snakes. The word alone is enough to send a shiver up and down the spine of many. Some especially over reactive and prejudiced individuals will even leave the room when the word is mentioned. The thought of their ability to move efficiently and effectively without limbs baffles, inspires awe, and even incites fear and disgust. Nightmares, old wives tales, fictional books, and Hollywood movies have worked in concert to ensure that snakes will never get a fair shake in matters of public opinion – or government regulation.
Nepotism is defined as favoritism based on kinship. Keep this definition in mind as you read.
A group of snakes known as “large constricting snakes” have been the topic of discussion in many newspapers, magazines, scientific journals, and news reports over the last couple of years. The hysteria started on October 5th, 2005 due to a picture published via news outlets around the world showing a Burmese python ripped open with an American Alligator protruding from its eviscerated body.
The presence of the Burmese python, a native to tropical regions of Southern and Southeast Asia, was quickly, and likely erroneously, deemed to be the result of a string of relatively recent episodes in which irresponsible pet owners released the animals into the wild when they could no longer care for them. This assumption was quickly accepted as fact, despite a lack of evidence in support of the erroneous assertion. Three years later a report published by Collins, Freeman, and Snow (Genetic Characterization of Populations of the Nonindigenous Burmese Python in Everglades National Park) which demonstrated a lack of genetic relation to Burmese Pythons imported over the prior 13 years from Vietnam – the only source for wild caught animals imported into the US during that time span. A source cited in that report states that Burmese Pythons had been seen in the park since the 80’s. However, large numbers of the animals had not been found, including recently hatched offspring, until 3 years after Hurricane Andrew decimated Miami (at a time when the pythons being imported were unrelated to those in Vietnam), destroying at least one importation facility housing close to 1,000 recently imported Burmese pythons. This evidence coupled with zero individuals ever being cited for releasing even one python into the park gives credence to the assertion that hurricane Andrew is likely the result of the mass establishment of Burmese pythons in the Everglades National Park (ENP).
Despite the overwhelming evidence pointing towards hurricane Andrew as the likely culprit for the establishment of the pythons in the ENP, news media outlets prefer to vilify pet owners and point the finger towards them as the (ir)responsible party. As a result of this blame, drastic measures have been pursued, spearheaded by radical animal rights organizations with a tie to politicians ignorant of their agenda to end human contact with animals, to place a stranglehold on the segment of the pet industry geared towards reptiles. Often the focus of these efforts is focused on large constricting snakes, but not always. In fact, one measure was proposed to the US House of Representatives (HR6311 and again as HR669) which would take a “guilty until proven innocent” approach to all 2,241 non-native animal species imported into the US every year with the exception of three: cats, dogs, and goldfish. The practical implication of this bill, had it passed, is that all other fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians, turtles/tortoises, mammals, insects, etc., could no longer be imported, or moved across state lines. Violators would be guilty of a felony for every infraction (every individual animal and state line was a new infraction) with each count being subject to several years in prison and a hefty fine. Had this law passed, literally tens of millions of US citizens would become felons overnight. It is likely that the broad scope of this bill that caused its failure.
Radical animal rights organizations however, will not be deterred from their mission. Since the failure of HR6311/HR669, the groups have adopted a piece-by-piece strategy and are attempting to accomplish the same goal in a slower, more targeted manner. Due to the heavy media focus on large constrictors, they have begun with those animals as the first to suffer their wrath. The proposed federal “companion” bills were HR2811 and S373. These two bills were sold to the public as a “solution” to the presence of Burmese pythons in the Everglades. The bills originally sought to place the same restrictions mentioned above on all pythons. The bills were later amended to focus on the “big 9” now commonly known as “large constricting snakes”. They are:
- Python molurus - Indian (P.m. molurus) & Burmese (P.m. bivittatus)Python
- Python reticulatus - Reticulated Python
- Python sebae - African Rock Python
- Python sebae natalensis - Southern African Python
- Boa constrictor - All subspecies of the species Boa constrictor
- Eunectes notaeus - Yellow Anaconda
- Eunectes deschauenseei - Dark Spotted Anaconda
- Eunectes murinus -Green Anaconda
- Eunectes beniensis - Beni or Bolivian Anaconda
No one has ever been able to explain how land locking approximately one million snakes (and therefore their owners) in the various states would impact the wild population of Burmese pythons in Florida.
Luckily for the reptile industry and the owners of the above animals, these bills were not passed in the latest session of Congress. However, the same restrictions upon the same animals are now being considered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). To explore the depth of lies, deceit, dishonesty, corruption, and nepotism, we must first explore the organizational structure of the US Department of the Interior.
The Secretary of the Interior (the “boss”) is Ken Salazar. Salazar is now famous for his involvement (or lack of appropriate oversight which screams of corruption) in the BP oil spill crisis in the Gulf of Mexico.
Ken Salazar as the Secretary of the Interior, has oversight of multiple “operating units”. The three of importance to this situation are:
- National Park Service, or NPS (manages the Everglades National Park)
- United States Geological Survey, or USGS
- United States Fish and Wildlife Service
A little background on the ENP is warranted. In 2007 the ENP was removed from UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger sites, decades earlier than originally projected, after their efforts to restore the area after hurricane Andrew were deemed sufficient. The implication of this removal is that billions of dollars of anticipated restoration funds from the US government would no longer be flowing into the state of Florida over the next few decades. The withdrawal of that money meant that there would be fewer job opportunities for those interested in restoring and/or preserving the ENP. Due to this lack of federal money, it would be awfully convenient to have a problem worthy of national attention which may generate donations and/or federal funding. The aforementioned python vs. alligator struggle was still fresh in the mind of the public and lucky for the ENP, they had a home court advantage with the big boss, Ken Salazar.
The United States Geological Survey is a broad organization. Within the organization, there exist a couple of men by the names of Gordon Rodda and Robert Reed. Rodda is known for his work with the invasive brown tree snake in Guam. (Coincidentally, guess who introduced HR6311 and HR669 into the US House of Representatives? Madeleine Bordallo, the representative from Guam.) He was tasked with ridding the island of the brown tree snake and has failed miserably for several decades despite more than adequate funding. Yet due to his field experience he’s seen as an expert on the topic of invasive species.
In early 2008, Rodda published a paper that did not go through proper peer review which asserted that the Burmese python could expand out of its current non-native territory in extreme southern Florida and move north and west to cover as much as 1/3 of the US by the year 2010. This paper was not only criticized, but even ridiculed by the scientific community and was seen as not worthy of the paper it was printed on due to gross mis-sampling, and an obvious lack of thorough variables. The largest criticism was that “average monthly temperatures” was used as a primary data point when temperature extremes are far more important to animals who must obtain body heat from their surroundings. The reptile community was even more outraged than the scientific community as decades of captive husbandry have shown that Burmese pythons cannot tolerate extreme cold temperatures for long. Even extended periods of moderately cool temperatures, like those experienced in north Florida are usually fatal. Researchers from the City University of New York opted to criticize via proper research and published a paper using far more variables than Rodda’s paper (19 vs. 2) including temperature extremes. This paper showed what reptile enthusiasts already knew; the Burmese python was staying put right where it was!
Mother Nature apparently wanted to join the fight this past winter as she blasted the entire nation with an uncharacteristically cold period lasting about 2 weeks in January of 2010. As a result of this weather, the ENP estimates that as many as 90% of the Burmese pythons in the park died.
Further evidence comes from the University of Florida as well as a research center in Aiken, South Carolina. Experiments were being conducted in both locations independently to assess the ability of the Burmese python to survive a winter well within the bounds of Rodda’s geographical predictions. In both cases, every single animal died from cold weather complications when left outside to endure the temperatures. (NOTE: One animal at UF was brought back inside and nursed back to health over time – without this human intervention it would have died in a few days.) The test subjects in the Aiken study were even supplied with various artificial “hot spots”, but to no avail. The winter of 2009/2010 was not the best year for the Burmese python.
Rodda held his nose up high however, and answered his critics by publishing a second non-peer reviewed paper in 2009 (prior to the cold weather events detailed above) which stated that the “big 9” were all capable of similar super-reptilian feats! These two papers, despite Rodda’s insistence to the contrary, are the basis of legislation aimed at restricting Americans’ freedoms to enjoy these animals and make their livings pursuing the hobby.
This evidence seems to point to an ulterior motive for Rodda’s paper: to provide a basis for generating revenue for the ENP. Rodda (as well as countless other biologists, politicians and media outlets) seems to ignore the fact that no compelling evidence has yet been provided that illustrates any negative impact of the Burmese pythons in the Everglades. A fact made humorous by the obviously intentional oversight of the negative impact of feral cats and pigs in the area. These two animals have enormous documented injurious tendencies in the ENP, yet there are no efforts to vilify them as the general public would cry out against a measure to hurt “Garfield” or “Porky”! So, with a basis for generating hysteria, and therefore money, the ENP could move forward with their efforts to generate revenue to replace the billions lost (as previously mentioned). Some refer to this as a “witch hunt”.
As mentioned before, attempts to legislate the importation and interstate transport of Burmese pythons at the federal level failed. The USFWS decided that they too, wanted some attention in this matter. So they sought to enact a “rule change”. The net effect of the rule change would be the same as that of the failed federal legislation: the import or interstate transport of any of the big nine constrictors across state lines would become a felony, with a new charge for each animal and each state line. As part of the process, the USFWS accepts public comment and purports to consider all evidence. The evidence, including the results of the UF and Aiken studies mentioned earlier, is overwhelmingly in favor of not enacting a rule change. Not only does the evidence not support the notion that Burmese pythons will expand out of the Everglades, there is no evidence to suggest that restricting interstate transport will affect wild populations in any way – which is the entire reason the ball started rolling in the first place. Solutions were desired to lower the wild populations of these animals! Clearly an agenda exists that is being hidden from the public.
Most recently, the USFWS has released a statement that as of now, they plan to enact this new rule change (per Thomas Strickland at USGS as quoted in the NY Times
). To do so would constitute a blatant denial of credible scientific data simply because it does not support a clearly predetermined result. They would be ignoring the scientific evidence with the greatest value and not factoring in the impact on American citizens.
The collaborative efforts of Ken Salazar, the NPS and ENP, the USGS, and the USFWS are an illustration of nepotism at its finest.
Why does this all matter? The reptile industry is estimated to be a 3 billion dollar per year industry. The exceedingly vast majority is comprised of small businesses whose owners depend upon the revenue generated by the business for their own survival. The “big 9” represent approximately 1/3 of the animal-generated revenue in the industry. Much of the value of each animal is tied to its reproductive capabilities, as offspring of these animals is the primary source of continued revenue.
When economics are considered in this market, specifically supply and demand, the picture becomes quite clear when considering the ramifications of legislation and rule changes. Currently, the majority of sales of these animals are made online and the animals are shipped to various states across the country as well as exported out of the country. Should it be illegal to ship these animals across state lines, the demand for any particular breeder’s offspring will be diminished substantially as the market shrinks from a global one, to a significantly smaller statewide one. Assets will be immediately devalued and the prospect for future business will be grim at best. In fact, the majority of these small businesses will likely be forced out of business. Many of these people have dozens, or even hundreds, and sometimes thousands of these animals. The money required to care for them is generated by sales. If sales are no longer made, how will the animals receive care?
The other side to this coin is the daily occurrence of simply moving to a new state. Should a law or rule change pass, every owner of these animals (perhaps more than a million people) will have to decide whether to stay put and not pursue a new job, move to take care of a sick family member, etc., or leave their pet behind. Although these animals are not small and furry, the emotions felt by the owner are no less real.
The USFWS rule-change proposal is being championed as a solution to the wild populations of Burmese pythons, yet no one can explain how the change will aid in the decline of wild populations. Additionally, 8 other species of snakes were added to the list despite an even smaller body of evidence than is being used for the Burmese pythons. The overwhelming evidence, including real world experiments, proves that this is an issue limited to the State of Florida, yet the “solution” is one with national and international ramifications. The preference for “D” grade pseudo-science is clearly being preferred over “A” grade research (not to mention simple and undeniable logic) due to some combination of familial ties within the Department of the Interior, arrogance, and personal preferences/prejudices. The only results of a move like this will be the destruction of American jobs, the decimation of a nationwide hobby and industry, and yet another slap in the face of the freedom-loving Founding Fathers who so passionately valued our freedom from needless government intrusion and control.