Amnesty Day Snake

Amnesty is a legalese-y term more likely to evoke issues surrounding human rights than having anything to do with pets. Nonetheless, a few times a year here in South Florida, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission defies the word's traditional associations by holding an Exotic Pet Amnesty Day.

Instead of releasing exotic pets into the wild, as too many South Floridians have historically done, at these events their keepers can surrender any non-native animals to the Commission, thereby avoiding penalties for illegally releasing an animal into the wild and in some cases avoiding fines for failing to hold the proper licenses required to keep certain species.

These amnesty days usually happen in October and November, just in time to remind would-be holiday pet gift-givers that exotic pets don’t make great pets for most people. How can they if so many pet owners end up either releasing them into the wild or surrendering them to the state?

While they’re undeniably educational, the most important reason for holding amnesty events is to prevent the release of these animals into the wild­­ — particularly into the Everglades.

Exotic Pets Threaten the Everglades

Though it’s no stranger to threats­­ — historically in the guise of development, farmland runoff (primarily the sugar industry’s), invasive canal-clogging vegetation, and a host of others brought on by climate change — the Everglades has been besieged over the past decade by a new sort of invader: exotic pets.

It may sound like one of those trivial weird news bits where pythons and alligators duke it out in the river of grass (and perhaps that’s how it started), but this is turning into an epic environmental story in which there are big losers and no winners. The native fauna of the Everglades is literally being eaten alive by non-native invaders, most of them released exotic pets.

In fact, as of 2004, the Everglades has earned the dubious distinction of being the one place in the U.S. that hosts the highest percentage of exotic species. A full 26 percent of all the animals, birds, reptiles and fish in the Everglades come from elsewhere.

Which is bad enough. What’s worse is that some of these invasive animal species have ramped up their activities over the past decade, snakes in particular.

Snakes Consume Native Wildlife

While snakes make up a small percentage of this country’s pets, they’re an increasingly popular pet here in South Florida. The big guys (mostly pythons and boas) are doing so well in their suburban homes that their owners are hard-pressed to know what to do with them once they reach a certain size (10 feet is too much snake for most anyone I know). Worse yet, large constrictor snakes have been known to escape their confines and severely injure and even kill their owners and others, including children.

Since a surprisingly large percentage of South Florida residents live in areas we once called the Everglades, all plenty of them have to do is open their doors to be free once and for all of their problem pets. And apparently, many of them have done exactly that: According to some estimates, tens of thousands of Burmese pythons, a popular species of released reptiles native to Asia, are now thriving in the Everglades.

Snakes slither through this comfortable, balmy landscape searching for good food. And, acclimated to eating large live prey as most of them are, they have no compunction about consuming any mammal they consider remotely edible. Cats, deer and even alligators have found their way inside pythons, in particular.

Otters, opossums, raccoons and foxes are all potential prey too, though the many small rodent species that have called the Everglades home for millennia presumably comprise the majority of their meals.

Rat-chasing aside, all non-native snakes, big or small, finding their way to the Everglades are starting to have a serious impact on the native wildlife. They unbalance the delicate, already-affronted habitats of numerous prey species — birds too. It’s getting to be a real problem.

So much so that one group of researchers took it upon themselves to attempt to quantify the loss of small mammals as a result of the Burmese python.

Coincident with the Burmese python explosion in the Everglades in the early 2000s, they documented a 99.3 percent decrease in the frequency of raccoon observations, a 98.9 percent and 87.5 percent decrease for opossum and bobcat observations, respectively, and they failed to detect any rabbits at all, though they were once quite plentiful.

Scientists from the Smithsonian Institution have also found that Burmese pythons consume 25 different species of birds in the Everglades, accounting for about 25 percent of the snakes' diet. New research shows the snakes are also eating bird eggs, which could have a significant impact on native bird populations.

A Bounty for Snake Hunters

So will amnesty days be enough to undo the damage? No way say those of us who have seen firsthand how comfy these big snakes can get in the Everglades with no big predators to keep them in check. That’s why some South Floridians have become creative.

Not only are new local laws in the works to help stem the tide of the reptile trade in the most invasive species, but permits for hunting big snakes are being freely granted to anyone willing to take a class and spend a little cash. As further recompense for taking out these unwanted apex predators, the state is awarding cash prizes to those who capture (and kill) the biggest snakes of the year.

Though it may sound harsh to kill these blameless animals, the truth is that the damage they’re systematically inflicting on our environment is the far greater tragedy. I, for one, would rather see them placed in private homes, sanctuaries or zoos, as these amnesty days are attempting to do, but it’s clear there aren’t enough places available for snakes big enough to eat an alligator.

So that’s what we’re doing here in South Florida. What would YOU do?