'Snake-pocalypse? Florida plans ban on owning pythons and other risky reptiles

Jim Waymer
Florida Today

If wildlife officials get their way later this month, Florida will ban owning or breeding six types of pythons, the green anaconda and nine other "high-risk" reptiles. Serpent lovers say the move is nothing less than a state-orchestrated snake-pocalypse targeting their pets and businesses.

Biologists say the scaly subjects of their prohibition wreak ecological mayhem by swallowing native birds, mammals as large as deer, and in the Burmese python's case, also spread a foreign parasite that chokes native pygmy rattlesnakes to death.

But critics of the proposal say the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission lacks science to justify the ban, is biased against their trade, and has much bigger exotic fish and invasive species to fry than snakes kept by hobbyists. 

To Bob Potts, FWC's new reptile rule reeks of regulatory overreach, verging on – well – cold-blooded.

An anaconda was captured in a Melbourne neighborhood on Monday, Feb. 1, 2016.

"FWC is just really throwing us under the bus with this," said Potts, owner of Herp Hobby Shop in Oldsmar, Florida. "It's completely arbitrary. That's why we're all fired up about this."

FWC says Burmese pythons and the other 15 exotic species are a significant threat to Florida’s ecology, economy and human health and safety. And managing the threat is not cheap. FWC and its federal partners spend more than $8 million a year to manage not just the animals but the destruction they cause. Iguanas burrow into and cause extensive damage to seawalls, canal banks, roads and water control structures. And dealing with tegu lizards alone consumes a third of the agency's budget for managing invasive species.

So at FWC's Feb. 25 meeting, the wildlife commission plans to make final proposed rules that will:  

  • Eliminate commercial breeding and pet ownership of 16 high-risk reptiles.
  • Put these high-risk reptiles on the state's prohibited species list, limiting possession to permitted facilities engaged in educational exhibition, research or eradication or control activities.
  • The 16 reptiles include Burmese pythons; reticulated pythons; scrub pythons; Northern African pythons; Southern African Pythons; amethystine pythons; green anacondas; Nile monitor lizards; tegus (all species) and green iguanas.

"The reptile industry as a whole is concerned with broad actions like this because, even though this draft rule might not be directly affecting your pet reptile today, if it passes as currently written, any reptile might be prohibited next," warns Pete Bandre, owner Incredible Pets in Melbourne.

FWC received more than 1,400 written comments and 5,500 surveys about the proposed rule and held 10 workshops with more than 200 participants. 

Under the proposed rule, FWC will not issue any new licenses to sell the 16 “high-risk” reptiles on the prohibited list.

Those currently breeding and selling the eight species of currently listed Conditional reptiles will no longer be able to do either for commercial use. Some reptile license-holders will be grandfathered in if they meet certain conditions. And people can keep their reptiles for the life of the animal with a free permit, but these species will no longer be allowed to be sold as pets in Florida.

If approved, the rule would take effect in a few months, FWC officials said.

The rule is almost certain to be challenged. Some past federal attempts to limit python sales haven't held up in court. In April 2017, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court's decision that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lacked authority under federal law to restrict interstate trade of Burmese pythons. The United States Association of Reptile Keepers, based in North Carolina, sued the federal government in 2013 to undo a nationwide 2012 ban on importing pythons and other "constrictor" snakes or transporting them across state lines.

However, if the reptile ban goes through, Bandre sees an economic hit way worse than any potential ecological fallout that might happen without it.

"The restriction and banning of reptiles in Florida would have significant financial implications to thousands of businesses in our state, and the negative impact could be in the 100's of millions of dollars as well as the loss of 1000's of jobs," he said.

Most of the 16 listed reptiles are tropical species that can't survive north of Lake Okeechobee, Bandre added, confining them to South Florida. While it's uncertain how long they can survive in more temperate zones, tegus have been found in the wild as far north as Florida's panhandle, FWC says.

Currently, there are more than 5,000 licenses in Florida that authorize possession of wildlife in captivity, FWC says. The licenses cover a variety of native and nonnative species for activities including breeding, exhibition, sale and personal use. 

Between 1999 and 2010, more than 12 million wild-caught reptiles were imported into the U.S., and of those more than 9 million reptiles were imported through Florida ports, FWC says.

The state agency estimates 180 of 593 introduced invasive species in Florida are reptiles, 92% of them introduced by the live trade of animals. FWC spends $3 million a year managing invasive species, the agency says, with one of its primary priorities over the past few years being the Argentine black and white tegu, where almost $1 million is being spent yearly in trying to reduce its population.

A tegu was spotted in 2017 sunbathing on the asphalt of Topeka Road, a short street near Jupiter Elementary in southwest Palm Bay, wildlife trapper James Dean said.

Tegus also are known to eat crops, including squash and strawberries. Native to South America, there are four types of tegus in Florida — ones from Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. Like many proposed for the prohibited list, their foothold in Florida began as escaped or released pets.

Tegus are considered breeding and likely expanding in four areas of Florida including parts of Miami‐Dade, Hillsborough, Charlotte and St. Lucie Counties. But reports have occurred elsewhere across the state, and as far north as the panhandle.

Green iguanas have been established in Florida since the 1960s, FWC says. Since 2017, the state agency and its partners removed more 5,000 green iguanas from the wild. The lizard is the bane of Southwest Florida homeowners, where it munches up landscaping and burrows into and damages seawalls.

A green iguana was captured Monday afternoon on a Cocoa Beach dock.

Pythons slither beyond the Everglades

Pythons aren't exactly a picnic, either. Burmese pythons are already inflicting untold ecological damage in the Everglades, where they were first spotted in 1979. Now, some estimates put their population there as high as 250,000. These slithering ambush predators can grow more than 19 feet long and produce clutches of eight to 107 eggs, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. 

The python population historically centered within Everglades National Park in Miami-Dade County. But as with the exotic lionfish, biologists are learning that the snakes can tolerate lower temperatures and saltier water than they'd first hoped, enabling the reptilian invaders to spread farther north in Florida. 

Recent data shows the population expanding to the north and west of the Everglades. Snakes have been found in Naples in southwest Florida and near Lake Okeechobee. Python observations outside of south and southwest Florida are likely escaped or released pets, FWC says.

"We don't really have a way to estimate for sure, the number of pythons, because they are what we call a 'cryptic' species. They are very hard to detect," said Carli Segelson, an FWC spokeswoman.

A federal study in 2012 found that even pint-sized python babies can withstand water as salty as the Indian Rive agoon for up to five months. No one knows how long the big ones can last.

Reptiles, in general, have poor salinity tolerance, so it was hoped that salt water would naturally hinder pythons' ability to expand beyond the Everglades. But even ocean water isn't salty enough to blunt the Burmese python's slither through Florida, according to the study by the the U.S. Geological Survey.

Pythons spread foreign parasites

Invasive reptiles also spread foreign parasites dangerous to other wildlife. A 2019 study, led by researchers at Stetson University, showed that parasitic worms spread by invasive Burmese pythons are killing native Florida pygmy rattlesnakes.

Burmese pythons have evolved to live with the parasite, but in the lungs and tracheas of pigmy rattlesnakes, the parasites can block the native snake's airway, the researchers said. 

Anacondas slither close to home

State wildlife officers shot and  killed this 9-foot-long anaconda on Monday, near the Brevard-Orange County line.

It's been a shock to a few Brevard County homeowners in recent years when someone's reptilian pet got loose.

In December 2015, state wildlife officers shot and killed a 9-foot-long green anaconda near the St. Johns River at the Brevard-Orange county line. A concerned citizen and an airboater had called the FWC, which found a large snake on the embankment of the Midway Airboat Rides off of State 50 in north Brevard.

Officers tried to contain the snake to capture it, but it tried to escape, so they wound up shooting it. Another similar-sized green anaconda was captured two months later in a Melbourne neighborhood.

This Burmese python killed several years ago in the Everglades was nearly 16 feet long. It was found with a 76-pound deer inside and weighed 139 pounds without the deer inside of it. It weighed a collective 215 pounds when found.

Green anacondas are native to South America and can grow to more than 500 pounds and 20 feet long. In Florida, the snake poses a risk to native wildlife but is not known to be reproducing in the wild here. 

"We thankfully have no known breeding population of anacondas in Florida," Segelson said.

Florida Today file: Pam Marticke, marketing manager, The Avenue, Viera, lists the Brevard Zoo as one of her 5 favorite places. She is holding a black throated monitor lizard at the zoo.
Photo by Malcolm Denemark

Read more: Invasive reptiles benefit from fewer hard freezes in Florida.

Climate change makes Florida paradise for invasive reptiles

FWC also fears that more pythons, termites and invasive lionfish are expected to benefit from fewer hard freezes in Florida, as the planet warms.

Studies show fewer hard freezes due to climate change could drive blunt shifts in the makeup of Florida's plants and animals.

Big, hungry birds and winter cold snaps keep some small invasive lizards in check. 

But in small islands such as Boca Grande, on Florida's Gulf Coast, green iguanas already dominate the dunes, where they munch down hibiscus and other plants and burrow nests into canal banks and seawalls.

Lizards gobble up plants, defecate on docks

The green iguana gobbles down native shrubs, trees and landscaping and defecates on boat docks and swimming pool decks.

Some Floridians don't like that and are tired of paying for it.

In a Jan. 27 letter to FWC, Audubon Florida cited $1.8 million in damages caused by green iguana burrows that threatened the integrity of water management structures in West Palm Beach. Audubon Florida called for the an end to breeding and selling these "high-risk" reptiles as soon as possible.

The Audubon letter also said that pythons are "decimating" wood storks, snowy egrets, mammals and other native species in the Everglades, and that "tegus consume the eggs and hatchlings of several native Florida species, including imperiled reptiles like the American crocodile and gopher tortoise." 

The Florida Wildlife Federation and Everglades Coalition also publicly supported the proposed rules.

Lizards tough to monitor and tough as nails

Nile monitor lizards are smart, can grow 6 feet long and don't take flak. They're voracious, and not nice.

In October 2009, a four-foot Nile monitor lizard held up traffic near downtown Melbourne, according to FLORIDA TODAY archives. An off-duty firefighter found a the lizard near New Haven Avenue and Dairy Road, slithering its forked tongue at motorists. The firefighter took the monitor lizard, which requires a state-issued license to keep, to a nearby pet store.

In 2001, a 6-foot Nile monitor lizard roamed Kennedy Space Center, near the south gate along State Road 3.

To help keep such invaders at bay, Florida wildlife officials hold Exotic Pet Amnesty Day events, where people can hand over their snakes and other exotic pets, which then get sent to zoos and other qualified adopters. 

"With COVID, we obviously have not not been able to do that like we usually do but we still have the option to turn them in and we do try to find it a home with a qualified adopter," Segelson said.

But Bandre and other reptile sellers say FWC's proposed ban also isn't grounded in solid science to prove it's needed.

"Unfortunately with emotionally charged issues like this, many times misinformation rules the day, simply because the thought of giant snakes or ravenous lizards roaming the state sound like they could be dangerous to people and pets as well as the environment," Bandre said.

But FWC biologists cite dozens of peer-reviewed studies that document impacts of foreign reptiles already established in Florida and elsewhere.

Nonetheless, Potts says the amount of resources FWC puts toward controlling exotic reptiles is overkill, and better spent on invasive species he sees as far more damaging, such as feral pigs.

"Why don't they lay off iguanas until they get all the damn pigs under control?" Potts said.

But mostly, he fears what the new regulations will do to his business. 

"It's overregulation to the max," Potts said.

Jim Waymer is environment reporter at FLORIDA TODAY.

Contact Waymer at 321-242-3663                                         

or jwaymer@floridatoday.com.

Twitter: @JWayEnviro

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