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Davis, California

Saturday, December 9, 2023

Column: Free at last

If you own a python that is getting a little too big, don’t forget you can always let it go. Releasing large snakes is the newest alternative to putting them up for adoption, selling them, or turning them into boots, hat straps or belts.

Look at Florida. The Burmese and African Rock pythons, which average a modest adult size of about 20 feet, have succeeded marvelously at introducing themselves into the Everglades. So much so that the Florida Department of Fish and Game has started sending small groups of researchers to scour the 1.5 million acre Everglades. The hope being that they might be able to remove the estimated 100,000 massive snakes.

Python wrangling isn’t just a job for panic-stricken, under funded biologists. Given the likelihood that these semi-aquatic snakes may soon begin to hybridize, producing something larger and more aggressive, it’s a perfect challenge for those who love hunting something off the beaten, mowed, paved, or otherwise land-based trail. A venture made even more thrilling by the horrifying risk of being ambushed, dragged beneath murky water, coiled around, suffocated and then swallowed whole by a snake that actively seeks carnage.

In fact, the ever-growing population of pythons in Florida has become a priority issue for politicians who’ve been waiting for the next big bandwagon. Their involvement has meant slow deliberations before Congress, wildly impassioned campaign slogans with irrelevant words like “liberty” and “reform,” and the proposal of extreme bans on everything from the import of tree frogs to all things not already in Florida.

At the end of the political day, the issue has meant less actual progress than a decrease in things like congressional sex scandals. Officials elected on the grounds of promoting morality and social order, who often deny allegations of “sexting” while trying to sell senate seats, must now return their attention to the jobs they are expected to do. Namely, freezing the suggested bills and measures in partisan debates.

Because the native climate of both python species is equivalent to the lower third of the United States, it’s not inconceivable that these telephone pole sized serpents could make their way as far west as California and as far north as the Carolinas. Meaning that the miracle of inept government response has the potential to distract politicians from waving their hands under bathroom stalls across most of the U.S.

It’s worth backtracking a bit to examine the reason this political, social and environmental matter came into being. That is, snakes are not puppies. Anyone who looks at a puppy knows roughly what it’s going to grow into. Fewer people see a baby python in a pet store and realize it will grow into something biologists refer to as “a danger to small children in Florida.”

These snakes, when purchased as pets, should be treated in the same way as animals that people actually love. And though the practice of kissing pythons is inadvisable because of salmonella poisoning – as well as death by strangulation – it’s worth noting that scientists have proven pythons to be living, breathing creatures. While many feel that’s just more reason to beat them to death with a shovel if the occasion happens to arise, remember the circumstances that led up to the situation.

If the mistakes humanity has made over time are any indication, it’s probably fair to blame this one, too, on mass media. It started with someone watching a nature documentary involving a python, then another animal that appears too large to be consumed, followed by a several-minute montage of that second animal being swallowed. The statement “that is awesome” resulted, culminating in an internet search for “giant pet snake.” A phrase which the first word will be forgotten later on in the pet shop when the prospective owner stares at a baby monster that can be purchased for the cost of a used textbook.

A short conversation follows, in which the employee who decided to work with animals after no one at Target called them back says, “Have you had a snake before? No? Well, you look fine to me. Register four’s open if you’d like to buy this one.”

According to leading scientists, the snake will grow to one day consume its owner — an accident not the result of cosmic chance, but simply of the scientific fact that pythons always consume their captors. They will rest, then, in the crawl space beneath the house before setting out on their long, inevitable journey to Florida, feasting along the way on endangered wildlife, infants, and, if researchers are to be believed, the world as we know it.

EVAN WHITE can be reached at emwhite@ucdavis.edu, though he’d really prefer carrier pigeon, if it’s all the same to you.

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