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Pooch vs. pythons - A beagle is being trained to track giant pythons flourishing in the Glades (Elizabeth Caram)

MIAMI HERALD (Florida) 01 January 05 
     In the strange-but-true fight against giant pythons that increasingly are roaming the far reaches of the Florida Everglades, park officials have come up with an unlikely weapon: a beagle named Python Pete.
     The 6-month-old puppy is being trained to track the snakes that biologists say have invaded Everglades National Park -- discarded pets that have grown to science-fiction proportions.
     ''These are extraordinary times as the park faces a unique issue. We have to do what it takes to find these pythons,'' said Rick Cook, public affairs officer for the Everglades. 'The hope is that the dog will be able to pick up the snakes' scent.''
     The experimental idea came from Lori Oberhofer, an Everglades wildlife technician who worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Guam four years ago where a similar program is still used.
     Oberhofer brings the puppy to work with her every day, training him for his future snake-tracking duties by using a rag that smells like python.
     ''Although this has never been tried before in the Everglades, we have great plans for him,'' Oberhofer said.
     Park biologist Skip Snow is hopeful that the experiment will turn into the solution the park needs.
     ''We do not know if Python Pete will be successful. He's still a puppy,'' Snow cautioned.
     The problem of giant snakes in the Everglades is becoming more acute because the pythons are now competing with native animals -- including the federally threatened indigo snake -- for food and living space. Burmese pythons, for example, typically grow to about 20 feet.
     Already, park-goers have witnessed two headline-making battles between alligators and pythons. The first came in January 2003 when two reptiles engaged in an epic 24-hour battle. The snake finally managed to escape.
     Nearly a year later, in February 2004, another snake wasn't as lucky. Park visitors saw an alligator catch one of the large snakes in its mouth and swim away victoriously.
     Park biologists want to eradicate the Everglades' python population, euthanizing any that are found.
     Daniel Vice, assistant state director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, works in Guam with Jack Russell terriers that are used to detect and capture brown tree snakes.
     ''Studies indicate that a well-trained, experienced dog and handler team can expect to find about 75 percent of the snakes,'' Vice said. ``With appropriate and adequate training and maintenance, this rate of detection is fairly consistent across time and locations.''
     Oberhofer, who paid for the dog herself, said she hopes that Pete will be just as productive in the Everglades.
     ''He is showing lots of potential and has already accomplished what much older dogs are trained to do. And he's still just a 6-month-old puppy,'' she said.
     The dog's training sessions generally last 10 minutes, once or twice a day. Inside a plastic container in the corner of Oberhofer's office, a large, mesh laundry bag holds a large python. Pete's favorite rag, checkered and chewed on, is kept in the box, absorbing snake musk.
     When it's time to train, Oberhofer puts a special red collar and matching leash on Pete -- a combination used only when it is ''work time.'' She leads him outside to a field with knee-high grass, carrying the mesh bag containing the python and musky rag. Oberhofer gently drags the mesh bag through the grass, creating a 50-foot scent trail for Pete. Then she tells him: ``Find it!''
     The puppy's ears perk up and he begins sniffing the grass. He finds the trail, which has been marked by stakes. As a reward when he has tracked the snake, Oberhofer lets himplay tug of war with the musky rag.
     ''I want Pete to think that this scent means fun,'' she said.
     So far, the beagle has been successful in finding the trail each time he has tried, she added.
     When he's ready, Oberhofer will take Pete out into the field for the real thing: to hunt for pythons. To keep him from becoming a snake snack, Pete will always be kept on a leash, Oberhofer said.
     ''If Python Pete turns out to be very successful at finding pythons for us, I would anticipate that we would continue using him and perhaps expand the program and get more dogs,'' she said. ``But that would depend on future funding for the program.''
Pooch vs. pythons