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Unwanted pet snakes too often turned loose

ORLANDO SENTINEL (Florida) 05 January 05  ( Linda Florea)
     Haines City: Snoopy is one of the lucky ones.
     With a fist-sized head and a body able to stretch nearly across a road, the huge snake became more than her Vero Beach owner wanted to handle. Snoopy, at 17 feet long and 90 pounds, was considered undernourished for a Burmese python of her size when the Horseshoe Creek Wildlife Foundation in Davenport rescued her earlier this year.
     In addition to Snoopy, her owner had given up four other snakes: another Burmese python, two red-tailed boas and a green anaconda.
Many giant snakes, however, are not so lucky when their owners realize they can't handle the responsibility. Often, they are dumped in the wild, a move that experts say is not only dangerous but also harmful to Florida's environment.
     The exotic snakes compete for food and territory, such as hollow logs and holes, with native species such as the indigo snake. Even worse, they can turn their competitors into snacks.
     Several breeds of giant snakes grow to be longer than 8 feet, including the green anaconda and several varieties of python, but it's the Burmese python that seems to be getting a foothold in Florida.
     Although it hasn't become a problem yet in Central Florida, so many Burmese pythons have been discarded in Everglades National Park that they are breeding there, officials say.
     Park employees kill them on sight and examine them to see whether they are healthy, what they are eating and what native animals are at risk. A white ibis, a bird that is struggling with shrinking habitat, has been found in the stomach of a snake, and there is concern for other birds, such as wood storks.
     About 40 Burmese pythons have been removed from the park in the past year, ranging from hatchling size to 11.5 feet. There is even a python hotline for park visitors to report sightings.
     "I think it clearly needs to be viewed as the poster child of the whole issue of the trade of exotic animals and how they affect the environment," said Skip Snow, a wildlife biologist at the park.
     Other breeds of exotic snakes are seldom discovered in the park.
     Burmese pythons can be bought as 18-inch hatchlings for as little as $20 from pet stores or reptile dealers. Voracious eaters, they can grow to 6 to 8 feet in just a few years and go from eating mice to eating adult rabbits several times a week.
     They can live 25 years, growing to more than 20 feet and weighing more than 200 pounds. Their enclosure must be room-sized and secure. As the expense and time commitment to own a snake increase, pet owners' enthusiasm often decreases, and the snake becomes a burden.
"     They try to sell them, try to give them away. They call the zoo and they call exhibitors," Snow said. "They . . . look for the nearest wild place, some place that looks jungley. They take them for a car ride and turn them loose. It's not good for the animal, not good for wildlife, and it's against the law."
     George Van Horn, with the Reptile World Serpentarium near St. Cloud, said a 10-foot python once escaped from a Kissimmee home and turned up three years later, at 13 feet long.
     Snow said the snakes live in altitudes as high as 3,000 feet in their native Southeast Asia, and some experts think they might have the ability to hibernate.
"I've talked to some herpetologists, and they don't see why they couldn't make a go in Central Florida. They're not a fully dyed-in-the-wool tropical snake," Snow said.
     Anyone wanting to own a snake or reptile should consider joining a society to learn about responsible care, said Bill Love of the Central Florida Herpetological Society. The Orlando-based group educates owners about their snakes.
     As for Snoopy, the snake is doing well in her new home at Horseshoe Creek.
     Darryl Atkinson, founder of the wildlife foundation, said he will try to get her acclimated to education shows.
     "The most dangerous time is feeding when they work on all instinct. Almost like a shark, they will grab anything," Atkinson said.