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OPINION | OTHERS SAY: Snakes in the grass

Snakes in the grass by THE ORLANDO SENTINEL | March 7, 2021 at 8:44 a.m.

For Florida’s government, the danger posed by exotic reptiles has been harder to spot than a Burmese python hiding in the brush.

But at last, the wildlife commission has opened its eyes and decided to crack down on non-native snakes and lizards whose presence in Florida ranges from destructive to deadly.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted to restrict owning or breeding pythons, anacondas, iguanas, tegus and Nile monitors—none of which have any legitimate place in Florida except in zoos and research facilities.

These common sense changes come far too late for exotic species that have been allowed to establish breeding colonies in many parts of the state.

Florida has long been the Wild West of exotics, best known for allowing Burmese pythons to overrun the Everglades and essentially wipe out the native populations of rabbits, raccoons, opossums and foxes, according to a federal study.

The state’s leniency also has allowed just about anyone who takes a notion to buy and own a pet tegu. Native to Argentina, these black-and-white lizards grow to nearly 5 feet long and have a diet that includes the eggs of birds and reptiles that nest on the ground, like alligators, gopher tortoises and sea turtles.

The primary reason tegus, iguanas and pythons have infested parts of Florida is because people buy them as pets and then release them—possibly realizing they’ve made a terrible decision in owning a pet like a python that can easily become 10 feet long and capable of squeezing a child to death.

The state wildlife commission’s decision prohibits Floridians from owning or breeding those animals. People who already own one of the newly restricted snakes or lizards can keep them until they die, so long as they get a permit and a transponder chip so the animal can be identified. So no one is confiscating anything. Owners just have to meet new standards, which includes better cages.

Commercial breeders get some breathing room to continue doing business for a few years.

This will not placate the reptile-selling industry. They’ve been fighting stricter regulations for years, apparently in denial about their role in the environmental devastation of Everglades wildlife.

Retailers also warn of an emerging black market in exotic reptiles because of these rules. As with so many other things, that’s why we have law enforcement.

These arguments aren’t made in good faith, they’re the product of personal financial benefit, and we’re glad this Fish and Wildlife Commission had the courage to stand up and finally do what’s needed doing for decades.

We applaud them, particularly FWC Chairman Rodney Barreto, who said, “Let’s take a bold stance. We have to put our foot down. The time has come, and we hope other states will follow.” Much of the damage already is done. The Everglades will likely never be rid of Burmese pythons, and the wildlife that once thrived there will likely never recover. But we might yet be able to rid our state of tegus and prevent species like green anacondas from becoming part of the landscape.

Florida has this wildlife commission to thank for watching out for the well-being of Florida’s environment, instead of watching out for an industry’s profits at the environment’s expense.

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