Are you afraid of snakes?

If you said “yes,” then you share a trait with 51% of people in the United States. According to a national poll, more people fear snakes than speaking in public, heights, small spaces, even death itself!1

This may not be a surprise, but what is hard to believe is how advocacy groups and the media use this fear to get you to believe all sorts of things. 

Especially about snakes.

We don’t blame them. Scary stories about pythons ensnaring their owners from a shower curtain or urban legends about big snakes measuring themselves against a toddler to size them up for a meal all make good copy. Who’s going to question these stories? Fear can make the most far-fetched situations seem plausible.

But that’s okay. The fact that you’re reading this means that you’re willing to listen. People have been interacting with snakes for decades in this nation, even with snakes as large and exotic as Burmese Pythons. We're here to clear up some of this misdirection that, however innocent in its inception, has led to some widely held myths that simply don’t hold up under scrutiny.

Myths, Rumors and Misunderstandings (and explanations of why they are!)

Burmese Pythons are dangerous animals.

Any animal has the potential to be dangerous, including most domesticated species. In fact: horses are responsible for the deaths of over 400 people each year. 800,000 people are bitten by dogs severely enough to require hospitalization. Yet in the last three decades, large constricting snakes (pythons and boas) were responsible for only 0.5 deaths each year(2). There have not been any unprovoked attacks or other public safety issues caused by Everglades/south Florida pythons, and any accidental incidents stemming from negligence or irresponsibility as a result of keeping these animals in captivity have very little to nothing to do with this issue.

Even if they’re not dangerous, they’re wild animals and should be left in the wild.

EVERY domesticated animal was once a wild animal. The word domesticated means they’ve been bred to interact well with humans. There have been decades of selective breeding in captivity to achieve the same end with Burmese Pythons in captivity.

But surely they’re impractical pets.

Impracticality is in the eye of the beholder. Owning a Great Dane is, perhaps, more impractical than a goldfish, but that shouldn’t preclude anyone from owning one given that they understand precisely what they’re getting into.  Many snakes are sedentary animals. Their living space requirements are relatively minimal compared to mammals and, given the size of the snake, they can be fed anywhere from once a week to once a month. 

Burmese Pythons are overpopulating the Florida Everglades.

One study by a group of scientists tagged a number of pythons and found that 90% of these snakes died in the unusually cold winter of January 2010. 3 So once again, the word “overpopulation” is somewhat subjective. Given the fact that Burmese pythons don’t belong in the American wilderness, even one python could be considered overpopulous. But the implication is unsustainable and uncontrollable growth, and this simply hasn’t been the case.

Irresponsible pet owners have been releasing pythons into the Everglades for years!

Almost every python found in the Florida wild has been found to have similar genetic traits. One study concludes that these animals all came from the same breeding pool. It’s not widely known that in 1992 Hurricane Andrew destroyed one of the largest reptile  breeding and research facilities in the state, located right next to the Everglades, allowing a large number of exotic reptiles into the wild.4 Perhaps a few people throughout the years have released their pets into the wetlands prior to the Hurricane, but this is not the main contributing factor, and the problem  has been blown out of proportion for the sake of headlines.

The pythons have ravaged the wildlife in the Everglades. They’re killing off endangered species!

The original report indicated that there were more  snakes present in one area than in years past and that there were less small mammals (raccoons, squirrels, etc). However, correlation is not causation, and this study was not able to link Burmese pythons to mammal declines. A paper has been written to challenge this claim, stating that many of these mammals have had their habitat destroyed through the growing sugar cane industry or the ever expanding infrastructure.5

But it’s hard to lay blame on hard-working Americans or sacrifice the creation of  jobs for wildlife. On the other hand, it’s very easy - satisfying even - to blame big, scary snakes and those who own them. Unfortunately, much of the focus on Burmese pythons and other "scary", high profile nonnative species in Florida has been a "let's study the problem indefinitely" while wasting taxpayer and grant funded dollars, rather than serious attempts at eradication.

They are predicted to expand their range northward to eventually include the entire southern third of the U.S.

The so-called U.S. Geologic Survey paper which made this finding back in 2008 and 2009 has been widely criticized and discredited by panels of 11 herpetologists and other well-respected scientists as extremely unscientific junk science. It had numerous problems including using averages of only two factors while ignoring the extremes which would limit the snake's range, was not properly peer-reviewed by external sources, among many other things. And even if these areas eventually do become hospitable for pythons, humans will have already been long extinct, and there would be far more serious global problems than invasive pythons coming up from Florida.

Burmese pythons have no natural predators in Florida!

This is not entirely true. While adult Burmese pythons can become large enough to be relatively apex predators, only facing threats of predation from perhaps American alligators and humans, hatchling Burmese pythons can be predated upon by many more animals including a wide variety of omnivorous to carnivorous mammals, wading birds, birds of prey and other birds, and even other indigenous snakes and other reptiles.

Burmese pythons will hybridize with the African rock pythons in Florida to make a Super Snake!

This is absurdly false nonsense perpetuated by sensationalized television programs. While these two species can occasionally hybridize if deliberately bred in captivity, there is simply no evidence that these species have, or will hybridize in south Florida. Hybrids of many species are hardly genetically fit "super animals", and in at least some cases, may even be sterile! There is also evidence that populations of pythons in Florida are actually being affected by outbreeding depression rather than hybrid vigor, or heterosis. This was a biological concept that was very widely incorrectly applied to the situation with pythons in Florida by very bad media and sensationalist reporting.

But what about Boa constrictors, anacondas, and reticulated pythons!?

There is only one documented population of Boa constrictors in the continental United States, and this is on Deering Estates near Miami, FL, and they have not expanded their range. While other species such as anacondas and reticulated pythons have been found occasionally in south Florida, there are currently no established populations of these species in Florida, or anywhere else in the U.S.

Even so, I still don’t think anyone should own a large snake as a pet.

You are entitled to your opinion. However, this nation was built on the premise that each individual has the right to say, own, or do anything so long as it doesn’t interfere with the rights of others. 

But even if they can't survive elsewhere now, doesn't mean that they won't adapt! Just look at other invasive species such as zebra mussels, Asian carp, and others!
Burmese pythons have not "adapted" to expand their range northward out of Florida and do not have the same survival characteristics that other, native snakes do to be able to survive a U.S. winter elsewhere in the U.S. They have also not significantly expanded their ranges naturally where they are indigenous. These other invasive species have nothing to do with animals that are already present in the U.S. domestic pet industry, and were introduced as hitchhikers or though other means. This is all supported by USARK's case law. Even if these snakes could eventually adapt to become invasive elsewhere at some point, humans will have been long extinct, and there would be far more serious global problems taking place than invasive snakes coming from Florida.

So just how many of these pythons are out there in Florida?

This is a good question. No one truly knows, although estimates have ranged as widely as 10,000 to 100,000 to 150,000 or more snakes or more. The higher numbers on this range were almost certainly based on very unscientific assumptions and extrapolations as to include areas of south Florida where terrestrial snakes obviously cannot permanently inhabit, such as areas of open water, etc.! While these snakes do exhibit excellent cryptic abilities which undoubtedly has led to them being more difficult to detect and remove, their ability to do so has been greatly overstated, and hunting group have not been able to collect and dispatch nearly the number of snakes as is often reported. There certainly cannot be 150,000+ invisible pythons lurking throughout south Florida.

The Madison Area Herpetological Society also contends that caring for these snakes in captivity has a profound effect on the conservation of a species as a whole. To put it another way: McDonald’s isn’t going to let cows go extinct so long as they have a stock in their survival. Well, many who choose to own and work with these animals often have the same emotional stock invested in their animals just like any other pet owner. Burmese pythons are a threatened species in their native habitats, but captive  breeding is a deliberate effort in keeping this species from vanishing.

You see, animals like Burmese Pythons get a negative reputation because they resonate so widely in the public psyche as “dangerous.” Many animal rights groups with a lot of political pull have placed themselves in direct opposition of the existence of exotic snakes in this country for reasons that range from the misguided to the dishonest. It’s only by meeting a snake face to face that you can tell whether or not all the hype is true. 

The Madison Area Herpetological Society doesn’t expect everyone to like snakes like we do, or even agree with keeping them in captivity. However, we wish to impart a sense of tolerance and recognition of the other side of these arguments towards these animals that are so misunderstood which are not heard or presented nearly enough. They are beautiful creatures that deserve our respect and protection. And for those who wish to keep these animals as pets, as long as they are responsible, there is nothing unsafe about them!


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