Banning big reptiles upsets a big FL industry. Let’s upset some others

March 4, 2021 7:00 am

A Burmese python. A state commission has voted to outlaw ownership or trade in invasive species like this one. Credit: Conservancy of Southwest Florida

The Dry Tortugas are about as far away from Florida as you can get and still be in Florida — but they’ve got a very Florida problem.

We’re talking about an island group 67 miles west of Key West, one that’s entirely occupied by a national park full of birds and lush plant life. You can camp overnight, but you have to bring in your own water and food. You can’t drive to it — you can only reach it by boat or by seaplane. It’s so isolated, it was once used as a federal prison.

Yet somehow one of Florida’s worst invasive species has popped up there.

“We’ve started pulling iguanas from the Dry Tortugas,” park superintendent Pedro Ramos told the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission last week during a lengthy discussion about non-native reptiles.

Later, when I contacted Ramos for details, the superintendent of both Dry Tortugas and Everglades National Parks said the iguanas have appeared on the remote islands only a couple of times so far, probably by hitching a ride on boats or floating debris. But he and his staff fear this is only a prelude to a full-scale scaly invasion.

Spotted in Florida: an iguana in a toilet. Credit: Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue

We often laugh about iguanas surfacing in people’s toilets or falling out of trees when the weather turns cold (a falling iguana injures a character in a Carl Hiaasen novel). But their digging does a lot of damage to seawalls, dams, levees, and canals, as well as disturbing burrowing owls and gopher tortoises. Seeing one turn up in an otherwise pristine national park is a little freaky.

Ramos’ comment about the ocean-going iguanas was just one of the eyebrow-raising revelations from that wildlife commission meeting, which concluded with what is, for Florida, an earthshaking decision. The commissioners voted, 7-0, to add 16 species, including green iguanas, Burmese pythons, tegu lizards, Nile monitors, and anacondas to the official state list of prohibited reptile species. That means a ban on their sale, ownership, and breeding.

“We have to put our foot down,” said the wildlife commission’s chairman, lobbyist-turned-developer Rodney Barreto. “The time has come to take a bold stand against these real threats to our environment.”

Barreto and his fellow commissioners reached this momentous decision in spite of vociferous opposition from people who make a living from these reptiles and those who own them as pets. People called in from as far away as Oregon and Maine to object to the state wildlife commission taking this step.

The pro-reptile forces offered two very potent arguments: the “you’ll ruin my business” one, and the “you’re taking away my babies” one. (I’m not counting the “pythons aren’t as bad as cats” argument because nobody took that one seriously.)

The first argument was best exemplified by Phil Goss, president of the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers — USARK for short — who contended that Florida already has the strictest reptile regulations in the nation, which is a rare claim for a state that seems to specialize in laissez-faire government. A ban would be “far from reasonable,” he warned commissioners.

The epitome of the second, more emotional, argument could be heard in the voice of a woman who began weeping while telling commissioners how much she relies on her pythons and iguanas to get her through difficult days and nights.

“If you take them away,” she said, “I would be really messed up.”

To be honest, after listening in on the entire four-hour hearing, taking notes on every single one of the 84 speakers who commented on the proposal, I was a little confused. I mean, pythons and iguanas and tegus are all pretty well established in Florida — why ban them now?

Wasn’t this closing the barn door after the snakes and lizards — er, I mean horses — got loose?

“Not only have they closed the door after the horses are gone,” biologist Don Schmitz told me, “but the barn has collapsed and been completely destroyed by now and the horses are all dead.”

Nevertheless, he added, “it’s a great effort, what they’re doing, and even courageous.”

This was my cue to say, “Wait — what?”

The pet industry holds Tallahassee’s leash

Schmitz, a Floridian who once worked for the wildlife commission, is the former executive director at North American Invasive Species Network. He’s one of my two go-to experts on the frequently confounding subject of invasive species.

The other is Daniel Simberloff, a University of Tennessee biology professor who edits the scientific journal Biological Invasions and has written such books as “Invasive Species: What Everyone Needs to Know.”

Simberloff, too, thought the wildlife commission’s action was waaaaaay too late to make a big difference with pythons and iguanas, “but I was sort of amazed they actually did it.”

The reason for their amazement was simple, Schmitz said:

“The pet industry has always held a lot of sway over state government,” he explained. “They always say, ‘Oh, we have lots of money and jobs!’ ”

State biologists have been recommending a step like this for more than a decade, he said. But the wildlife commission — like other state agencies under our recent run of pro-business governors — has always shied away from doing anything that might upset any major commercial entity.

Big reptiles are a big business here in Florida, thanks to our semi-tropical climate. Breeders here ship snakes and lizards all over the nation, they told the commissioners. Some even said they capture wild iguanas from South Florida neighborhoods and then sell them to collectors elsewhere.

From a humane standpoint, that’s preferable to the wildlife commission in 2019 telling everyone to shoot iguanas on sight. (An iguana hunter armed with a BB gun then shot a Boca Raton pool boy in the knee by mistake.)

Melissa Tucker, who heads the wildlife commission’s Division of Habitat and Species Conservation, told commissioners that the staff calculated the reptile industry in Florida is worth $50 million to $200 million.

An economist hired by a law firm representing USARK told commissioners the impact of their ban on the industry would be even bigger than that. He said the staff estimate failed to count all the businesses that support the reptile trade — the companies that supply dead rats and other feed for captive reptiles, for instance, and the veterinarians who treat them when they get sick.

Sure enough, one of the speakers at the hearing was a vet from Davenport named Ivan Alfonso who said he has a “mobile exotic practice” and also owns reptiles as a hobby. He warned commissioners about the economic impact that a ban would have on his business and the “psychological strain” on pet owners.

“People have emotional support reptiles,” he told the commissioners. “I know it sounds funny, but it’s true.”

On the other hand, state and federal taxpayers are spending billions of dollars to restore the Everglades, Ramos pointed out. “And we’re not doing it for a bunch of weeds and animals that don’t belong here.”

Voracious pythons have already taken a toll on the small mammals in Everglades National Park, gobbling up nine out of 10 of the raccoons, rabbits, foxes, and so on. One night a couple of years ago, I went out into the Everglades with a pair of professional python hunters, and the only other wildlife out there that night besides snakes were rats, frogs, and insects.

Pythons have already spread to the Keys, and in recent years have been caught north of the Everglades — even in Charlotte County, which is on the Gulf Coast side of the state. The goal of the ban is not to get rid of the non-native reptiles already running loose across South Florida. It’s to make sure no new colonies get established in other parts of the state.

Can we upset some other industries now?

To lessen the financial pain for the people in the snake-and-lizard business, the wildlife commission agreed to give the breeders and dealers three years to get ready for the change. That means they won’t have to stop breeding and selling these critters until 2024.

And pet owners don’t have to get rid of Iggy the Iguana, Annie the Anaconda, and Nancy the Nile monitor at all. They can keep their pets until the animals die — but they can’t get any replacements.

Tucker emphasized how much the staff had tried to placate the people objecting to the change by holding 10 three-hour workshops on the proposal before bringing it up for a vote. But the pet industry folks repeatedly asked them to delay the decision and hold even more meetings.

If you’ve lived in America for at least 10 minutes, you won’t be surprised to hear that this is likely going to wind up in court. (Insert obligatory joke here about lawyers, reptiles, and professional courtesy, then pause for readers’ strenuous eye-rolling.)

It’s already been litigated once. Last year, the Legislature passed a bill that banned possessing, importing, bartering, trading, selling, or breeding iguanas and tegus. Gov. Ron DeSantis — who is on record as being very strongly anti-invasive species — signed it into law.

The reptile-keepers group sued, pointing out that, under the state Constitution, all rule-making concerning wildlife was to be done by the wildlife commission, making the new law unconstitutional. A judge agreed, tossing it out about as fast as the lawmakers had created it.

I tried to ask the USARK folks about whether they will sue again, but they didn’t respond. Perhaps somebody’s 18-foot pet python had curled itself around the phone and they couldn’t answer it.

But Dr. Alfonso, a board member of the USARK Florida chapter, posted a video on the group’s Facebook page last year pledging “lawsuits every week” to fight for their right to continue doing what they do. He also labeled the wildlife commission “akin to being an animal extremist organization.”

Still, that the commission took this step shows you how the tide has turned against a destructive force that has repeatedly damaged Florida’s environment. I mean, we’ve got the governor, the Legislature, and a state agency all saying this is a bad thing and, despite the injury to a major business, they all decided that we need to stop it.

Now if we could just get these folks to care just as strongly about the forces that are imperiling our aquifer, our springs, our rivers, our bays, our lakes, and our wetlands. After all, without them, we’d be really messed up.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of five books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2020, is Cat Tale: The Wild, Weird Battle to Save the Florida Panther. The Florida Heritage Book Festival recently named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.