Andrew Clark, New York
20 July 2009, The Guardian:
The death of a Florida toddler in the coils of an 8ft (2.5 metre) Burmese python has sparked an official crackdown to eradicate a menacing population of slithering predators in the sun-drenched holiday state. A small band of newly licensed trappers hit the trail this week of pythons living in the swampy wetlands of southern Florida. Experts believe that as many as 100,000 of the reptiles are loose in the region, in an unfortunate outcome of a fad for keeping exotic pets.
Earlier this month, a two-year-old girl , Shaiunna Hare, was strangled to death in her bedroom near Orlando by a python belonging to her mother's boyfriend. The snake had escaped its glass cage during the night and wrapped itself around the child's crib.
The tragedy galvanised Florida's politicians into action over mounting alarm about the danger posed by pythons, which grow as long as 8 metres, weigh up to 89kg (14 stone) and can eat animals as big as deer.
"It's just a matter of time before one of these snakes gets to a visitor in the Florida Everglades," said Bill Nelson, a Democratic senator from the state.
Native to Africa and south-east Asia, pythons are interlopers to Florida and face no predator to keep them in check. Florida locals blame a booming wild population on irresponsible pet owners who release pythons into the wild when they become unmanageably large. Others trace the problem back to hurricane Andrew which destroyed pet shops, hatcheries and zoos as it swept across the Floridian peninsula in 1992. Wildlife experts fear that if left unchecked, the snakes will decimate the population of smaller mammals, birds and reptiles.
Florida's governor, Charlie Crist, last week licensed an initial group of fewer than 10 python hunters to begin trapping the snakes. Pursued by a pack of photographers, the hunters snared a 3-metre long python during their first foray on Friday.
"[Pythons] don't make a lot of noise, when they're agitated, they may hiss," said Shawn Heflick, a licensed hunter. "They can hold on pretty tight but they're well camouflaged and when they sit in vegetation, they're pretty hard to see."
Accustomed to alligators, Florida locals are not easily fazed by wildlife. The subtropical state numbers black widow spiders and fire ants among its more exotic residents. But pythons are proving particularly chilling. The snakes reproduce rapidly, laying as many as 100 eggs at a time.
"We do have a serious python problem, and this programme is a good first step in helping to stop the spread of this exotic species," said Rodney Barreto, the chair of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.
Curbs have been imposed on keeping pythons as pets - including a compulsory annual $100 (pounds 61) permit and embedded microchips to track escaped pets. But animal rights groups have called for more radical steps.
The Humane Society of the United States said a ban on the trade in pythons would be more effective than any hunt for wild snakes.
"We should not pursue wasteful and futile strategies like bounty programs and public hunts," said Wayne Pacelle, the society's chief executive. "They won't work, and could do more harm than good."
The Floridian authorities are encouraging anyone who spots a python to call a telephone hotline. In an increasingly elaborate operation, researchers at the University of Florida are even working on miniature drones which can detect the heat given off by pythons from the air.
If the initial hunt proves promising, many more trapping licences could be issued. The hunters are ready for the kill.
"They've got beautiful colouration and they're sleek and powerful," said Heflick. "They're actually magnificent animals. They just don't belong here."
Expert warns of deadly threat from 'pet' snakes
(c) 2009 Llanelli Star
There are at least eight potential killer snakes in Llanelli, warns an expert.
Geraint Hopkins, who is also known as "The Snakeman", has urged owners to make sure their reptiles are looked after correctly to avoid a repeat of the tragic case of a toddler in America who was killed by a pet python .
He believes it is only a matter of time before a similar tragedy happens in the UK after seeing an increase in people buying deadly constrictors as pets.
The world was shocked last week after a Florida toddler was strangled by a 2.5-metre albino Burmese python that escaped from a holding tank in the girl 's home.
Mr Hopkins, a recognised snake expert who helps Dyfed- Powys Police capture escaped reptiles, said: "Young children have been killed in Florida before, this is not the first, and it's only a matter of time before something like this happens in this country.
"In the past couple of months I've had an increase in calls from the police and council over large snakes seen in the wild in Carmarthenshire."
Mr Hopkins, who has several snakes himself, said numbers were growing in the county.
"They are quite easy to buy from pet shops or the internet," he said.
"I know there are at least eight or nine people keeping very large constrictors in Llanelli alone.
"When people buy them, they are only two or three feet long, but they can grow up to 18ft. Anything over eight or nine feet can be dangerous. Once they have a hold of your neck it's difficult to get them off - it will probably kill you.
"They can be quite friendly but there's always a risk of them turning. Even if you had one for years, it can turn on you. Snakes do not make pets, essentially they are wild animals."
If people do insist on keeping them, Mr Hopkins warns: "It's very dangerous to keep a Burmese python or boa constrictor in your bedroom, it's asking for problems.
"They are great escape artists.
"They should be kept in a locked vivarium in a locked room."
They also require a lot of looking after.
"A boa constrictor eats fully-grown rabbits and the larger ones will devour a baby pig, they are not something you can give a mouse to," he said.
Finally, he said anyone wanting to get rid of such reptiles, contact an expert.
"Whatever you do, don't leave them go in the wild or sell them on," he added.