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Big trouble

The ever-mysterious Everglades have incubated a plague of giant pythons. And that's just the tip of an invasive species juggernaut that's eating Florida - and the rest of the continent - alive.



You can see a picture of a big snake in a book. You can watch people wrestle them out of the jungle on the Discovery channel. You can even look at all the crazy web collateral of a snoozing Amazon oil-rig worker swallowed by an Anaconda. But nothing - nothing - can prepare you for the steel-cable feel of a 5.5-metre, 90-kilo Burmese Python in your arms. And if it hisses with every 20-litre exhalation of it's single, extra-large lung - a sure sign it's annoyed as hell and in the kind of unpredictable, womanly mood that snakes are known for - all the more shock to your cerebral cortex.

"Yup, Lucy bit and constricted me three times already," admits Justin, the man from Matthews Animal Rescue who fetched her up from a culvert she'd been living in beside a Wal-Mart parking lot in Bradenton, Florida. "But she's generally pretty chill."

With his sleeveless, muscled arms, cropped beard, and scraggly mullet dangling from beneath a straw cowboy hat, he looks like a cross between Dog the Bounty Hunter and Crocodile Dundee . Lucy has a name but not so the other three-metre Burmese in Justin's rolling menagerie that includes an ottoman-sized African Spur-footed Tortoise that happily mows Meg Lowman's lawn and garden, colorful bits of flower petal stuck to its face like cupcake sprinkles at a birthday, and a 1.5-metre Green Iguana he clutches like a baby he's trying desperately to burp - or keep from tearing him to shreds. (Riding in the passenger seat on the way over as a dog would, the iguana suddenly attacked Justin, biting, clawing, drawing blood and spilling his Taco Bell slushee into his lap.)

We pass Lucy to a group of young folk who heft the somnolent snake for a photo in Meg's driveway. One cradles her head while the rest support the massive body. An ecstatic five-year-old holds up a section with hands raised overhead. As I snap his picture, it's hard for me not to dwell on how easily he would fit inside Lucy and barely create a bulge.

It's not an abstract thought: the spectre of a small child being swallowed by a giant marauding python in Florida is very, very real.

If you need to have a meeting about an invasive species, it's already too late.

-Dr. Fred Kraus


The view outside Meg Lowman's Sarasota home is like many in Florida's labyrinthine sub-coastal suburbia: a freshwater canal meanders lazily between a wall of jungle-dark forest on one side and the sweeping manicured lawns of palatial homes on the other. Sandhill Cranes, White Ibises and various herons stand at attention in the shallow, black water. Otters fish stealthily near the forest, and alligators pop up regularly in the canal to cruise the watery strip for a meal. The gators often lumber out into the reeds on the forest side, and, very occasionally, pull up on the edge of a lawn to sun. But unless someone feeds them, inherent fear of humans keeps the gators at bay; the slightest approach sends them scurrying back to their submarine world.

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