A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

What to Do with the Everglades Pythons

burmese-python-082112They grow up to 20 feet long and can weigh 250 pounds. They can lay more than 80 eggs at a time (one who was just caught was preparing to lay 87 eggs), and they’re eating their way through the Florida Everglades.

How did the Burmese pythons get there?

They came from South Asia through the exotic animal business – some of them as exotic pets, others as roadside zoo attractions. And when they became too big to handle, people began to dump them in the Everglades. Many probably also escaped from their cages during Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Now the Burmese pythons have basically taken over. Estimates are that tens of thousands of them are living in the Everglades, where they thrive in the warm, humid climate.

The native wildlife has no defenses against a giant python, so the snakes are multiplying as they eat their way through the region. They even eat deer and alligators.

In and around Everglades National Park, 1,825 Burmese pythons were found between 2000 and 2011. Trying to preserve nature as it was is not only an exercise in futility, but also an unnatural one.

What to do about them? No one knows. Those who are caught are killed. But that’s not accomplishing anything.

One person has what she believes to be a better idea. Emma Marris is the author of Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World,  where she argues that trying to preserve nature as it was is not only an exercise in futility, but also an unnatural one.

Nature, she says, is dynamic – always changing, always in flux, and always robust. And we’re part of it. In any case, what we consider a “native species” today was likely an invasive species just a few hundred years ago. (Most of the crops, vegetables, and animals we eat today were brought to America by immigrants from other countries. None of them, from cows to tomatoes, are truly “native.”)

On Andrew Revkin’s Dot Earth blog,  Marris writes that it’s time to leave the pythons alone:

Insofar as they threaten native species in the Everglades, I wish we could undo that mistake and remove them all. But it ain’t gonna happen. And so, I suggest, we might try to learn to love the pythons rather than revile them. They are really impressive beasts.

… [At an environmental forum], I got into a debate with E. O. Wilson about the Everglades. He believes (more or less) that we should be going in their guns blazing, get every last python out, and keep the River of Grass “pure.” I suggested that the pythons were likely here to stay no matter how hard we tried and that the effort would likely be wasted, since the Everglades will probably be underwater in a few generations anyway, thanks to climate-change induced sea level rise.

I said we should focus on protecting areas uphill so the species we like in the marsh have somewhere to go. He then suggested I was carrying around a white flag of surrender, and I rejoined that I never enlisted in the war for “purity” as defined by the world as it was in 1492, that rather I fought for Nature as a dynamic and mutable thing.

… Maybe I am going overboard on my “learn to love the inevitable changes” mantra. But … if the choice is to fight for a pure Everglades and lose, or to work with nature as it changes and adapts to what we humans have done to planet Earth, respecting its dynamism and resilience as it shifts to new states, I vote for the latter. (Just don’t call me a python hugger. That sounds painful.)

Many people accuse Marris of being the best friend of industries that are trashing the natural world and whose shareholders love to hear from scientists who aren’t out there trying to stop them. After all, Marris even goes as far as to say that protecting the national parks and trying to preserve them as they were 100 years ago is not “natural.” The pythons are now part of the ecosystem there, whether we like it or not. We’re going to have to learn to live with them.

But when it comes to the Florida pythons, she has a point. First, there’s no way we CAN stop them. They may have been an invasive species 20 years ago, but by now they’re native. Yes, they’re wiping out huge quantities of now seriously endangered animals. But yes, also, the Everglades itself will probably be mostly under water a few decades from now.

Most of all, we have to realize that there’s only one species that’s causing the overwhelming amount of problems to other animals. And that’s us. And that probably doesn’t give us the credentials to believe that we’re the best species to try to “manage” the disasters we’ve created.

We’ve done enough damage to the Everglades already. The pythons are now part of the ecosystem there, whether we like it or not. We’re going to have to learn to live with them. Sadly, that means that many other kinds of animals will never be able to do that. But in the final analysis there’s nothing we can do about that, either.