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Growing pains

The reptile industry finds that popularity is a double-edged sword

Photo: Jeff Gore, License: N/A, Created: 2011:01:16 15:25:48

Jeff Gore

Snake in a Box: At Repticon, breeders of large snakes displayed the animals they had for sale in plastic containers

So he focused solely on reptiles. Soon after graduating high school in 1972, he was invited by his friend's wealthy cousin to the Cayos Cochinos islands off the northern coast of Honduras. There, he encountered the "Hog Island Boa" – a name that may never have come into being had Fauci not collected more than 30 of the snakes, put them in a "pretty big" suitcase and brought them back to Miami to sell to a business called The Shed. "Back in the '70s, that's how you did a lot of stuff," he says. "You checked [animals] in your luggage."

Fauci used the proceeds of his snake sales to help pay for his education at the University of South Florida. Getting his degree took seven years because he alternated his semesters with other far-flung journeys to collect more reptiles, which helped lay the foundation of what is today a sizable genetic bank of exotic species within the United States. After graduating from college in 1979, Fauci taught high school science for five years, but quit to focus on his growing business, the Southeast Reptile Exchange. More than two decades later, with the economic recession and increasing regulation squeezing his trade, those boom days seem further away than ever. "I don't know how much future there is in the reptile business," he says.

When Fauci is asked about regulating large snakes in particular, he suggests that banning a Burmese python is like banning a car for its role in an accident. "I can count the people that have died [from snake attacks] on one hand," he says. "Thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of these giant snakes have been kept in this country for years without any incident."

Bob Reed, a biologist working for the United States Geological Survey in Fort Collins, Colo., agrees that the threat to humans from large snakes is minimal. What he's more concerned about is the snakes' impact on ecosystems in the United States, and specifically, South Florida. Reed has studied the Burmese python in the Everglades extensively and hypothesizes that the snake is behind the disappearance of animals such as marsh rabbits, raccoons and round-tailed muskrats from the park. "[The snakes are] eating just about every bird and mammal that they can fit in their mouth," Reed says, adding that a Burmese python has also been known to take down a white-tailed deer and a frigate bird, which "virtually never lands on the mainland."

Reed co-authored a report in 2009 called "Giant Constrictors: Biological and Management Profiles and an Establishment Risk Assessment for Nine Large Species of Pythons, Anacondas and the Boa Constrictor." (Constrictor snakes earn their title from squeezing their prey to death.) The report says that the Burmese python and eight other non-native snakes, which have established themselves throughout South Florida, are an "exceptional threat to the integrity of native ecosystems."

When it comes to the most notorious of the bunch, the Burmese python, Reed says it's notoriously difficult to count how many of them may be lurking in the Everglades, since only a small fraction of the park is accessible to humans. He adds that snakes, as a matter of evolutionary fitness, are animals that are difficult to detect. "Over and over again people get fooled by the idea that if we can't find animals, there must not be very many of them," he says. (Estimates of python population have run as high as 140,000 in media reports, though that number has been critiqued extensively by both scientists and those in the reptile trade. In 2010, 322 Burmese pythons were removed from the Everglades National Park by park staff.)

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