Dangers Down South


(This 959th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on August 9, 2009.)


Remember the story of the country mouse and the city mouse. The country mouse is impressed with the life style of the city mouse until he learns of the associated dangers.


We have a parallel with that story in our relationship with Florida. During harsh winters like the one that ended just weeks ago, we think how wonderful it would be to live down there.


But Florida faces problems that outstrip many of ours and some of them are getting worse every year. I will not detail here the familiar ones: direct hits by hurricanes with the associated doubling of taxes and insurance, the precipitous decline in home values associated with the depression, crime and politics that defy comparison even with Buffalo. Instead I write about two problems faced by anyone in Florida who is interested in nature.


Here I can walk along any creek and into any marsh safely. All I have to worry about are mosquitoes and possibly ticks. My life is not threatened.


Not so today in much of Florida. There you have to worry about being attacked by an alligator or even a crocodile.


When I rode a bus for miles along state highways on a recent Florida visit, I was amazed at the number of alligators I saw. About one every quarter mile basked in the sun in roadside drainage ditches. In larger pools their snouts broke the smooth water surface in the same way that the heads of frogs and turtles do here in the north.


These are big reptiles. The ones I saw appeared to be ten or twelve feet in length but the average adult alligator is thirteen feet long and weighs 800 pounds.


Normally alligators are shy beasts that inhabit only the backwaters of deep swamps, but, with some nitwits even feeding them, they have accommodated to populated areas and their attacks are serious, some fatal and many causing injuries including loss of limbs.


Those killed don't fit a pattern. Here are a few: a 28-year old jogger last seen cooling her feet in a canal; a 54-year old landscape worker; swimmers aged from 11 to 52; a dog walker in the Ding Darling Refuge; a 29-year old snorkeler; a 4-year-old walking along a lakeshore, an 82-year-old house-sitter.


Fossils indicate that the American alligator has survived for 200 million years but so many were killed in the 19th century that the species was threatened with extinction. This led to their listing as endangered in 1967 and their numbers immediately multiplied. One reason for their rapid recovery: cannibalism by adult males is the most serious threat to young alligators and, when the adult population was so low, most of the 20 to 50 hatched young survived. So successful was the recovery that the species was delisted in 1987.


And now, as if alligators were not enough of a threat, we have another monster to avoid.


If you watch, as I do, those old Tarzan movies on late night television, you get used to the required episodes: a native bearer falls from a cliff, another sinks into quicksand and still another is crushed by a python. Sometimes the Ape Man himself is threatened but escapes one of these hazards.


Florida doesn't have cliffs (its highest elevation is a mere 345 feet above sea level) and I know of no quicksand there, but today the southern part of the state and particularly the Everglades has been invaded by Burmese pythons.


Yes, Burmese pythons. When they are small, these snakes are sold to reptile fanciers for as little as $20. Countrywide, over 25,000 are legally imported for these sales each year. Unfortunately, over time they grow to 18 feet and 160 pounds. Too often by then the snake has been released in a local park.


Florida has enacted rules to stop this release. Python owners must pay $100 annual license fees and have a veterinarian insert a microchip in their snake.


Too late. An Everglades biologist already estimates the python population in south Florida at 30,000. No human deaths yet but the snake is decimating populations of birds and animals.


So we country mice aren't so bad off after all. We can walk along our waterways and into our marshes worry free.-- Gerry Rising



Note added: Reader Dennis McKown informed me that in July 2009 a baby was killed by a Burmese python. He referred me to a Fox News article about the attack..