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An Ounce of Python Prevention

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"Swamp Things," a fascinating article by Burkhard Bilger in the April 20 issue of The New Yorker, describes how the exotic pet industry has helped transform the state of Florida into "a biological cesspool of introduced life." As fads of exotic birds, reptiles, and primates have come and gone, nonnative species have established themselves in the wild -- transported by hurricanes or deliberately set loose by their owners. As Bilger explains:

On a single tree you could conceivably find plants and animals from six continents, including parrots from South America, mynah birds and Old World climbing ferns from Asia, vervet monkeys from Africa, ladybird beetles from Australia, and feral cats from Europe, via Africa and Asia...The state's ecology is a kind of urban legend come true -- the old alligator-flushed-down-the-toilet story repeated a thousand times with a thousand species.

There have been well-known cases of exotic species that should never have been introduced in the U.S. -- whether they are the zebra mussels, the snakehead fish, or the Gambian rats that caused the 2003 multistate monkeypox outbreak. But the biggest problem for Florida is the new population of Burmese pythons living in the Everglades. These former "pets" can grow more than 20 feet long, weigh 200 pounds, and swallow an entire leopard.

BurmesepythonSuch ecological invasions can be prevented by a new bill being considered in Congress. The House Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife today held a hearing on H.R. 669, the Nonnative Wildlife Invasion Prevention Act. Introduced by Subcommittee Chairwoman Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam), a great friend to animals, the bill would set up a process for evaluating exotic wildlife species to determine whether they should be allowed or prohibited for importation and interstate commerce. The legislation is endorsed by The Humane Society of the United States, Humane Society Legislative Fund, Defenders of Wildlife, National Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy, Union of Concerned Scientists, and a number of other conservation and animal protection groups.

Some pet industry groups are yelping and howling over the proposal, claiming it will end all pet ownership. We hear this rhetoric all the time from our opponents who can't defend inhumane practices on their merits, so they concoct some "slippery slope" justifications -- they say that curbing abuses at puppy mills will end all dog breeding, that phasing out confinement of farm animals in crates and cages will end all agriculture, that toughening the anti-cockfighting laws will eliminate the right to own roosters. But they're barking up the wrong tree.

First, the bill is aimed at exotic wildlife, not domestic household pets. It includes a specific exemption for cats, dogs, rabbits, goldfish, and horses. And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is allowed to add more exempted species as it sees fit. The HSUS and HSLF are specifically requesting that hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, and ferrets be added to the exempted list.

Second, the legislation wouldn't ban any species immediately upon passage. It allows the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to start a process, based on scientific information with public input, to determine whether an exotic wildlife species is harmful or not. During that process, which will take three years, there would be no restrictions on trade. If a species is then determined to be harmful, it would be added to the prohibited list.

AlbinopythonThird, the bill grandfathers in any current exotic pets. So if a wildlife species is determined to be harmful and banned in the future, it would halt imports and interstate trade from that point forward. People who already own those animals would not have them taken away.

As Chairwoman Bordallo said, this morning's hearing "should be seen as a starting point for a very important discussion. How can we proactively manage the influx of invasive species and reduce the economic and environmental costs associated with their establishment in the wild, but also be sensitive to legitimate concerns regarding the species that would be affected and realistic about the practicalities of implementation."

The fact is, this is a common-sense reform that takes a proactive approach. Hundreds of millions of wild animals are arriving in the U.S. at an alarming pace through Miami, Los Angeles, and other points of entry. By the time invasive species establish themselves here, it's often too late to do anything about the problems -- and attempts at doing so, even while tilting at windmills, are costly and inhumane. Preventing wild animals from entering this country in the first place, if they are determined to be dangerous, is better for the environment, the economy, public health, and animal welfare.

Contact your members of Congress and ask them to support H.R. 669. Tell them when it comes to nonnative wildlife, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.