Dogs are the Newest Weapon in Florida’s Battle Against Giant Invasive Pythons

  • It takes a brave pooch to go up against something that could – and wants to – eat you for breakfast

We’ve covered cases of dogs helping humans many times before. From sniffing out COVID-19 infections to helping out in the military, these good boys and girls have a long list of merits.

They can now add nature conservation to that as well. In Florida, dogs are helping wildlife officials combat an invasion of a foreign species.

No, it’s not giant murder hornets or marauding crustaceans. This time, we’re talking about snakes, and big ones at that.

In case you didn’t know – and we sure didn’t – Florida has an issue with Burmese pythons. These 12-foot-long snakes are among the largest in the world, and apparently they’re decimating Florida’s wildlife.

But now Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is seeking dogs to help them put an end to the snake invasion. On December 8, the brand-new FWC Detector Dog Team caught its first python.

The eight-foot-long male snake was caught, captured, removed from the Rocky Glades Public Small Game Hunting Area. And it’s all thanks to two brave dogs – and their handlers, but we’ll say it was mostly the dogs.

Photos courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Point and Bark

The FWC Detector Dog Team has at the moment two members. One of them is Truman, a black Labrador retriever, while the other half of the team consists of Eleanor, a point setter.

According to the FWC, the snake-catching duo goes hunting five days a week. In the field, they’re accompanied by a dog handler and an FWC biologist.

When either of the dogs smells out a snake, they will follow the scent trail until they are three feet away from the python. Got to keep a safe distance, you know.

They will then alert their human companions with an energetic bark. In return, they will get a “recognition reward”.

“The dog and handler then back away from the area, clearing the way for the FWC biologist to pinpoint the exact location so they can safely catch and remove the python from the wild,” the FWC said.

Intensive Training

To learn how to catch the snakes, Truman and Eleanor spent more than a month training with FWC personnel.

“Python-scented towels and live pythons with surgically implanted trackers were used to train the dogs on python scent,” said the FWC.

The dogs also learned how to ignore distractions from other animals that they might encounter in the wild. Last but not least, they exercise regularly so that they won’t tire out too quickly in the field.

Using dogs to detect things is nothing new, even in the FWC’s toolbox. The agency has previously used dogs to detect everything from bed bugs to sea turtle nests.

But the FWC dogs have never faced a challenge as large as the pythons. And there’s a dire need to tackle that challenge, indeed.

The Bane of Bunnies

Burmese pythons originate – as their name implies – from Southeast Asia. Most of the snakes in Florida are thought to be either escaped pets or their descendants.

Perhaps the largest event leading to the current python population of tens of thousands came in 1992. That’s when Hurricane Andrew destroyed an exotic reptile warehouse, releasing hundreds of pythons into the Everglades.

“Pythons compete with native wildlife for food, which includes mammals, birds, and other reptiles. Severe mammal declines in Everglades National Park have been linked to Burmese pythons,” said the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

According to USGS data, the pythons have devastated the populations of several small- to medium-sized mammals have. Numbers of raccoons have dropped by 99.3%, opossums by 98.9%, and bobcats by 87.5% since 1997.

“Marsh rabbits, cottontail rabbits, and foxes effectively disappeared,” the USGS said.

“The mammals that have declined most significantly have been regularly found in the stomachs of Burmese pythons removed from Everglades National Park and elsewhere in Florida,” the agency added.

The snakes are present pretty much everywhere in Southern Florida, and they’re gradually spreading further into the state.

“A number of Burmese pythons have been found in the Florida Keys, but there is not yet confirmation of a breeding population in the Keys. A population of boa constrictors has been established for many years in southern Miami, centered on a county park,” said the USGS.

Encouraged Eradication

You probably don’t have to worry about the snakes, personally. According to the USGS, human deaths from non-venomous snakes are exceedingly rare, and all known constrictor snake fatalities in the U.S. were the fault of a captive snake.

“There have been no human deaths from wild-living Burmese pythons in Florida. Overall, the risk of attack is very low,” the USGS said.

If you live in Florida and encounter a python, the USGS still recommends that you take the same precautions as you would with an alligator. Don’t get close to them, back away, and call the authorities.

The FWC encourages the public to help in controlling the snakes, though. In fact, they actively remind people that it’s legal to kill a Burmese python in Florida, with the landowner’s permission.

“Pythons can be humanely killed on private lands at any time with landowner permission – no permit required – and the FWC encourages people to remove and kill pythons from private lands whenever possible,” the agency said.

That also applies to any of Florida’s 25 Wildlife Management Areas, Public Small Game Hunting Areas, and Wildlife and Environmental Areas.

“There is no bag limit and pythons may be humanely killed by any means other than traps or firearms,” the FWC said.

FWC even hands out free T-shirts to anyone bringing in a dead python as an incentive to encourage their humane eradication. If you’re not feeling particularly bloodthirsty, though, you can always call the agency for help.