Florida Becoming "Club Med for Pythons"

It sounds like a B-Movie horror movie, but it's true: Snakes are eating Florida.

Thousands of Burmese pythons are eating the wildlife in the Everglades.

Many of the pythons, "Early Show" resident veterinarian Dr. Debbye Turner-Bell said on the broadcast Monday, were once pets. But, she said, most people don't know what they're getting into when they purchase these predators.

Twelve people have been killed by pet pythons since 1980, according to The Humane Society of the United States; four of those cases have occurred in the last three years. A 2-year-old girl was killed just a few weeks ago when a pet python strangled her in bed.

The 8-foot-long snake that killed Sheyenna Hare started out just inches long.

Rodney Barreto, chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, told Bell a 20-inch hatchling can grow into a snake several feet long in as quickly as three to four years.

However, captive pythons aren't the only worry for Florida wildlife officials. Thousands of pythons are free in the 750,000 acres of Florida wetlands, Bell said, by their owners after they get too big to handle.

Barreto said an estimated 150,000 to 175,000 pythons have infested the Everglades.

And how many should be there naturally?

"Zero!" Barreto said.

Burmese pythons are native to Southeast Asia. However, in the last 20 years, Bell reported, Southeast Florida has seen an explosion in the number of pythons sighted in the Everglades.

A mated python can lay up to 50 or 60 hatchlings at a time, according to Barreto.

"So they can multiply quickly," he said. "And they really have no natural predator."

Ron Magill, of Miami MetroZoo, called Florida "Club Med" for pythons.

The problem, Bell said, is the pythons are eating anything they can wrap themselves around.

Barreto said the snakes are eating indigenous frogs, snakes pigs, deer and even alligators.

Barreto said, "They're eating everything."

Magill agreed. "The fact that they will go after an alligator will tell you that they will go after anything."

Grant Kemmerer, owner of the traveling wildlife show Wild World of Animals, said on "The Early Show" Monday pythons usually eat rabbits and other smaller animals, but have the potential to eat larger animals, such as pigs and goats if they're large enough.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife commission has recently instituted a program that allows herpetologists to find and kill Burmese pythons in the Florida wetlands. Barreto said he hopes to expand the program to train hunters to catch and kill pythons for a bounty and a cash reward.

Barreto told Bell, "... Shoot 'em or kill 'em or take 'em. How we ever gonna eradicate them? I am in favor of all of the above."

Barreto and others fear these pythons won't just stay in the Everglades.

Magill said Georgia, the Carolinas, even out to Louisiana, will be homes to pythons if the issue isn't addressed soon.

Florida U.S. senator Bill Nelson has introduced legislation to ban interstate trade and import of pythons.

The catch and kill program started just a little over a week ago, Bell reported, has already netted one python.

However, it is still legal to have a pet python. However, there is a level of responsibility to having an exotic animal, according to Kemmerer.

"No matter what kind of living creature you have, you need to pay attention to its needs, and particularly with these animals, safety," Kemmerer said on "The Early Show." "Same as a dog...a dog could potentially be more dangerous than (a python) in the wrong hands."

Bell added, "With a snake like this, you really have got to know what you're doing. And if you don't, you should not have these, these are wild predators. And they shouldn't just be in your home casually...And you definitely shouldn't release (pythons)."

Kemmerer said you shouldn't release any animal.

"It's dangerous to the environment," he said. "It's dangerous to the animal. Most animals don't survive under those circumstances."