While Hurricane Irma flattened entire neighborhoods in Florida, environmental conservationists say the storm may affect the state in surprising ways.
In 1992, Hurricane Andrew ripped through South Florida. It was a Category 5 storm that ranked as the costliest storm to hit the U.S. until Hurricane Katrina took its place in 2005.
Amidst Andrew's destruction, a reptile breeding facility sustained heavy structural damage. As a result, a few of the snakes being housed turned into suspected escape artists. It's thought that the slithery escapees made their way toward Everglades National Park.
The Burmese python, native to Southeast Asia, was accidentally introduced to the Florida ecosystem. It fed on local species like raccoons and deer, and with few natural predators, the foreign snake made a home in the swampy environment.
What started as a few escaped pythons turned into a population in the tens of thousands, and the Florida ecosystem has never been the same.
Reptile owners frequently release their unwanted pets into the wild, and while there's no definitive proof that Hurricane Andrew was responsible for the state's python problem, the threat is always a possibility.
Now in the wake of Hurricane Irma, conservationists are worried about facing a similar situation. While wildlife centers took special care to prevent animals from escaping, their efforts don't account for the thousands of exotic pet breeders that call South Florida home.
The United States Association of Reptile Keepers reports there are more than 1,200 species of reptiles and amphibians kept in captivity in Florida. Some are native to the area, but many others aren't. The introduction of any of the nonnative species to the hurricane-ravaged area would have devastating affects on the natural balance of the ecosystem.
With easily accessible shipping ports and the kind of hot and muggy climate reptiles love, South Florida has always been a hub for exotic animal breeding. Commercial keepers of nonnative species are required by law to submit a disaster plan to the wildlife commission, but there is no system to ensure those plans are followed.
The bigger threat comes from the individual and illegal breeders who operate without permits or disaster plans. While over 50 pet owners risk legal repercussions for abandoning their dogs to Irma's wrath, the state will never know how many illegal exotic animal owners did the same thing.
Florida conservationists warn residents to watch out for exotic animals roaming the area in the days and weeks after the storm. If you see anything unusual, please contact the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.
What do you think about the threat of exotic animals in Florida? Let us know in the comments.
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