Love Your Pythons

Managing a Changing Everglades

Biologists with the United States Geological Survey recently captured a 17-foot Burmese Python in the Everglades and put it down because it was an invasive species. But should we “learn to love” these pythons, instead of try to root them out in the name of a “pure” Everglades? After all, the Burmese Python, first introduced to Florida through the exotic animal trade, is unlikely to go away entirely any time soon.

I think that the pythons in the Everglades fascinate us not only because enormous pythons are intrinsically mesmerizing, but because they echo the old biblical story of the serpent in Eden, a nasty outsider defiling paradise and ruining everything. Of course, the notion of the Everglades as a paradise is relatively new. We used to think of the place as a “worthless morass,” as Michael Grunwald put it in his book on the history of the Everglades. The idea that marshes and swamps are places of natural beauty is less than 100 years old.

But now that the Everglades has become an international treasure, these snakes, which are just doing what they evolved to do as they pig out on the native fauna, have been painted as evil and despicable. It’s the blame-the-invasive-species narrative that’s been in fashion for a few decades now, here helped out by the fact that many people have a visceral ick or eek reaction to snakes. But it isn’t the pythons’ fault. It is our fault for introducing them.

Yes, insofar as they threaten native species in the Everglades, I wish we could undo that mistake and remove them all. But it ain’t gonna happen. And so, I suggest, we might try to learn to love the pythons rather than revile them. They are, as this video shows, really impressive beasts. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t necessarily try to control their numbers as part of an overall management strategy, but it might mean that if you are touring the Everglades and you see one, you might consider yourself lucky, rather than grimacing and feeling that the purity of your experience was somehow tainted.

The pythons came up at this June’s Aspen Environment Forum. I got into a debate with E. O. Wilson about the Everglades [during this session]. He believes (more or less) that we should be going in there guns blazing, get every last python out, and keep the River of Grass “pure.” I suggested that the pythons were likely here to stay no matter how hard we tried and that the effort would likely be wasted, since the Everglades will probably be underwater in a few generations anyway, thanks to climate-change induced sea level rise. I said we should focus on protecting areas uphill so the species we like in the marsh have somewhere to go. He then suggested I was carrying around a white flag of surrender, and I rejoined that I never enlisted in the war for “purity” as defined by the world as it was in 1492, that rather I fought for Nature as a dynamic and mutable thing. And then the buzzer sounded and we both went back to our corners to get toweled off.

It is possible that I am being too accepting of change here. This is the Everglades we are talking about, and there are so many people who have fallen in love with the particular constellation of species that were there when Europeans first came to this continent, that it might be worth fighting very hard to keep it that way. Maybe I am going overboard on my “learn to love the inevitable changes” mantra. But it is really how I feel. If the choice is to fight for a pure Everglades and lose, or to work with nature as it changes and adapts to what we humans have done to planet Earth, respecting its dynamism and resilienceas it shifts to new states, I vote for the latter. Just don’t call me a python hugger. That sounds painful.

Republished with permission. Originally appeared at Andy Revkin’s Dot Earth blog.