In the strange-but-true fight against giant pythons that are roaming the Florida Everglades, park officials have come up with an unlikely weapon: a beagle named Python Pete. The 6-month-old puppy is...
MIAMI — In the strange-but-true fight against giant pythons that are roaming the Florida Everglades, park officials have come up with an unlikely weapon: a beagle named Python Pete.
The 6-month-old puppy is being trained to track the snakes — discarded pets — that biologists say have invaded Everglades National Park.
“These are extraordinary times as the park faces a unique issue. We have to do what it takes to find these pythons,” said Rick Cook, public affairs officer for the Everglades. “The hope is that the dog will be able to pick up the snakes’ scent.”
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The idea came from Lori Oberhofer, an Everglades wildlife technician who previously worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Guam, where a similar program is used.
Oberhofer brings the puppy to work with her every day, training him for his future snake-tracking duties by using a rag that smells like python.
The problem of pythons in the Everglades is becoming more acute because the snakes are competing with native animals — including the threatened indigo snake — for food and living space. Burmese pythons, for example, typically grow to about 20 feet.
Park biologists want to eradicate the Everglades’ python population, euthanizing any that are found.
Daniel Vice of the USDA works in Guam with Jack Russell terriers that are used to detect and capture brown tree snakes. “Studies indicate that a well-trained, experienced dog and handler team can expect to find about 75 percent of the snakes,” he said.
Oberhofer, who paid for the dog, said she hopes Pete will be just as productive in the Everglades. “He is showing lots of potential and has already accomplished what much older dogs are trained to do. And he’s still just a 6-month-old puppy,” she said.
The dog’s training sessions generally last 10 minutes, once or twice a day. Inside a plastic container in the corner of Oberhofer’s office is a large python. Pete’s favorite rag, checkered and chewed on, is kept in the box, absorbing the snake’s scent.
When it’s time to train, Oberhofer puts a special red collar and matching leash on Pete — a combination used only for “work time.” She leads him outside to a field with knee-high grass, carrying the python in a musky rag. Oberhofer gently drags the bag through the grass, creating a 50-foot scent trail for Pete.
As a reward when he has tracked the snake, Oberhofer lets Pete play tug of war with the musky rag. “I want Pete to think that this scent means fun,” she said.
When he’s ready, Oberhofer will take Pete out into the field for the real thing: to hunt for pythons. To keep him from becoming a snake snack, Pete will always be kept on a leash, Oberhofer said.