Florida wildlife officers killed dozens of caged pythons, and one pet boa constrictor by mistake, in what some reptile enthusiasts say was an overreach of authority last week.
Bill McAdam, whose Broward County warehouse is where the snakes lived, said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers killed 34 Burmese and reticulated pythons on Thursday with a bolt gun that is supposed to deliver immediate and lethal blows to the snakes' heads.
Pythons are a damaging invasive species that eat almost anything and have overrun the Everglades. After the reptile was added to a list of prohibited species by FWC commissioners in February 2021, commercial breeders were given about five months to get rid of their animals.
Boa constrictors are not on the list of prohibited species. McAdam owned his pet boa constrictor, named Big Shirl, for more than a decade.
FWC issued a statement on Tuesday about the hours-long euthanasia incident, but didn't go into detail about what happened and didn't mention the boa constrictor that was mistakenly killed.
However, Chris Coffee, who owned the pythons that were euthanized, told a tangled version of events late Tuesday afternoon that began with FWC officers issuing him citations in February 2022 and ended Thursday with snake blood and feces on the warehouse floor.
"I don't like that they shot them in the head," said Coffee, who witnessed the first death before leaving the room.
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Video captures apparent wrongful death of a boa
What seems clear is the death of the boa, not among the species in dispute, was a tragic error.
In a video posted to YouTube by the Florida division of the United States Association of Reptile Keepers, an officer puts his hands to his head in apparent disbelief and another officer's jaw drops open when they realize they had just killed the boa, which was pregnant.
“Oh my God! Why?” Coffee can be heard yelling in the background of the video when officers say the “boa is dead.”
“It was a mistake,” someone says.
“How? I reminded you 10 times!” Coffee exclaims.
An autopsy on Big Shirl found she was pregnant with 32 babies, according to a spokesman for the reptile keepers group. McAdam estimates the babies were worth about $3,500 each.
“I raised that boa since it was a baby,” McAdam said. “I went ballistic when I found out. I told them, 'You guys are going to pay for this.'”
Response to reticulated python report
FWC said in a statement that it went to the warehouse because there had been a report of a reticulated python in the area. Reticulated pythons are also invasive species prohibited in Florida because of the damage they do to native wildlife.
The statement said the FWC did not have any intention of killing the snakes in the warehouse, which is rented by Coffee and McAdam. FWC also said that the snakes were relinquished to them on Thursday and officers were asked to euthanize the snakes by the owner at that time and at the warehouse.
"The FWC Division of Law Enforcement is determining the full details of this incident and more information will be released when it is verified and appropriate to do so," the statement said.
But Coffee, a commercial breeder, said that although he has been caring for the pythons, FWC technically confiscated them in February 2022 — when he was charged with having a prohibited species without a permit. The 34 pythons in his warehouse were ones that remained after he had found homes for about 120 other pythons following the 2021 rule change.
Coffee said he "begged" FWC for a deadline extension to find homes for the remaining 34, but that he was told the deadline to get rid of them was passed.
Broward County court records show the case was dismissed Feb. 6 after Coffee was accepted into a misdemeanor diversion program and paid $250 to buy out community service hours.
On Thursday, Coffee said he was called by FWC officers about the reticulated python sighting. He said he was wary of letting the officers into the warehouse because he thought he may get charged again for having the pythons.
In a phone call asking to go into the warehouse, the FWC officers "said we can euthanize the snakes for you and it will all be over today and we'll never harass you again," Coffee said. "I didn't know it meant brutally shooting them in the head. Once I saw them kill the first snake, I told them to stop, that I couldn't do this."
Pythons can be captured and humanely killed by members of the public, so Coffee said he realizes the officers were within their right to kill the pythons, but not the boa constrictor.
"I reiterated 10 times, please don't touch the boa constrictor," he said.
Curt Harbsmeier, an attorney and legal advisor to the reptile group, said he wants to know about the timing — why the state agency moved to euthanize the snakes last week after the snakes had been in the warehouse for more than a year with the FWC's knowledge.
Why euthanize the pythons now?
“Why did they have to go in there now?" said Harbsmeier. "They call it euthanize, I call it a slaughter. There was blood all over.”
Under the 2021 rule change, invasive tegus and green iguanas were grandfathered in as pets and could be kept for their lifetime by owners who had to follow upgraded requirements for enclosures. But it’s not clear in FWC rules online if the newly-prohibited snakes could also be kept as pets by their current owners.
“For reptile keepers, these animals are just like dogs or cats to many people,” said Daniel Parker, director of media for the United States Association of Reptile Keepers, Florida. "We love them and cherish them. They are not just disposable.”
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Several animal rights groups supported the 2021 rule change, which also prohibited green anacondas and Nile monitors, because of the damage these reptiles do to native wildlife in Florida.
Elise Bennett, Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity said her group supported the rule change to control the invasive species spread and keep them from inhumane conditions.
“Most of these exotic, invasive species are here by no fault of their own,” Bennett said. “It’s heartbreaking and unfortunate when they have to pay the price for humans’ thoughtless actions.”
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Pet boa constrictor killed as Florida officials kill pythons in cages