January 1, 2018, Miami, Florida. CDC officials today are reporting a 1,000-fold increase in deaths caused by encephalitis this year relative to last. Deaths are concentrated in populations living within ten miles of Everglades National Park, among the elderly, and among small children. The culprit: a previously understudied member of the alphavirus family, known for decades to infect primarily the cotton rat and cotton mouse.
Although human infection with Everglades Virus had been documented as early as the 1960s, the rapid rise to pandemic status has shocked local officials. “It hadn’t even been on my radar screen,” says longtime Miami resident and US Senator Marco Rubio. “You’d think one of those scientists who freeload off the government would have told us about it.”
Although agreeing they did not personally tell Senator Rubio, a team from U. of Florida did publish research in the journal Biology Letters in October 2017 that should have provided warning. “And we’ve been presenting our findings in conferences for the previous year,” states Assistant Professor and team leader Nathan Burkett-Cadena. “The Burmese pythons have eaten all of the mammals except the cotton rats and cotton mice. The mosquitos have nothing else to feed on. Without all the deer, rabbits and raccoons—none of which can be infected—the infection rates among the Culex cedeci mosquitoes went through the roof.”
As very few people live in the Everglades, and this species of mosquito cannot breed in urban areas, most politicians ignored the situation, dismissing it as a mere ecology problem—something only academics cared about. However, in 2016 Culex panocossa mosquitoes were introduced to Florida. They can carry Everglades Virus, and they can live and breed in urban areas.
“So what do you expect politicians to do?” asks Senator Rubio. “It’s not as if the government could have done anything about this. You expect a few snakes in a swamp.” When asked if he was aware that four tons of pythons had been removed from one twenty-five square foot area outside of Naples in an approach using captured, RF-beacon-tagged, and re-released male snakes to lead researchers to breeding females, the Senator refused further comment.
Researchers estimate the total number of Burmese pythons in the Everglades as between 30,000 and 300,000. Typical adults measure four-to-five feet long. They are easy to distinguish, as the only other common snake in the Everglades, the pygmy rattlesnake, is no longer than 3-feet and has a rattle. However, they hide in the swampy terrain and will go dormant in the absence of food, making them tough to spot. Calls to rely upon the hunting acumen of Florida natives, a strategy used to control wild boar populations, have been thwarted because of the high mercury levels seen in meat from the snakes as well as from most other animals living in the Everglades. “It’s a durn craw in my side,” says local hunter Jimmy John Bud McTargett. “Only wimps worry about mercury. Hell, I bet the mercury makes the meat taste better.”
The Burmese python, near extinct in South Asia from years of hunting them for food and leather, have flourished in the Everglades since being introduced by exotic pet owners that no longer wanted their full grown pet. Although first spotted in Everglades National Park in the 1980s, it wasn’t until 2000 that scientists recognized breeding populations existed in the park. Import of Burmese pythons was banned in 2012.
Exotic invasive species in Florida include six species of python, all introduced by the pet trade. Some have argued that this economic system, in which capitalist entities are allowed free reign to do whatever they want until they manage to kill those who might vote for the lawmakers responsible for the system, might be in some way flawed.
“Nonsense,” says Florida Governor Rick Scott. “No system has ever worked better than American-style capitalism. And anyone who questions it is a Commie.” Scott, having successfully transcended his identification as the largest beneficiary of Medicare fraud in American history to become state governor, presumably knows quite a bit about profiting from the American system. “Our biotech industry will come up with something. A gene-engineered Terminator thingy.”
Indeed, Ian Bartow, wildlife biologist and science coordinator for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, stated in an interview on NPR that biotech seems to be the only option. A new virus or bacteria targeting the snakes could be developed. It’s, of course, clear that any risks involved will be substantially less cost to society than in any way restricting the right of capital to engage in any activity it wishes without any regard for consequences to the ecosystem or human health.
President Trump has responded to the crisis by ordering increased spraying of insecticides at Mar-A-Lago. “None of the older people or children I care about have died. Probably like Zika. Only Puerto Ricans and other foreigners getting sick. Not of concern to real Americans.”
By this point, I hope most of you reading this have figured out I made up the quotations. However, I didn’t make up any of the facts except the human deaths. Everything else is true. The human deaths are only potentially true. Wreck havoc with an ecosystem and catastrophe can result. Refuse to regulate with the needs of the ecosystem in mind, and if it’s not this crisis, it will be another.
My six prior posts on Everglades Ecology (if you haven’t read them, start here) led to the conclusion that if we refuse to let politicians allow the legally binding options the state has to buy land from US Sugar, a purchase the voters have already approved and funded, to expire in 2020, the plan to restore the Everglades can go ahead, and all of the problems I previously documented could be solved. Not so with the big animal problems. These are a separate issue.
I didn’t make up the NPR interview in which the expert called biotech the only hope. I happen to agree. With the invasive melaleuca trees, scientists found natural insect parasites that eat and kill them by going to the where the melaleuca were native, Australia. But trees don’t move. They also don’t reproduce as fast as the snakes do. The situation is more comparable to the exotic mosquitoes that are spreading human diseases such as Dengue fever and St. Louis encephalitis. Testing of genetic engineering-based strategies to control these mosquitoes is well underway. Sure, introducing new organisms or engineered versions of old organisms into near-inaccessible areas of immense ecological significance is a strategy of desperation. But it can work. And the situation is already a disaster.
In the long run, however, society needs to look at stricter regulation of activities with negative impact on the ecosystems that support us. The capitalist model of letting companies do whatever they want until they are caught doesn’t work, never worked, and won’t work in the future.
How many deaths will it take until we can have this conversation?