Mail Carriers On Python Patrol In South Florida

The Nature Conservancy and wildlife officials have enlisted the help of postal carriers in the Florida Keys to defend against the invasive Burmese Python. Mail carrier Marsha Fletcher-Shew talks about these "python patrols," and Kristina Serbesoff-King, invasive species program manager for the Conservancy, explains why the snakes are such a problem.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Sometimes truth is scarier than fiction, especially when it involves a 16-foot, 200-pound snake that can strangle pretty much anything. For "Science Out Of The Box," we slithered down to southern Florida.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: Here's a hotline number you'd hope never to have to call, 1-888-I'VE GOT 1.

Unidentified Woman: If you're standing in front of a large snake right now, don't panic. We will connect you directly to the sheriff's dispatch when you press number 1.

LYDEN: Wildlife officials in South Florida are hoping this hotline will help stop the advance of the Burmese Python. People keep these snakes as pets, and the ones who have escaped or have been set free have found a second home in the Everglades. Now, the menace, and they are a menace, has turned up in the Florida Keys and everyone is on alert. Kristina Serbesoff-King works for The Nature Conservancy and tells us how the first Burmese Python was discovered in the Keys.

Ms. KRISTINA SERBESOFF-KING (Invasive Species Program Manager, The Nature Conservancy): One of the endangered species in the Florida Keys is the Keys' wood rat, and there's between 100 and 200 of them left in the wild. And so they have a program to protect these animals, but they also track them. And so they put radio collars on these wood rats and they track a portion of the population to see how it's moving, you know, all these things that we want to know. The partners who were tracking them one night, they've realized that this wood rat moved farther than any other wood rat had ever moved. And so they went out to see what was up. And when they found the wood rat, what they actually found was a Burmese Python because a wood rat was in its stomach.

LYDEN: And just a little wood rat tag in it.

Ms. SERBESOFF-KING: Yeah, but when they opened up the Burmese Python, when they did the necropsy on it, they actually found two wood rats. So if you think about only 100 to 200 of them being left in the wild and one errant, you know, Burmese Python coming over and eating two of them in one night.

LYDEN: It doesn't sound as if the Burmese Python is contributing much to the wildlife balance in Florida.

Ms. SERBESOFF-KING: No. And in fact - and this is what invasive species do. They sort of tip the balance. I mean, we have predator-prey relationships throughout every ecosystem, so it's not unheard of that somebody smaller is going to get eaten by somebody bigger, but this is sort of tipping the balance. This is a predator that's been brought in that didn't evolve in this ecosystem, that none of the prey or other predators are sort of equipped to deal with.

LYDEN: With a problem like this, wildlife officials need backup. Who you're going to call? FedEx drivers and mail carriers, people who spend the day wheeling through the Florida Keys. Marsha Fletcher-Shew is one of these python patrollers. She delivers mail for the U.S. Postal Service about a hundred miles southwest of the mainland. And if anyone is going to spot a python sunning on the road, it would be her.

Ms. MARSHA FLETCHER-SHEW (Mail Carrier): Being on the road, we see all kinds of things. And I go through a lot of preserves. We have a lot of mangroves out here, and I'm amazed at how much wildlife is out here. And of course, with a snake that size, he could have a field day out here.

LYDEN: You're in your mail truck even as we speak. I guess, I mean, if you saw one - I know that mail carriers have to beware of dogs, but this really seems going a bit far, beware of pythons.

Ms. FLETCHER-SHEW: Yes. As a matter of fact, I'm sitting here on the side of the road, and I'm right next to all these trees. And I'm thinking if I just paid attention, who knows what I might see. Unfortunately, I have never seen one. I would love to see one. But I've heard about them and I know they're here.

LYDEN: How do you know? I mean, you just know from news reports?

Ms. FLETCHER-SHEW: Well, the first time that I had any interaction with anyone who has dealt with them is a gentleman from Fish and Wildlife. While I was walking my dog, on No Name Key, he got out of his vehicle and he asked me if I was aware that there are pythons. And I was shocked because I have small dogs. I have a small yorkie and a beagle. And I told him, no. And he said, well, I needed to pay attention when I was near the sides of the road because we have a lot of trees.

LYDEN: What would you do if you saw one?

Ms. FLETCHER-SHEW: The first thing I would do is exactly as the officers in Fish and Wildlife instructed me to do. I would stay there until an officer comes out, so I can kind of keep an eye on it.

LYDEN: You sound like a very intrepid person.

Ms. FLETCHER-SHEW: Well, I'm in my vehicle, and I would just roll my windows up and keep talking.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Marsha Fletcher-Shew is a mail carrier, and she's based out of the post office in Big Pine Key, Florida. And good luck in your sightings.

Ms. FLETCHER-SHEW: Thank you so much.

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