GUY RAZ, Host:
In the state of Florida this week, in southwest Miami, to be precise, a small subdivision has been invaded by - by what, Richard Gaskalla?
RICHARD GASKALLA: By the giant African snail. It's a very large land snail that is an invasive species that is not native to the United States.
RAZ: Wow. Ten inches long, apparently, 4 inches wide. Thousands of them are overtaking that neighborhood in Miami, apparently, the most damaging land snails in the world. And Richard Gaskalla is the man trying to eliminate them. He's the director of plant industry at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. So Richard, the most damaging land snails in the world? I mean, maybe it's a dumb question - how much damage can a land snail actually do?
GASKALLA: Well, that's a good question. As you mentioned, these snails get very large and they're omnivores. They feed on just about any kind of plant material. They also like substances that have calcium in them, like the side of a house. They'll attach to the side of a house and eat the stucco off the side of the house and leave a slime trail and excrement on the side of the house.
So they're a major nuisance factor, and beyond that, there's a public health threat associated with these snails.
RAZ: ..TEXT: GASKALLA: Well, they harbor a small microscopic worm called the rat lung worm...
...that can transmit meningitis from the snails to humans if you handle them with your bare hands and then touch your mouth, eyes or nose. So we're advising people not to handle the snails. If you see them, call us. We'll come out, send an expert out to collect them, and confirm the ID.
All right. Richard, you are the man charged with doing this. You're the snail hunter. But how did they even get to Florida? Because they're from Africa, right?
GASKALLA: Well, they're from Africa, but they're a novelty. People will put them in their pocket and try to smuggle them in. And they're also used in sort of some weird ways with underground religious sects for healing purposes, so...
RAZ: What do you mean?
GASKALLA: Well, we don't have a lot of details, but religious sects or cults down in Miami use these snails. We had an introduction a couple of years ago that was brought to our attention by a doctor that a young woman had come in with some stomach ailments and her mother said, well, she had been fed the juices of a live snail as a healing rite, and all it did was make her sicker.
GASKALLA: That's not in my medicine chest.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
RAZ: Have they ever invaded the U.S. before?
GASKALLA: Back in 1965, we had an introduction that was traced back to an elementary age child that had put two of them in his pocket in Hawaii and brought them back to Miami. 17,000 snails, $1 million and 10 years later, we eradicated them.
RAZ: It took $1 million? That one - those two snails spawned 17,000 more?
Yeah. These adults can lay 200 eggs in a clutch, thousands in a lifetime. And like any invasive species that's introduced into a new area with no natural enemies, it doesn't take long.
So what are you doing with them when you find them?
What we do is we take them back to our regional office. We have a big chest freezer and we put them to sleep permanently in the freezer.
You just stick them in the freezer?
GASKALLA: Yeah. It takes - you know, we leave them in there for 24 to 48 hours to make sure that they're thoroughly frozen. But that's sort of a kinder, gentler way to get rid of them.
RAZ: What can people, particularly people listening in South Florida, what can they do to defend themselves?
Well, they just need to be on the lookout for these snails. And we have a toll free helpline. Like I said, it's kind of us against the snails. And the residents that have had hundreds of these in their yard right on the block where they were likely established, they're quick to tell you anything you can do to get rid of them.
Richard Gaskalla is the director of plant industry at Florida's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. He's working to get rid of the giant African snails, an invasive species that's arrived to South Florida. Richard, thank you. And good luck.
Thanks a lot.