Teenager Elizabeth Bearden says it’s hard to explain why she’s so fond of the giant Burmese pythons her parents raise at their home in Landon, South Carolina.
She describes how she got to know Daisy, an 18-foot, 230-pound python. “At first, with Daisy, I was scared,” she says. “But after a while, it was really fun.”
Daisy is one of about 30 Burmese pythons – or “burms,” as owners often call them – that the Beardens keep at their home near Charleston. Elizabeth, 13, is fascinated by the giant reptiles.
“They’re so sweet,” she says. “I don’t know how to explain it. They’re like a dog to me, pretty much. Except that they don’t jump all over you like a dog. They’re a lot calmer.”
Elizabeth Bearden, 13, of Landon, South Carolina, with one of her family’s 30 pythons. The snake’s name is X.
Photo courtesy of Bearden family
Elizabeth’s mother, Theresa, explains that Daisy got her name because she was so graceful and ladylike despite her size.
“She was a very delicate snake, very feminine,” Theresa says. “As she got huge, people laughed when they found out her name.”
The Beardens have fulltime jobs and breed and sell the snakes as a sideline business. They’ve named all their pythons. There’s Fiona, an albino that Theresa named for her Irish grandparents. Another is named Chodro. And there’s X, who got that name because that’s what the snake’s hiss sounded like to one of Theresa’s kindergarten-age daughters.
Elizabeth’s fondness for the pythons has pointed her towards a possible career. She wants to study herpetology – the science of reptiles and amphibians – and open a veterinary clinic for exotic animals.
Such passion for giant serpents – or any serpent, for that matter – goes against the instinctive fear of snakes that is deeply embedded in the human psyche. But those who own Burmese pythons and other large, non-venomous constrictors are as fond of their snakes as other pet owners are of their cats and dogs.
Chris DeLange of Cedarville, Ohio, owns several large snakes. In this photo of DeLange, the biggest snake, Nancy, is a 7-year-old Columbian boa. Marquise is the light snake, 2 years old, and also a Columbian boa. Kahn, in DeLange’s hand, is a 2-year-old Argentine boa.
Photo courtesy of Chris DeLange
“People have a fear of them, and it’s understandable,” says Chris DeLange, who, with his wife, keeps eight snakes, including a Malaysian python and several boa constrictors at his home in Cedarville, Ohio. They don’t show emotion like a dog or cat, and that, in large part, is why people are not fond of them. Unless you’re experienced with them, they’re very hard to read.”
But the snakes are “simple to keep,” he says. You feed them every week or two, keep the temperature of their cages regulated, and make sure they have water. The DeLanges’s snakes are not as large as the Burmese pythons. His Malaysian python is around three long and his boa constrictor is a little over six feet.
Like Elizabeth Bearden, DeLange also acknowledges the difficulty of explaining why he likes his snakes. “They’re really just fascinating,” he says. “I get a kick out of holding them, feeling their size and strength. They’re very graceful animals. They’re just fascinating to watch.”
Theresa Bearden says she and her husband keep their pythons in a separate part of their home behind a locked door, and the snakes’ cages also are locked. Sometimes visitors to her home are uneasy around the snakes, but many of them eventually warm up to the pythons and even want to touch them.
“I’ve had friends who have taken two years to eventually touch one,” she says. “And I’ve had friends call and say, ‘Can we come over and play with the snakes?’”
Pythons, boa constrictors and similar snakes aren’t native to North America. But the business of importing and selling them in the United States is popular and profitable. Their presence has caused some problems, however, especially in the Florida Everglades, where Burmese pythons that escaped or were released into the wild have easily adapted to the warm, subtropical climate and are reproducing.
“National Geographic Explorer: Python Wars” airs in the United States on February 9, at 10 p.m. on National Geographic Channel. Click on the video above to watch an excerpt. Click here to view more excerpts and get additional information.
Estimates of the number of pythons in the Glades vary wildly, from as few as 5,000 to more than 100,000. Because of their size and the absence of any natural predators, the pythons instantly moved to the top of the food chain in the Glades, home to dozens of species of animals not found anywhere else in the U.S. Federal and state wildlife officials fear that the pythons eventually will decimate the unique wildlife in the Everglades.
The U.S. Congress is considering legislation that would prohibit importation of pythons and similar exotic snakes, and also ban interstate transportation of the animals. And while the legislation would not make it illegal to possess the snakes, it would put the snake breeders out of business, DeLange says.
“It would essentially bankrupt the breeders because they’d have to sell only within their own state,” DeLange says.
There’s also a continuing debate about whether the Everglades pythons are likely to migrate. A U.S. Geological Survey study says pythons eventually could survive as far north as the District of Columbia and as far west as California. But a study by researchers at the City University of New York concluded that pythons couldn’t survive outside of Florida.
Theresa Bearden says her family will keep their pythons regardless of whether Congress clamps down on importation and interstate transport of the snakes.
“I can’t imagine life without them” she says. “They bring so much into my life. If you could handle them you’d understand them more.”
Willie Drye is the author of “Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935,” published by National Geographic, and a regular contributor to National Geographic News. He has also written for the Toronto Globe and Mail, the Washington Post, the Tampa Tribune and the Orlando Sentinel.
Drye is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Visit his blog: “Drye Goods.”
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