Maybe it won’t end up causing much of a headache for people living in south-central Missouri, but the other day I saw an online news report about something that has the potential to bring about some real problems for folks in south Florida.

By now, most of us have heard reports of people coming across huge Burmese pythons living in Florida swamps, and maybe even seen photos or video of guys wrestling with a 20-footer. Of course, the giant snakes are not native to the Sunshine State, but pets released by numbskull residents have found the climate and conditions of the southern portion of the peninsula to be much to their liking, and have subsequently flourished (and are probably even breeding).

But it’s not the big, legless reptiles that are beginning to become a concern. No, it’s something far stranger (and grosser) than that.

It’s a snail.

Apparently, giant African land snails have made their way to Florida and are quickly making the presence known. First noticed in the Miami-Dade County area in late 2011, the dang things can grow up to eight inches long, live as long as nine years, and lay a whopping 1,200 eggs a year.

Doug Davison

Doug Davison

Big deal, you say. They’re big, prolific, and enjoy a long existence.

Yeah, but they’re also known to eat at least 500 species of plants, and even consume stucco and plaster that provide calcium for their shells. Not only that, if you’re unlucky enough to run over one that’s hurrying across a highway, its industrial strength shell might cause your car’s tire to have a blowout.

Wow. Snail 1, car 0.

What’s more, a healthy African land snail can even turn your lawnmower into a deadly weapon, because if you inadvertently mow one, its shell can come flying out at high velocity, like shrapnel from a bomb. They’ll even eat through signs and plastic garbage bins, and can carry a human parasite called rat lungworm (a form of meningitis), that is sometimes deadly.

And of course, what giant snail scenario would be complete without a giant slime trail being left behind everywhere they go?

“It becomes a slick mess,” said Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Service spokesperson Denise Feiber.

Nice.

Although this is the first time I’ve heard of African land snails wreaking slimy havoc in Florida, it’s oddly enough not the first time Floridians have dealt with these rat-sized menaces. It happened before when a boy brought three of the ironclad mollusks home from Hawaii in the 1960s, and unwittingly set off an all-out (and expensive) war. By doing what the species apparently does better than most, those three representatives of this special-ops brand of invertebrate turned into tens of thousands in a scant seven years, and eradicating the hoard took a decade and $1 million – an amount that would translate into way, way more in today’s economy.

Since then, African land snails have perhaps learned something from rabbits, because this time around, “trappers” (snail trappers – who knew…) have already collected more than 117,000 of them. To boot, the Florida AG Department has indicated it doesn’t want the current eradication project to last as long, so meetings with experts from across the United States and Canada have taken place to devise a strategy.

For goodness sake, top-level North American AG minds gathering in the name of combating snail terrorism and avoiding a major outbreak of armor-plated, structure-munching giant snails. Sounds a lot like a science fiction movie screenplay waiting to be written.

An obvious question raised by Florida’s current snail dilemma is “how did the new invasion of the massive mollusks start?” Answers include some not-so-disturbing possibilities, like they were pets similar to the situation with the Hawaiian vacation boy of the 60s, they simply hitched a ride inside a travelers’ luggage, or they were being used for rituals by a religious group with West African and Caribbean roots. But Feiber also posed a much yuckier possibility.

“If you got a ham sandwich in Jamaica or the Dominican Republic, or an orange, and you didn’t eat it all and you bring it back into the States and then you discard it, at some point, things can emerge from those products,” she said.

“Emerge from those products?” Eeeewww!

So what we’re saying here is, if you’ve had a sandwich in a Caribbean country, ingredients in it might have been – aw, geez – seasoned with snail eggs, sautéed with snail slime, or even topped with snail toddlers. Maybe the incidental invertebrate inclusion in your lunch was inadvertent, but one word still comes to mind: Nooooooooo…..!

Next time I’m in Trinidad at lunchtime, I think I’ll microwave a frozen burrito and wash it down with a bottled soda.

Them: “You being interested in a sondwich, mon?”

Me: “Thank you, no.”

Anyway, I certainly hope I never have first-hand experience with snails so strong that a person could sprain an ankle by stomping on one, or need a front end alignment by running over one. My wife and I already have enough on our hands maintaining our crooked old stucco-coated farmhouse; the last thing we need is a band of ravenous rogue snails eating it.

“They’re huge, they move around, they look like they’re looking at you and communicating with you, and people enjoy them for that,” Feiber said.

Sure, and they probably also have little cameras mounted in their antennae, and we’re being watched by aliens plotting an interplanetary takeover.

Miami-Dade may be ground zero for the invasion of the monster mollusks, but apparently the situation is not necessarily limited to south Florida. African land snails have been found in midwest schools, pet shops, and even a private breeding operation, and experts believe that a new infestation could result if one escaped or was released.

Not on my watch. While some countries with similar snail issues have reportedly run out of resources to fight the critters (like Ecuador and Barbados), this is one battle I feel we must refuse to lose.

I say the fewer African land snails, the better, and I have a suggestion for those Florida authorities who spent many tax dollars in meetings with some of the continent’s leading giant snail outbreak and eradication experts: Keep it simple. Distribute salt shakers to citizens, have prison inmates clean up the mess, and in three months the whole thing’s a mushy memory.

And I’m sure all those titanium-reinforced shells left lying around could somehow be put to good use. Where there’s a giant snail, there’s a way.

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Email:  ddavison@houstonherald.com.

An African land snail. Yuck.

An African land snail. Yuck.

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