Giant snails invaded Florida in 2011 and began infesting the countryside, quickly presenting a very real threat to the state's $100 million agricultural economy. It has been two long years in a grueling Miami-Dade County ground war that has produced some 128,000 casualties among the ranks of the Giant African Land Snail, a particularly destructive mollusk that eats plants and plaster, but the tenacious enemy just might be on its last legs (well, perhaps if the pests actually had any). As Florida agricultural officials report that the numbers being corralled and destroyed are far fewer than last year, they also are about to introduce what they believe might be the coup de grace for the invasive species -- dogs.
Reuters reported (via Yahoo News) Aug. 29 that Florida seems to have turned the tide against the giant snails. Florida and federal agricultural authorities believe the snails, which can grown to the size a rat, are on the retreat due to an intensive -- and extensive -- ground campaign to exterminate the pests. Part of their success also stems from Miami-Dade County residents calling in whenever they spy one of the slow-moving shell-carriers. But Florida state officials now have another weapon to deploy -- trained, giant snail-sniffing dogs.
“After two years of battling this invasive and destructive pest, we are confident that we will win this fight,” Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam H. Putnam said in a statement posted to the official website of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “We’re now using a more effective bait and, with the help of canine detector teams, we’re able to detect snails in areas that were previously difficult to access.”
WTVJ-TV in Miami reported that the agency has one in-training -- and already hard at work -- Labrador retriever that goes out with the ground-scouring teams. Answering to the name of "Bear," the dog has been trained to pick up the rather strong scent of the Giant African Land Snail. Soon, Bear will be joined by two more dogs and the trio will be the center of what is being referred to as "canine detection units."
It isn't certain just how the invasive snail species first arrived in Florida, although it is believed that they may have been brought over by a Miami Santeria sect, a group whose religious practices have Caribbean and West African roots. Authorities discovered that the snails were being used by the group in their rituals in 2012.
The rapidly multiplying giant snails soon became common pests. Known to eat over 500 different types of plants. They can spread a parasite that causes a form of meningitis -- the rat lungworm -- as well. Although no known cases of meningitis has been traced back to the giant snails themselves, it is feared that they could become potential disease spreaders.
The Miami Herald reports that scientists have found the parasite among captured specimens. Experts warn that infection can be passed on to humans either by consuming raw snails via slime-smeared unwashed produce. A third way the meningitis parasite could be contracted would be by rubbing the mucus in one's eyes, nose or mouth.
Thus far, the Sunshine State has spent nearly $8 million dollars -- three-quarters of the funds coming from the U. S. Department of Agriculture -- in its attempts to eradicate the slimy pests. But with the numbers of reported captures and eliminations down to hundreds when they once were in the thousands, Florida officials are beginning to hope that they just might soon rid the area of the giant snails.
It is believed that the snails have been contained to the Miami-Dade County area.
So how effective will the dogs be?
"They're [the Labrador Retrievers] very good at detecting the Giant African Land Snail," said Richard Gaskalla, the head of plant industry at the Florida Agriculture Department. "So we're building four-legged technology into this program as quickly as we can."