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Originally published September 16, 2011 at 4:46 PM | Page modified September 16, 2011 at 9:40 PM

Giant snails invade Miami

The silent, slithery invasion of an army of Giant African snails in a southwest Miami subdivision has federal and state agricultural officials launching a time-consuming expensive counterattack.

The Miami Herald

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MIAMI — The silent, slithery invasion of an army of Giant African snails in a southwest Miami subdivision has federal and state agricultural officials launching a time-consuming expensive counterattack.

"It's us against the snails," said Richard Gaskalla, director of plant industry at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The snails, of the species Achatina fulica, can grow up to 10 inches long and 4 inches wide and are considered one of the most damaging land snails in the world. They eat at least 500 types of plants, lay about 1,200 eggs a year and can carry a strain of nonfatal meningitis. Prolific breeders, they contain both female and male reproductive organs and live for up to nine years.

They can be particularly devastating to agricultural areas and ecosystems, and they can result in trade bans. Hailing from Eastern Africa, the snails are only allowed into the United States with special permits and for scientific research.

Two sisters alerted officials to the invasion last week, waving down a fruit-fly inspector doing a routine check. The siblings had tired of the pests, who love cool, dark spots, thrive in limestone, concrete and cement and are drawn to recycling boxes, compost heaps and cat food.

Gaskalla and his team this week meticulously combed through the neighborhood he termed "ground zero" in the attack. About 50 state and federal officials are going house-by-house, removing the pests by plastic-gloved hand.

The mollusks are transferred to freezers in an effort at "humane death," Gaskalla said.

When Victoria Loyacono and her family moved in last month, they noticed the snails on their wall, "all over, there wasn't one clear spot."

Authorities also are trying to determine if the outbreak of snails is tied to a smuggling case uncovered last year.

In 2010, federal officials opened a criminal investigation into Hialeah, Fla., resident Charles Stewart, who was accused of smuggling the creatures into the country. Stewart practiced the traditional African religion Ifa Orisha, and authorities said he persuaded followers to drink the snails' juices as part of a healing ritual. Several practitioners became violently ill.

Stewart was allegedly aided by a woman claiming to be an African priestess who hid snails under her dresses on flights to Miami, according to search warrants filed in the case, which remains open.

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