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In praise of Hawaii's own snake-bagging saints


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POSTED: Tuesday, February 24, 2009

St. Patrick's Day is just around the corner, paying tribute to the man recognized in legend for ridding Ireland of its snakes.

Like Hawaii, Ireland is surrounded by water, but that doesn't guarantee protection. In the islands, ships and planes certainly provide the means by which snakes can and have slithered in.

In an attempt to keep them out, state and federal animal and plant inspectors search bags, boxes, cargo, building and military supplies and equipment. Still, the occasional snake alert is a reminder of the reality of the environmental and economic devastation that could occur here if snakes were to become established. (Where's St. Patrick when you need him?)

The scary part is that snakes have, indeed, found their way past inspectors and into the valleys surrounding the airport, leading agriculture and defense personnel—including snake-sniffing dogs—on spirited chases through Moanalua Valley and the surrounding neighborhoods.

The brown tree snake (Boiga irregularis) continues to give inspectors sleepless nights. This native of Indonesia, New Guinea, Australia and the Solomon Islands not only eats poultry, eggs and pets, but has extraordinary climbing abilities. When power lines provide the platform for the snake's high-wire acts, the result is often a costly power outage.

This accidentally introduced predator has caused the extinction of nearly all of Guam's native bird species—climbing trees to eat the eggs right out of their nests.

The brown tree snake is also mildly venomous (how much poison is considered “;mild”; varies from person to person and by age group). Sadly, we do know that its bite can injure or even kill infants and young children, according to the departments of agriculture and defense.

Yes, it's sometimes humbug to shuffle through agricultural inspection lines at the airport—opening bags, then re-packing them, but the wait is worthwhile. Unlike children in the mountains of Georgia where I grew up, Hawaii's keiki are rarely warned to watch out for snakes when they venture into wooded areas.

OK, there is the brahminy blind snake, accidentally introduced to the islands in the 1980s in potting soil. Fortunately these snakes are worm-like in size and prefer eating the introduced termites and ants that we are not attached to. Still, this worm pretender is a reminder that the continual vigilance of state, county and federal agents is vital to islands like ours—home to so many endangered species that evolved together long before we came on the scene.

Perhaps we should have a Thank a Quarantine Inspector Day. Quarantine personnel don't just work at the airport, checking through tons of luggage, they routinely check botanical gardens and greenhouses on all islands for invasive pests and are dispatched all over the islands whenever there is a snake sighting.

A snake in a plane's wheel case or hiding in a stack of tires just offloaded is hard to see in the dark. Whenever a snake may have been sighted, quarantine inspectors and their dogs scour the area from tarmac to hillside—often returning with the bagged intruder within hours.

Video footage of brown tree snake invasions in Guam is an environmental lesson that will keep you up all night: Snakes in cribs, snakes slithering into homes through torn window screens, snakes wrapping themselves around curtain rods. Who needs horror movies?

Seven brown tree snakes have been found at port facilities on Oahu. “;If this species becomes established in Hawaii or other Pacific islands, it will cause ecological and economic disaster,”; the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service warned as long ago as 1996 in one of its Pest Alerts.

So, enjoy the St. Patty's Day festivities, and be grateful to all who work to keep snakes out of Hawaii. Wear something green, dance a jig, hug a quarantine inspector!