Giant Snails Invasion: Florida Enlists Dogs To Combat The Rat-Sized Creatures

on August 30, 2013 5:52 PM EDT

giant snails
Giant African Land Snails invaded Florida in 2011, killing plants and destroying stucco walls. Florida is now using canines to sniff out the creatures. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Officials in Florida are trying to wipe out giant snails using a novel weapon: Labrador retrievers. The Giant African Land Snail, an invasive species that destroys everything from plants to stucco walls, descended upon Miami-Dade County two years ago. Officials are using the dogs in addition to other snail-destroying techniques, including physically collecting the snails and laying down bait. 

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"After two years of battling this invasive and destructive pest, we are confident that we will win this fight," said Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam H. Putnam. "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."

About 130,000 of the giant snails have been eradicated in Florida since 2011. A full-time crew of 50 people from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is dedicated to collecting and destroying the giant snails, a massive -- and massively expensive -- operation that is necessary because of the snails' ability to destroy agricultural crops as well as stucco walls. 

Giant snails are potential carriers of "rat lungworm," a parasite that can cause meningitis. The infection can reach humans who eat unwashed produce that have come into contact with giant snails, or by rubbing one's eyes, nose or mouth after touching such produce. While no one has become infected so far, officials in Florida have collected giant snails carrying the parasite.

"We see a lot of strange things in this state of Florida but this is at the top of the list," said Putnam.

So Putnam and his team have enlisted the help of "canine detector teams," composed of dogs like Bear. Dogs are helpful in sniffing out giant snails in places humans have trouble reaching. Bear, a trainee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has found hundreds of snails each week since being deployed.

"[The dogs are] very good at detecting the Giant African Land Snail," said Richard Gaskalla of the Florida Agriculture Department. "So we're building four-legged technology into this program as quickly as we can."

Officials think the giant snails first appeared in 2011 after a man smuggled a couple of the creatures into Florida for use in traditional African religion ritual. Before the 2011 invasion, the last giant snail outbreak in Florida occurred in 1966, when a boy brought three pet snails back from Hawaii. The resulting giant snail invasion took ten years to eradicate.

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