Snakes on the plains?
The problem with the alarming spread in The Oklahoman – replete with the headshot of a frightening-looking Burmese python – is that the danger of a snake invasion is really quite remote, as the newspaper's own story makes clear.
So, why did the Oklahoman play this non-story in the sensational fashion it did? I left a phone message for editor Ed Kelley and, so far, haven’t heard back.
But I did have an interesting conversation with zoologist Gordon Rodda of the U.S. Geographic Survey, one of the scientists whose research formed the basis for the story. Here is what he said:
The USGS undertook a study of what climates in the United States theoretically could support the spread of a growing population of non-indigenous Burmese pythons that have taken up residence in the Florida Everglades. The areas warm and humid enough to support the non-poisonous constrictors could include Oklahoma, depending on how global warming shakes out over the next 100 years.
“But, if the implication in the newspaper story is that it is going to happen next Thursday, that’s irresponsible,” said Gordon. “It is a very dramatic way they portrayed it.”
The particular irony of the Oklahoman's story is that it was so thoroughly reported by staffer Josh Rabe that no reasonable editor could have inadvertently misconstrued its significance.
In but one example, Josh quotes a local snake expert as saying it is “just absurd” to fear a Burmese python invasion in Oklahoma. “If you put one out in the front yard on a day like today,” said snake breeder Bob Clark in a week when low temperatures were in the mid-20s, “you would have a snake-sickle by the end of the day.”
To be sure, an onslaught of Burmese pythons would terrifying. The snakes can grow to lengths of 20 feet and become as fat as a telephone pole, says Gordon. Although the creatures are not poisonous, they instantly wrap themselves around their prey, squeezing the life out of the victim before gulping it down.
Although the snakes are capable of traveling as far 20 miles in a day, Gordon can't imagine them bellying all the way from Florida to Oklahoma City. “It is unlikely they would keep moving long enough in the same direction, given the randomness of their movements,” he explains.
If the danger is negligible of telephone poll-sized Burmese pythons slithering 1,500 miles from the Everglades to Oklahoma City, then why would the newspaper have played the story in the way it did?
“With newspapers,” says Gordon, “it’s their business to make a big deal out of things.”
Is it any wonder why four out of five people don’t trust the media?