In 1969 thousands of giant African snails invaded Dade County, eating lawns and shrubs, and edging hungrily toward the vegetable fields and nurseries south of Kendall.
"It was nasty," recalls Maeve McConnell, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services. "You'd crunch as you drove down the road. People were hitting them with lawnmowers, and there was quite a horrendous odor. We put out poison bait. We hired people for minimum wage to go around with sacks picking them up. Officially, they weren't eradicated until 1975."
Last month while on vacation, a state agriculture inspector named Steve Bidler walked into a Tallahassee pet shop and made an alarming discovery: A voracious, softball-size cousin of the giant African snail had returned to America. Federal officials in Florida and 24 other states have since been scrambling to trace and capture approximately 1000 giant banana rasp snails that were illegally shipped from Lagos, Nigeria, through New York City off and on during the past five years. The snails are being sold as terrarium pets.
Exactly how the forbidden snails managed to enter the country is something of a mystery. Official distaste for the mollusks, though, is quite clear. "They've been known to eat paint from houses, and any kinds of fruits and vegetables, especially melons," says Roberta McCorkle, a spokeswoman for the United States Department of Agriculture in Maryland. "They're basically just giant slugs with a shell, and they eat a quarter of their body weight a day. They're hermaphrodites - they have organs of both sexes and can reproduce with either - and do, really fast. If you purchased this type of snail - and you can tell if you have because it's huge, slimy, and brown - you should turn it in at the nearest USDA inspection office."
Cooperating pet shops and traders have so far turned in 100 of the slow-moving gastropods, McCorkle says. The USDA has confiscated another 90. "We've euthanized them as humanely as possible," she claims. How? "We boil them. Occasionally we freeze them. One of the guys wanted to bring in some salt and butter and eat one, but we didn't think that was right."
Federal officials were especially concerned that the snails would escape and proliferate in South Florida's hospitable habitat. But by last week that seemed unlikely. Of 345 banana rasp snails shipped from New York to Miami, only two were unaccounted for this past Friday. Good record keeping by merchants has greatly helped the federal snail task force, its members say.
So has Archachatina marginata's native intolerance of cold weather. Brian Blackwood and Leo Baumer, two competing local animal dealers who last handled the snails in Dade County, say a total of 225 died unexpectedly before they could be sold. Most of the remaining snails were shipped to customers outside Florida, and have also reportedly died in large numbers.
"They sat in New York out on the runways when it was twenty degrees," snorts Blackwood, a South Dade reptile trader. "Think if you were naked sitting out on a runway in New York. Now imagine you're a crustacean, just made out of mucus and water and shit. When they die, it's really disgusting, let me tell you. It's like snot running out of 'em, and it stinks to high heaven. It's not pretty, believe me. I just put 'em in a bag and took 'em to the dump."
Elyyn Segrest of Tampa, the world's largest pet-store wholesaler, purchased 127 snails. All but three are now accounted for following a government dragnet in sixteen states and three Florida cities. Like Blackwood and Baumer, Segrest says a New York broker first sent him a free sample of the snails last fall. He bought more after the broker assured him the exotic slowpokes had been inspected and approved by health officials. "USDA checked 'em, U.S. Fish and Wildlife looked at 'em," Segrest says, "so I thought they were all right."
But USDA officials claim the contraband snails were smuggled in with shipments of reptiles that arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport. The snails were never listed on manifests, they say. Although federal wildlife officials check all foreign animal shipments, they never brought the snails to the attention of agricultural inspectors.
Mike Goode, reptile curator at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio, says the Florida snail buyers sound a tad too ingenuous. "Everyone knows these things are illegal to bring in," he notes. "It's not like it's some piece of arcane knowledge. I'm just surprised there was a market for them."
The giant snails that found their way to Florida can all be traced back to Richard Allen Stubbs, a shadowy Togo-based reptile importer whom Miami traders variously describe as "a nice guy" and "the most greediest human alive." Records show that Stubbs' Global Exports in New Jersey sold Baumer his snails. Blackwood got his from East Coast Reptiles, which in turn received them from another Stubbs company, Louisiana-based R&R Exotic Imports. Segrest purchased his snails from a long-time Stubbs business associate, Dr. T.J. Singh.
After an incident on November 19, 1991, Stubbs paid thousands of dollars in restitution and acknowledged that another of his companies, S&S Imports, had abandoned 179 lizards, 40 pythons, and nearly 1000 tarantulas, centipedes, and scorpions in a warehouse near suburban Westerville, Ohio. "We wanted to have him charged with 1500 counts of animal cruelty, but to do that we would have had to hold all the animals as evidence for months, and that wasn't practical," says Nancy Ray, marketing director for the Capital Area Humane Society in Columbus.
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Stubbs could not be reached for comment in Africa, but he is due to appear June 8 in a Columbus, Ohio, courtroom. In April a federal grand jury indicted him and partner Richard P. "Ricky" Duffield, Jr., with smuggling 47 endangered baby crocodiles from Nigeria to Ohio last August. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent at Kennedy airport discovered the crocodiles concealed beneath false bottoms in two crates of land crabs contained in a larger, 50-carton shipment of tropical fish.
According to a federal law enforcement source in South Florida, Duffield and the 50-year-old Stubbs recently rented a 10,000-square-foot warehouse in Dade County and plan to shift their operations to Miami. Another source says Stubbs and Duffield have developed a new transportation scheme that calls for shipping exotic reptiles out of Nigeria to Miami by way of Brazil.
"This snail thing is a real labyrinth, more so than most of the problems we deal with," notes McCorkle, the USDA spokeswoman. "We are learning more and more as we look into the seedy world of snail trading. For instance, there are these pet swap meets we didn't know about. We found one guy in Chicago who swapped ten snails for a boa constrictor. If you show up on Saturday morning in the right place, you'll see people trading cats and dogs and all sorts of things. But that's another story."
Inspectors believe they will ultimately find all but a very few of the alien snails. And then they will have to hope that those few are not released into the wild. Meanwhile, Miami tropical fish importer Baumer says he's sick of being hounded by federal officials, and singularly unimpressed with the banana rasp snail. "Government people came here four different times, and they all seemed not to know each other," he says. "What's the big deal? These aren't giant snails. I used to get giant apple snails from the Amazon River in Peru, and breed them in my tanks here in Miami. Now, those were snails!