Dogs help catch unwanted giant African snails

It may not be fast, but it’s big, hungry and breeding fast: the giant African snail, a potential health risk for humans, has invaded the southern American state of Florida again.

Jason Stanley, a Florida Department of Agriculture biologist, says that gastropods feed voraciously on more than 500 different plant species.

“We are concerned that this is happening in our environment,” he told AFP.

Since June 23, his agency has been combing the gardens of New Port Richey, a small town on Florida’s west coast where the invasive species has taken root.

Stanley explains that one giant African snail can lay up to 2,000 eggs a year, which, combined with its appetite, could spell disaster for the state’s powerful agricultural sector.

On a grassy patch of land in New Port Ritchie Mellon, a yellow Labrador trained to sniff out snails walks with his trainer. He dives under a tree and sniffs the grass. When Mellon eventually finds the snail, he sits right on top of it as he was taught.

Florida authorities believe the snail, originally from East Africa, was reintroduced to the state when someone brought it home as a pet. Unlike other brown-tinted giant snails, this particular breed has white flesh.

Pasco County resident Jay Pasqua holds dead giant African snails he found in his backyard in New Port Richey, Florida on July 21, 2022. (Photo by CHANDAN KHANNA / AFP)

“These white phenotypes are very popular in the pet trade,” Stanley noted.

Thanks to the talents of Mellon and another snail-sniffing dog, more than 1,000 giant African snails have already been caught in Pasco County, where New Port Richey is located. Authorities are also trying to eradicate giant snails by using metaldehyde, a pesticide that is harmless to humans and animals.

The Florida Department of Agriculture has established a quarantine zone in New Port Richey: no plants or other vegetation can be removed from the area to try to prevent further spread of the snails.

“Another problem with this snail is that it carries a rat lung worm that can cause meningitis in humans,” Stanley added.

This type of parasite, which has been found among snails caught in Pasco County, enters the lungs of rats when they eat the snails and then spreads when the rats cough. If a person ingests one of the worms, it usually ends up in the brainstem, where it can cause meningitis, Stanley said.

Local resident Jay Pasqua still can’t believe the hype caused by the giant African snail. In late June, a department employee came to his New Port Richey lawnmower dealer and repair shop to note the presence of an invasive species.

“In the beginning, it was pretty funny to see all the attention the snail was getting,” said the 64-year-old. “But [after] Starting to understand the process of their growth, how they got here, what diseases and what problems they cause, at that time it really became a problem.

He has since found dozens of pests in his garden, though he says he hasn’t seen one in three days. The giant African snail has been culled from other parts of Florida twice, first in 1975 and then again in 2021. The latest eradication campaign was the result of a 10-year effort and cost $23 million. Stanley says he hopes it will be much easier this time.

“So far, he is isolated in one area, and we are already examining and treating this area. So we really hope it won’t take that long here.”