In southwest Miami, a small subdivision is being called "ground zero" of an invasion by a destructive, non-native species. "It's us against the snails," Richard Gaskalla, head of plant industry for Florida's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. That's the Giant African Land Snail, to be precise. They can grow to be 10 inches long. They leave a slimy trail of excrement wherever they go. They harbor the microscopic rat-lung worm, which can transmit meningitis to humans.
And they will literally eat your house. "They'll attach to the side of the house and eat the stucco off the side of the house," Gaskalla says. The snails are also attracted to garbage and pet food that's been left out. Giant African Land Snails are restricted in the US. Gaskalla says people often smuggle them into the country in their pockets, because they make popular novelty pets.
"Back in 1965 we had an introduction that was traced back to an elementary-aged child that had put two of them in his pocket in Hawaii and brought them back to Miami," Gaskalla says. "Seventeen-thousand snails, a million dollars, and ten years, we eradicated them." A more recent introduction several years ago was traced to small religious sects in Miami, where the snails are believed to harbor healing properties.
"A young woman had come in with some stomach ailments, and her mother said she had been fed the juices of a live snail as a healing rite," Gaskalla says. "That's not in my medicine chest," he adds. Authorities are asking residents not to handle the creatures. Anyone who finds a suspicious snail is advised to call the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Workers or volunteers will ID and collect the snails before taking them to be killed in a freezer. "That's sort of a kinder, gentler way to get rid of them," Gaskalla explains.