I was walking my svelte 85-pound chocolate lab when a sizable lizard toppled from a tree, bounced off my shoulder and landed on the sidewalk. Although discomfited, we continued on our way, me reflecting on the hazards of our new home in Southwest Florida, Mambo keeping a hungry eye on the trees above.
I’ve always considered South Florida to be a sort of paradise. Yes, I know it’s not Monte Carlo or Bora Bora but you don’t need a passport and it’s retirement-friendly. It’s generally sunny, never snows and I’m at an age when early bird specials don’t seem nearly as absurd as they did ten years ago. After all, it takes longer to chew and digest dinner when you’re over 50.
But I didn’t bargain for the perils that have come to be synonymous with Florida life over the past few years. And, in case you’re unaware, I’ll fill you in on the darker side of the Sunshine State:
Reason #1 to flee South Florida: Walking catfish.
Yes, they are a thing. Apparently the Southwest Florida climate agrees with this strange, invasive strain of catfish from Africa and southern Asia. In addition to swimming, the walking catfish, Clarias batrachus, breathes air and walks on land. With fleshy lips and four pairs of whiskers, it grows up to three feet long and can be seen strolling across roads and lawns in search of new bodies of water. Initially imported for the pet industry and for food, these slippery escape artists soon wiggled off and began breeding in the wild, becoming nearly as commonplace as lizards that fall from trees.
Reason #2 to flee South Florida: Bufo toads.
Even if I liked frogs, bufo toads, otherwise known as giant, cane, or marine toads, would be tough to embrace. Brown, squat and spotted, bufos grow to half a foot of unmitigated ugliness. They sit, Buddha-like, smug in the knowledge that they can spray, at will, a highly toxic milky substance from glands at the back of their head. Though just an irritant to humans, the secretion is deadly to dogs and cats when swallowed. I take particular joy in finding them flattened by the area’s terrible drivers (See Reason #5 to flee South Florida) on the road as I walk Mambo, trying to avoid falling lizards, walking catfish and squirting bufo toads.
Reason #3 to flee South Florida: Burmese pythons.
There are snakes. And then there are Burmese pythons. Another invasive species from Southeast Asia, naïve pet owners released them into the Everglades after waking up one day and saying, “Holy crap! Little Ziggy’s grown bigger than our Volvo!” One of the largest snake species on Earth, these constrictors are now breeding and slithering all over the region. Although more than 2,000 have been removed from the Everglades, experts estimate that upwards of 300,000 more may be lurking, gobbling up nearly everything in sight, from bobcats to slow-moving humans. They can grow over 20 feet in length and weigh up to 200 pounds with a girth as big as a telephone pole. The plus side: They eat plummeting lizards, walking catfish, and bufo toads.
Reason #4 to flee South Florida: Toxic algae.
It was just last summer that Southwest Florida residents watched as the dazzling blue-green water of the Gulf of Mexico turned into green sludge. Toxic algae blooms that originated in central Florida’s Lake Okeechobee and were pumped through the state’s canals ended up in Fort Myers and on Sanibel Island. Characterized as “guacamole-thick,” the unhealthy muck deterred beachgoers, boaters and wildlife, causing widespread fear that slimy green water may become the new normal. The silver lining:
Anything that lands in it is DOA, including suicidal lizards, walking catfish, bufo toads, and Burmese pythons. Another plus: Our favorite restaurants were a lot less crowded throughout the summer!
Reason #5 to flee South Florida: Terrible drivers.
I don’t like to generalize but South Florida has some of the most God-awful drivers I’ve ever seen. Having lived in frenetic metro areas across the U.S., I’ve witnessed some bad driving. But the combination of old folks, Cadillacs, and blinding sun seems to melt brain cells. Little bald and white-crowned pates peek above steering wheels as they careen in and out of lanes, pull onto highways at minus ten miles per hour, or play bumper cars with you in shopping center parking lots. But our beloved seniors do provide a public service: They unwittingly mow down anything in their path as they head home from early bird dinners.
The list of dangers goes on and on: I haven’t even mentioned the dreaded Zika virus, six-foot-long monitor lizards, fire ants, giant iguanas, hurricanes, alligators, sea lice, deadly Nile crocodiles, wildfires, or the guy who called 911 because he ran out of vodka and his girlfriend refused to go out and buy it for him. There’s also a mutant Muscovy duck that lunges at Mambo when we cross paths. And how could I forget the biting midges?
Yes, living in Southwest Florida has turned out to be an unexpected adventure. Yet in spite of the hazards, both animal and human, there’s a lot to be said for leaving the snow shovels and down coats behind. The sunsets over the Gulf are spectacular. Just keep an eye out for erratic Cadillacs, creeping carnivores, and strange rustlings in the bushes.