Friday, September 20, 2019

Burmese Pythons, Drugs and “Invasive Species”

Note: This was my talk with students on Monday, September 16, 2019

This months’s Smithsonian magazine has an article on burmese pythons. They are one of the four largest snakes in the world; females grow to an average of 14-16 feet long. They're also excellent predators, eating small mammals, such as raccoons and opossums, but also birds and other reptiles. They’re excellent swimmers, and like an alligator, can stay just below water level with its nostrils flaring up to breathe, waiting stealthily for its prey to come swimming by. But they can also camouflage themselves on dry land, in bushes, or slither into rabbit holes, or raid fox dens and other breeding holes. 

They’ve become a serious problem in the Everglades, mostly because they are not native to the area. Their natural habitat is southeast Asia, but biologists believe because of the exotic pet trade, which is illegal but rampant in Florida, many pythons have been released into the wild. In fact there was a python breeding facility and zoo in south Florida which was wiped out by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, with all of its pythons escaping.  They breed prolifically—mothers give birth to 60-100 offspring at a time, and now the python has been labeled an official “invasive species” to the Everglades.  

When predator and prey evolve in the same ecosystem together, the predator's  skill as a hunter develop along side the prey’s ability to detect danger and evade. But if someone artificially inserts a non-native predator into that environment, the prey hasn’t evolved the natural instincts to be wary of that predator, and it becomes easy pickings for the predator. 

So it’s become a real problem for the ecosystem in the Everglades. The small mammal population is decreasing at an alarming rate, so much so that teams of scientists are now dedicated to removing as many pythons as possible. They don’t believe it’s possible to wipe them out completely; instead, they're trying to contain the population by targeting females and killing them before they give birth.. But these snakes are really hard to find! Just as they are excellent predators, they are also excellent at evading detection by humans. So they go about finding the females in an interesting way: If they find a male python, rather than kill it, they geo-tag it, so they can trace their whereabouts. Because males are solitary hunters, the scientists know that if two or more males are in the same location, a female is likely nearby. They then hunt her down.  

I’ve been thinking about this idea of “invasive species”—non-native animals that come in and disrupt or take over an environment. You could use that as a good way of talking about sin—that God created a habitat for us which was fundamentally good, but because of sin, an invasive species, our habitat was corrupted to the detriment of us all. 

You could also use this metaphor to talk about high school, with the influence of drugs on student life. Drugs are an "invasive species" that destroy school culture from the inside, one student at a time. I’ve known kids, good kids, who began using drugs—and then through their contacts with other drug users, began to sell drugs to support their habit. I have a particularly sad memory of a young man from 15 or so years ago who was very active in his Church—sincerely so, I believe.  He was charismatic and likable, with many friends, but he began smoking pot as a sophomore, then began to pull away from his school friends, then got bored with pot and started using harder stuff as a junior, and by his senior year was selling drugs to support a full scale addiction. His whole life fell apart when he let this “invasive species” take over his life. 

You know we drug test here. We chose five students, randomly, every Wednesday. It’s a “hair test,” which is a little less intrusive than a urine test, and it detects usage up to about one month. The purpose of our drug test is not to “catch you.” Instead, it’s to help you say “no” if you’re in a place where people offer you drugs and you might feel peer pressure to participate. You can say “I go to a school that drug tests. I can’t risk it. “ They will respect that. 

Also, we don’t kick you out if you test positive the first time. We want to work with you and your parents. But if you’re dealing, you’re gone, instantly. The only real question is whether you’re also arrested, and that will depend on the circumstances. Our first obligation is the health and safety of our students. Like a burmese python in the everglades, we cannot allow this invasive species of drugs to destroy the culture of the school and make it unsafe. 

Look, you can have enormous influence on this issue—more effective than a random drug test. If you see friends or classmates going in the wrong direction, have the strength and courage to tell them so. And if it continues, or if you’re worried about someone, let some trusted adult know about it. Let that be the adult’s burden, not yours. But don’t watch a friend or classmate crumble before your eyes and do nothing. 

I pray for you guys. There’s a lot of pressure on you—grades, friendships, reputation. I pray that God gives you grace, and courage to live holy lives. But God wants you to pray also. Use our chapel to ask God to give you strength. Ask him to show you the path for you life. You don’t bear your burdens alone. 

Let’s all be wary of invasive species in our personal lives, and in the “ecosystem” of our school. 

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