The swamps and subdivisions of southern Florida are overrun with invasive reptiles, including Burmese pythons and Nile monitor lizards. The only way to eliminate every last one of them is to follow the DNA trail they leave behind.
Tim and Patty O’Hara were looking forward to living out their golden years in the tropical city of Cape Coral on southern Florida’s Gulf Coast. Cape Coral is known as the Waterfront Wonderland because it has over 600 kilometers of canals—more than any other city in the world—and the city boasts that it has an average of 355 days of sunshine per year. When the community was carved out of the mosquito-infested mangroves and salt marshes back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, developers brought in celebrities like Bob Hope and Anita Bryant to give it a touch of wholesome glamour.
In September 2013, the O’Haras moved from Gig Harbor, Washington, to a neighborhood off Skyline Boulevard. Their retirement home was painted the color of rosé wine and had a neatly trimmed front lawn and a backyard pool. And like many of the city’s 165,831 residents, the O’Haras had a freshwater canal running behind their house, with the occasional boat floating past.
“We just wanted to goof off all the time,” Tim says. “To swim and play golf.” Tim’s sister and brother-in-law were avid birdwatchers, and the first time they visited they were blown away by all the nature around them, not only birds, but manatees, otters, and Florida redbelly turtles. A colony of burrowing owls—a protected species in Florida—had taken up residence on the empty lot next door. “They think that’s cool,” Tim says. He did, too.
It wasn’t long before the O’Haras started hearing about another animal in the area: the Nile monitor lizard. “Everybody talks about them,” Tim says. He’d seen a strange lizard around but didn’t know what it was.
About a year ago, their landscaper pointed to the corner of their yard. “There’s one right there,” he said. It was huge. It could easily have swallowed a family of owls and still have had room for a poodle.