Everything about this story about snails
MIAMI — At a little-known government laboratory in South Florida, they keep the snails under lock and key. Sure, any escape would be sloooooow. But giant African land snails are such a threat to humans that the rules say they have to be kept locked away, just in case.
The aptly named snails can grow to be more than 6 inches long. Wherever they go they leave a trail of smelly excrement. They eat 500 kinds of plants. They produce up to 500 eggs two or three times a year and because they're hermaphrodites they don't need a mate. If they aren't getting enough lime from the soil for their shells, they will gobble the stucco off the side of a house. They also carry a parasite that can infect humans with meningitis.
Often Florida officials don't know for sure how an invasive pest gets loose in the state -- the pythons taking over the Everglades, for instance. But they are pretty sure the giant African land snails that the state has spent more than $6 million to capture and kill were smuggled in by a religious cult that used the snails' mucus in healing rituals.
So far, though, prosecutors have not charged them with anything. Miami's most prominent practitioner of Santeria predicts they never will. He also says the government needs to check Tampa, Orlando, Jacksonville, West Palm Beach and Tallahassee for snails.
"The potential is higher in those areas," said Oba Ernesto Pichardo of the Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye in Hialeah. "All those areas have sufficiently active religious populations."
According to court documents, the man who brought the snails to Florida is Charles Stewart of Hialeah, sometimes known as "El Africano" or "Oloye Ifatoku." Stewart practices a traditional African religion called Ifa Orisha, which is often confused with the Cuban Santería.
In January 2010, state and federal officials raided Stewart's home and found at least 20 of the giant snails in a wooden box in his back yard. He told them he had smuggled them in from Africa in his luggage. He had help — a priestess known as "the Godmother" had slipped some snails into the U.S. by hiding them under her dress on a flight from Nigeria.
Stewart's followers told investigators he would crack off part of a snail's shell and pour the mucus into their mouths to provide them with good health. The followers then became violently ill, according to court records.