'Swamp Wars' pits humans vs. snakes, lizards
MIAMI -- With its beautiful beaches, luxury hotels, hot nightclubs and nightmarish traffic, it's easy to forget that South Florida was built on a giant swamp. But despite decades of urban expansion, that wilderness still pushes back -- particularly snakes, lizards and other reptiles, some of them dangerous.
That battle between humans and coldblooded creatures will be the subject of "Swamp Wars," Animal Planet's series debuting at 8 p.m. Sunday that will focus on Miami-Dade Fire Rescue's Venom Response Team.
Commonly referred to as "Venom One," the paramedic firefighters remove poisonous snakes from neighborhoods and capture nonnative, invasive species, such as pythons and tegu lizards. The team also maintains the largest anti-venom bank in the United States.
The genesis of Venom One came in March 1998, when a snake keeper was bit by a black mamba. Chief Al Cruz, who was still a lieutenant at the time, said he listened to his emergency radio in shock as 17 different agencies were contacted to help treat the man.
"I didn't know we didn't have the resources that are in place today," Cruz said.
Officials were frantically searching for anti-venom, eventually finding enough at the Jacksonville Zoo. The man survived, but the experience inspired Cruz to start Venom One.
"Prior to the existence of Venom One, it took 15 to 20 different agencies to save somebody's life," Cruz said. "Now they simply call 911 and the system works." Dispatchers call Venom One, the hospital is contacted and the right anti-venom is delivered.
In the beginning, Cruz was the sole member of Venom One, on call 24 hours a day. Since then, he has been promoted to lead Miami-Dade Fire Rescue's Special Operations division, which includes Venom One. The team now has three full-time members, who alternate 24-hour shifts, as well as two relief members.
As "Swamp Wars" viewers will see, the members keep busy. In the first episode, they capture several Burmese pythons, including a 14-footer. The team received more than 100 calls last year for the nonnative constrictors, Cruz said.
Another invasive species causing problems in South Florida is the tegu lizard. Some people keep them as pets, but the carnivorous reptiles -- which typically grow to 3 feet and 8 pounds -- can become aggressive in the wild. Such nonnative reptiles can be dangerous not just to people but also can threaten native wildlife.
While capturing wayward animals makes for good TV, the program also showcases the team's primary function, which is to provide treatment for venomous snake bites. The unit keeps 45 different types of anti-venom in stock. Venom One has sent anti-venom to 17 states, Canada, several countries in Central and South America and South Africa. The team has even provided anti-venom to the U.S. military to treat soldiers bitten by snakes. No one has died from a venomous snake bite in South Florida since the unit was formed, Cruz said.
Lt. Lisa Wood, a full-time team member, said it's important that viewers understand that Venom One members are professionals and they should never try to handle a venomous or nonvenomous snake in the wild. All the team members are licensed by the state to handle venomous reptiles, which requires more than 1,000 hours of experience.
"Everybody has training, and we all keep our skills up," Wood said. "I've been doing this a long time. All of us have."
Wood said she also hopes viewers realize that she and her teammates aren't hunting down snakes and other reptiles because they dislike them.
"All of us do this because we love the animals," Wood said.
Like most of the team members, Wood keeps several snakes at home as pets, including a venomous pygmy rattlesnake. She said while the squad's first priority is to protect humans, the members also want to protect the animals.
Animal Planet is heavily promoting the show, and producers are excited about the six-episode season, which will run this summer.
The local production company that films "Swamp Wars," 2C Media, learned about Venom One while doing another project on Miami-Dade Fire Rescue's marine unit. Executive producer Chris Sloan said he was immediately interested in doing a Venom One show.
"We were really inspired by the kind of work they did," Sloan said. "It was so different and nontraditional that it seemed really obvious to us."
Although Animal Planet has only ordered one season, network producer Erin Wanner said they're already considering a second.
"We're very happy with what we've been seeing," Wanner said. "We really hope we'll be doing more pretty quickly."
Like any television show, producers and Venom One team members want the show to be entertaining, but they also hope it can help people be safe.
"The main goal of the show is awareness," Cruz said. "Be aware of your surroundings, whether you're here in South Florida or anywhere else in the country or the world. Be cognizant that there are dangerous animals out there, but if you leave them alone, they'll leave you alone."
"Swamp Wars"Debuts at 8 p.m. Sunday, June 12, on Animal Planet