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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

One of the hottest news stories of the summer is the recent escape of a pet king cobra in Orlando.

The snake has become a star of Twitter and other social media, the nation once again having a good chuckle at Florida’s expense. As of this writing, the venomous eight-foot reptile was still on the loose.

This is no laughing matter for tourism officials. September is one of the slowest months of the year because it’s miserably hot, and also the height of hurricane season.

People don’t need another excuse not to come to Florida.

To make matters worse, it wasn’t just a standard pet cobra that escaped. It was the largest, quickest, deadliest species of cobra in the animal kingdom.

So it’s important for us to get on the same page and spin the story in a way that puts visitors totally at ease, while at the same time helping them to avoid being bitten.

Prepare yourself for that inevitable phone call from some relative up North who says, “Geez, I heard about that humongous killer snake that got away! Is it still safe to come stay with you in Florida?”

Even if it’s a relative you don’t particularly like, resist the temptation to frighten him with scary cobra facts.

Such as: “Did you know that one bite from an adult king cobra contains enough neurotoxin to kill 20 humans?” Or: “A king cobra can strike accurately from a distance of seven feet. If you don’t believe me, look it up.”

The calmer, more cool-headed response would be: “Cobras don’t randomly attack people. Statistically, you’ve got a better chance of getting carjacked or catching the norovirus while you’re here.”

What made the king cobra story such a big deal was the location of the escape. The panic level would have been much lower if the snake had slithered free in, say, the piney timber of rural Calhoun County.

Unfortunately, the cobra made its jailbreak in the greater Orlando area, the world’s most popular vacation destination. PR-wise, it’s a challenging scenario, but everything should be fine if we stick to the facts.

The snake fled a private residence on North Apopka Vineland Road. That property is more than 16 miles from the turnstiles of Walt Disney World, if the cobra crawls in more or less a straight line (and also doesn’t get flattened crossing U.S. 27).

Universal’s theme park would be a shorter journey, only about nine miles, but more treacherous for the reptile because the busy Turnpike transects that route.

Even half that distance is a long way for a snake to travel. King cobras are fast in short bursts, but their normal cruising speed is leisurely. For days at a time they’ll just curl up and chill in a quiet dark place, not moving an inch.

In other words, the missing snake won’t be showing up at any of Orlando’s major attractions for many months, possibly even a year. This encouraging information should be shared with all tourists, so they can come now — while it’s safe.

Last week, professional reptile hunters and wildlife officers suspended their intensive dragnet for the fanged escapee. Funnel traps baited with decomposing dead snakes had been set out in hopes that the king cobra would get hungry, but apparently it hasn’t gotten that hungry.

If it hasn’t been captured by the time you read this, remember two key rules:

First, if you spot the cobra, do not try yelling and clapping to scare it off. Snakes don’t have ears. They can’t hear you.

Second, under no circumstances should you approach the cobra, even if you can leap a distance greater than seven feet. Walking away is a good plan. Running is even better.

To send a stern message to other cobra collectors (and there are more than you think), authorities have ticketed the runaway reptile’s owner $366 for waiting too long to report the escape. It was the second time that one of the man’s pet cobras had slipped out of its cage and disappeared.

This is exactly how the python problem got started in Florida, but there’s no need to mention that to any of your friends and relatives up North.

Not yet.

(Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for The Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132.)

Photo: Josh More via Flickr

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