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Pasco Country, Fl., is under quarantine ... from the world's most damaging snails

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The giant African land snail enjoys the simpler things in life - just strolling - well, you know, sliding - through vegetable gardens, munching on plants, maybe listening to a gastro-podcast (ph) - you see what I did there? They can grow up to eight inches, and they have a reputation. They're one of the world's most damaging snails. Hundreds, maybe thousands of them, are making themselves at home in areas of Pasco County, Fla., just north of Tampa. And now Pasco County is under a quarantine.

BILL KERN: The main problem we have with the giant African land snail is it's almost like a Whac-A-Mole.

RASCOE: Dr. Bill Kern is an associate professor at the University of Florida who specializes in wildlife pest management. One female snail can lay 2,500 eggs a year. That's a lot. This is the third time these big snails have shown up in the state. Florida waged a decade-long battle against them. Officials thought they'd finally eradicated the snails last year, but no. Kern says this invasion of giant African land snails looks a little different from the last two.

KERN: It is one of the domesticated varieties, maybe one that somebody had as a pet, possibly brought from overseas.

RASCOE: Pasco County's quarantine also looks a little different from what you might expect. Humans are free to move around, interact. They can carry on their everyday activities, so long as they're not involved in certain aspects of landscaping and gardening.

KERN: No plant material can leave. No yard waste can be removed from the area.

RASCOE: To combat the slow but steady invasion, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is setting out snail bait in affected areas. The bait has a chemical that disrupts the snails' mucus production, leading to lethal dehydration. That's very serious for a snail. You know, they can't be dry. The department is also using trained dogs to sniff out snails. Workers have carefully scooped up more than a thousand or so so far. Now, when they're not being hunted, these big snails do enjoy eating materials other than plants, like paint, stucco, anything with calcium to build their shells.

JAY PASQUA: I'd say it was about two to three weeks ago, I had noticed some snails. I really didn't pay any attention to them.

RASCOE: Jay Pasqua owns a lawnmower and equipment business in the quarantine zone. They haven't caused damage so far, but he was surprised by their number and their size.

PASQUA: The largest one I saw so far was about six inches long. I would say it would be about the size of my fist. It was kind of weird to see something that big.

RASCOE: Though some may have the temptation to pick up these really large snails - although I don't know why that would be tempting - residents are warned, do not do it. They may look cute, but Dr. Bill Kern says they host a parasite that can be deadly to humans.

KERN: The problem is, when it gets into human beings, then it will end up in places like inside of the eyeball or in the brain.

RASCOE: Potentially leading to meningitis, and no one wants that. So far, none of the snails captured have the parasite, but still do not touch the snails. Pasco County's quarantine has been in place for about two weeks, and Florida officials say it will take about three years before they can say all snails have been successfully removed this time.

(SOUNDBITE OF TERENCE BLANCHARD'S "FLOW PART 1") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.