GRASSY KEY, Florida (Reuters) - Deep in the heart of the Florida Keys, wildlife officials are laying bait laced with poison to try to wipe out a colony of enormous African rats that could threaten crops and other animals.
U.S. federal and state officials are beginning the final phase of a two-year project to eradicate the Gambian pouched rats, which can grow to the size of a cat and began reproducing in the remote area about eight years ago.
"This is the only place in the United States where this is occurring," said Gary Witmer, a biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins, Colorado.
"They don't belong here and they need to be controlled."
A former exotic pet breeder, living in a small house, bred the species and allowed the critters to escape.
Without eradication, wildlife officials fear the rats could eventually make their way onto the Florida mainland where they could quickly destroy fragile ecosystems.
"They could cause a lot of damage," Witmer said.
In Zimbabwe, for example, ravenous Gambian rats are blamed for damaging nut and young pea crops.
Grassy Key is a 1,500-acre (607-hectare) spit of land, lined with subtropical hardwood hammocks and flowering bougainvillea bushes, about 60 miles north of Key West at Florida's southern tip. Streets are named after limes, lemons, peaches and avocados.
Like other islands in the Florida Keys, Grassy Key is a contrast of inland rustic wooden cottages just a stone's throw from multimillion-dollar waterfront mansions.
"Florida's become quite the hotbed. Florida and Hawaii are vying for which state has the most invasive species," Witmer said.
That dubious honor is attributed to the region's encroaching development, subtropical climate and free-spirited residents who like to keep exotic species, Witmer said.
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