December 7, 2009: State extends python program and opens it to licensed hunters for the 2009 hunting season*Last week, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) announced that permits will be issued allowing for the capture of Burmese Pythons and other Reptiles of Concern on state-managed lands in South Florida from January through December 2010. Applicants must meet specific qualifications (e.g., resident of the state of Florida, experience capturing wild snakes and handling large constrictors, previous work in remote areas). Permit holders must have a digital camera and a GPS unit, and will be required to make a specific number of trips to the various wildlife managed areas around South Florida. The special permits will allow permit holders to hunt for the exotic reptiles outside of the designated hunting season and from sunset to sunrise during hunting season in certain state managed areas.
The first phase of the python hunting program ran from July 17 to October 31, 2009. Only 10 of the 15 permit holders made trips to the wildlife managed areas, trapping 39 pythons. These permits have been extended until the end of the year, and the permit holders will be eligible for new permits.
Obviously, the program has not reduced significantly the number of Burmese Pythons on the loose in South Florida. However, wildlife biologists have been able able to study the giant snakes in our midst as they attempt to learn enough to put a halt to the migration of these huge reptiles to other parts of the state. Opening the scientific study of Reptiles of Concern to anyone with a gun, however, seems less acceptable.
Yet, this hunting season, FWC is encouraging anyone with a Florida hunting license and a management area permit to help in the hunt for Burmese Pythons and other Reptiles of Concern. Hunters in the Everglades and Francis S. Taylor Wildlife Management Area, Holey Land, Rotenberger, and Big Cypress Wildlife Management Area may use shotguns, rifles, handguns, nets and snares to capture or kill Burmese Pythons, African Rock Pythons, Reticulated Pythons, Scrub Pythons, Green Anacondas, and Nile Monitor lizards. Strap on the pith helmet, Florida hunters, because now you can go on safari right in your own backyard!
Hunters must inform FWC whenever Reptiles of Concern are captured. Any captured animal must be euthanized on site. Hunters can keep the skin and meat for their own use. However, tests on Burmese Pythons trapped in the Everglades have demonstrated levels of mercury well above the federal limits regarded as safe for human consumption. So hunters are better off not barbecuing the exotic catch of the day for friends and family.
*Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, "FWC announces continuation of python permit program," www.myfwc.com, December 2, 2009; Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, "OK to take 'big game snakes' during small-game season," www.myfwc.com, December 3, 2009
December 1, 2009: Exotic fish flourishing in Florida*New species of fish are appearing in Florida every year. According the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), more species of exotic freshwater fish are breeding in the wild here than any other place in the world. At last count, 34 species of non-native fish had established populations in Florida rivers, canals, lakes and ponds.
The foreign fish that now thrive in our waterways are native to South and Central America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Water temperature is a limiting factor for the tropical species’ success, and some of the non-natives are only able to survive in the southern part of the state. Exotic fish are comfortable in the many man-made canals in southern Florida because they are continuously flooded with warm ground water.
How did all the foreign fish find their way into the Florida waterways? Some are aquarium fish that were dumped by pet owners, dealers and breeders. Others were released by fish farm owners or came from flooded or drained aquaculture systems. Florida is one of the world’s largest producers of tropical fish and hundreds of fish farms can be found around the state. The export and sale of tropical fish is a major industry and Florida produces around 95% of the U.S. supply of aquarium fish. Fish farms can be found in 38 counties, but many are clustered in the Tampa Bay area.
It is difficult to control the tropical species bred and raised on fish farms. It has proven impossible for the tropical fish industry to prevent exotic fish from moving into the Florida waters. The farms use earthen ponds to raise the fish. The heavy rains common to our state create a kind of water highway, allowing fish to travel around to unconnected water bodies. In the area south of Lake Okeechobee, the flooding of wetlands results in fish migration all over southern Florida. Pipes, canals, and water transfer systems also connect water bodies throughout South Florida.
Certain species of exotic fish have been purposefully released by state agencies. In 1984, canals were stocked with a pretty South American fish called the Butterfly Peacock, an aggressive species that would help control other exotics. The fish has proven popular with anglers. Grass Carp from Siberia and China were released by FWC to control nuisance aquatic plants. These fish are not fertile but can weigh up to 75 pounds. Tilapia were imported from Africa and the Middle East in 1961 for research purposes. The fish escaped into our waterways. Blue Tilapia are now harvested commercially and sold for food.
Certain non-native species have been released by the fishing industry over the years in an ignorant attempt to add excitement to the sport. For this reason, species like the Oscar, a popular aquarium fish, are abundant in the Everglades.
Non-native fish pose an environmental threat. These species tend to outcompete native wildlife, some preying on our native fish. The exotics disrupt habitat, spreading parasites and diseases uncommon in native fish. When the larger, more aggressive species invade a body of water, gradually the native species begin to disappear. Once the invaders begin breeding, it is almost impossible for the species to be eradicated.
The state requires special permits for certain species of freshwater fish including Grass Carp, Walking Catfish, Bullseye Snakehead, and three species of tilapia. It is unclear why other exotic species threatening our native wildlife are not regulated by the state. Tighter regulations for the sportfishing and the fish farm industries could help to control the growing populations of exotic fish species currently threatening Florida’s waterways.
*"FWC warning not to free exotic fish," tampabays10.com, August 31, 2009; Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, "Freshwater Fish Identifier," www.myfwc.com; Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory, University of Florida, www.tal.ifas.ufl.edu
November 30, 2009: Flesh-ripping fish found in Florida pond*The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) was forced to poison a retention pond in Palm Springs this month after several Red-bellied Piranhas were discovered. These South American omnivores are incorrectly depicted in films as aggressive man-eaters, but the 1- to 2-foot long fish can devastate non-native habitat and completely wipe out native fish.
A 14-year-old boy caught the first piranha and notified state wildlife authorities. After a second piranha was captured, FWC made the decision to apply rotenone, effectively killing everything in the pond. They plan to remove all the dead fish and restock with native fish.
Red-bellied Piranhas are the most common piranha species used in aquariums. Tiny babies can be purchased for $5 on the internet. These fish grow too large for most pet owners to handle, and their feeding requirements are expensive. Plus, they will bite the hand that feeds them. Hard.
Purchase and sale of piranhas for home aquariums is illegal in many states including all southern states. In Florida, aquarium owners appear to be dumping unwanted, illegal fish in our waterways. Fortunately, there is no evidence of breeding populations of Red-bellied Piranhas in Florida. Yet.
*Brian Haas, "Piranha found in Palm Springs pond," South Florida Sun-Sentinel, November 17, 2009
November 25, 2009: Exotic pets threaten Everglades restoration*Following meetings held last month, the Florida Invasive Animal Task Team (FIATT) released a draft of their report on the threat posed by non-native species to the Everglades restoration project. FIATT has prepared an invasive exotic animals plan for the state, and compiled a hit list of those species considered most problematic in the Everglades.
Research conducted in the U.S., U.K., Australia, South Africa, India, and Brazil now indicates that more than 120,000 non-native species of animals, plants and microbes have invaded these countries. Although the exact economic impact is unknown, an estimated $314 billion dollars is being spent every year in attempts to address the environmental damages in these 6 nations.
Florida is especially vulnerable due to its tropical climate, busy ports, and the kind of overdeveloped habitat which appeals to invasive species. South Florida and the Everglades are overrun with released pets that are breeding and thriving at the expense of our native species.
FIATT is most concerned about the following "priority animals" in the Everglades: Burmese Python, Common Boa, Spectacled Caiman, feral pig, European Starling, Common Myna, and Sacred Ibis. These animals are especially destructive to native wildlife, and find it too easy to outcompete for food and territory.
The news media has focused attention on Florida’s serious snake and reptile invasions. However, the environmental threats posed by the various species of exotic birds that have settled in our state have generally been overlooked. Starlings and mynas travel in huge flocks, eating crops and spreading mites and other pests. Both species are aggressive, taking nests from native birds and feeding off human garbage. Sacred Ibis are large birds destructive to our native water birds.
FIATT cites "newly detected" non-native animals of concern to the Everglades restoration project: the Nile Monitor lizard and tegus. These reptiles are pets on the loose that have been reported in close proximity to the Everglades. Fortunately, Nile Monitors and tegus are believed to have limited populations that may be successfully removed from the wild. The "priority" species, however, are already too widespread and well established for elimination from the state. Efforts at controlling their populations must be long-term and will prove costly.
FIATT supports the use of a multifaceted approach to the issue of invasive animals in our state. This includes public education and efforts at national policy changes. Until the threat of exotic pets on the loose is reduced by limiting pet ownership and regulating import and breeding, we will only continue to add to our problems.
*FIATT Working Group/Science Coordination Group, "Invasive Exotic Animals: Managing a Threat to Everglades Restoration," October 21-22, 2009; Michael Avery and Michael P. Moulton, "Florida’s Non-native Avifauna," USDA National Wildlife Research Center Symposia, 2009
November 17, 2009: State of Florida working to control exotic animal invasions*The media regularly spotlights the most sensational incidents of Florida’s exotic wildlife on the loose: a pet python attacking a sleeping baby, an oversize iguana biting a school child, a wild monkey tossing poop at passersby. Much less attention is given to the various state programs attempting to help control the many non-native species living and breeding in Florida.
At this time, wildlife biologists around the state are involved in a variety of programs that have been designed to eradicate unwanted animal species. For example, Everglades CISMA relies on volunteers to report sightings of exotic animals. A trained response team then investigates the reports. If an exotic species appears to be establishing a breeding population, measures can be taken before the animals become too numerous and widespread to control.
Some state programs have reported a degree of success with certain nuisance species. For example, a multi-agency program claims to have eradicated a population of Gambian Pouch Rats on Grassy Key, the only place in the U.S. where these giant rats have been spotted breeding in the wild. (The African rodents had been released on this small island in the Keys, possibly by breeders.) Night cameras were set up by USDA to observe the nocturnal pests. Poisoned food was set out and consumed by the huge rats. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), no feral Gambian Pouch Rats have been seen on Grassy Key during the past few months.
In the Homestead area, wildlife biologists are trying to trap what appears to be a limited number of abandoned Nile Monitor lizards. They have euthanized 13 so far. However, in Cape Coral, where the giant lizards were dumped years ago, possibly by breeders, feral Nile Monitors number in the thousands. In this suburban community, eradication of the carnivorous lizard is no longer possible.
Several species of non-native birds that were once deemed a potential threat to native wildlife have been reduced in numbers via state intervention measures. In South Florida, state biologists have hunted down an escaped flock of Sacred Ibis and thinned the population of Purple Swamphens. However, no one is sure whether either of these species has been eradicated from the wetlands of Florida.
The key to success with control of exotic pets in the wild is early discovery, identification and intervention. If unchecked, populations of breeding animals can reach a significant size, what biologists call "critical mass." At that point, the populations are so large that state intervention can never be effective. This is the situation with iguanas, Burmese pythons, Muscovy Ducks, and other exotic invaders.
In fact, there are more than 100 species of animals that the FWC regards as highly unlikely to be eradicated via state intervention. Despite Florida’s comprehensive captive wildlife regulations and the various programs designed to deal with exotic invasions, pets on the loose continue to increase in numbers and diversity.
Meanwhile, the captive wildlife industry is thriving in Florida. Exotic animal dealers and breeders, and tourist attractions featuring exotic animals, bring millions of dollars into the state every year. Florida is home to 95% of the nation’s specially bred tropical fish for home and office aquariums. The Port of Miami receives shipments every day of imported fish, reptiles, and other non-native animals.
Yet, there exists anecdotal evidence indicating that dealers and breeders have been releasing exotic animals, either to breed them in the wild or to abandon unsold pets. Hurricanes and economic downturns have resulted in additional exotic species loose in the state. Until strictly enforced regulations control the numbers and kinds of animal species sold in Florida, our problems with exotic pets will undoubtedly continue.
*Tim Elfrink, "On the hunt for exotic lizards in the Florida Everglades," New Times, September, 2009; Scott Hardin, "Managing non-native wildlife in Florida: State perspective, policy and practice," APHIS-USDA, 2008; LeRoy Rogers, Mike Bodle and Francois Laroche, "The Status of nonindigenous species in the South Florida environment," 2010 South Florida Environmental Report, South Florida Water Management District, 2009
November 10, 2009: Feral pests problem grows along with popularity of exotic pets*The exotic pets industry has an estimated annual income of $15 billion. This is a conservative estimate because much of the trade in wild animals is illegal. Wild animals are poached from areas of the world where trapping is against the law, and they are smuggled into the U.S. for sale as pets. The trade in exotic animals brings in more money than any other black market item except for drugs and weapons. We’re talking big money for some folks.
What does this mean for the rest of us? The wild animal business is booming and we are the unwitting recipients of the problems that are ensuing. Side effects we are being forced to suffer include health threats, environmental damage, safety hazards and costs to control feral pests.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of exotic animals in the U.S. has increased 75% since 1992. This is due primarily to globalization and the Internet. The CDC warns that 60% of currently known human pathogens and 75% of emerging infectious pathogens are zoonotic, or transmitted by animals. The related diseases afflicting humans include rabies, plague, tularemia, West Nile virus, Ebola, SARS, and swine flu (H1N1).
Wild animals often host parasites too. Some exotic pets attack and injure their owners or other people. After all, exotic pets are wild animals that belong in the wild.
Exotic pets are glamorized in the media and popularized by celebrity owners. These animals are easy to find and buy, and aggressive marketing helps to bring new species into the public eye. But wild animals require intensive humane care, sometimes for dozens of years, at a level of labor and expense most pet owners are incapable of providing.
Millions of abandoned pets are breeding in parts of the U.S., notably in the warmer climes of Hawaii and southernmost Florida, Texas, and California. With the current global weather trends, the ongoing changes in our ecosystems may serve to expand the U.S. territories habitable for some species of non-native animals. Significant populations of exotic animal species thriving in non-native ecosystems will further change natural habitats, threatening the native wildlife and altering the environment in unpredictable ways.
The exotic pet industry in the U.S. is prospering. Every year, more exotic pets are coming in, more unwanted animals are being dumped, and more areas are serving as breeding grounds for feral non-native animals. Unfortunately for all of these animals, their owners, and the rest of us, the hype about exotic pet ownership is only benefiting the pet trade.
The costs for the rest of us are still being tallied.
*M. Barney, "Growth of exotics climbs along with illegal importation problem," DVM360 Newsmagazine, November 1, 2009; Catherine M. Brown, "Reaping the whirlwind? Human disease from exotic pets," BioScience, January, 2008; Richard Farinato, "The whims and dangers of the exotic pets market," Humane Society of the United States, www.hsus.org
November 8, 2009: Everglades hunt ends with 39 snakes*Last summer, after a pet python killed a toddler in central Florida, state wildlife authorities were ordered by Governor Charlie Crist to eradicate the giant non-native snakes from the Everglades.
Easier said than done.
By September 16, the 13 trappers specially licensed by the state to hunt exotic snakes had successfully caught 24 Burmese Pythons. By weight, that’s a lot of snake. But in considering the thousands of pythons believed to be living and breeding in the Everglades, their work had just begun.
By mid-October, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported that the snake trappers, now numbering 15, had captured 37 Burmese pythons.
The trappers were authorized to capture non-native snakes using nets and snares, and to euthanize the reptiles with blunt hand-held devices. Data was collected from each captured snake including size, stomach contents, and location using GPS. The data will be studied by wildlife biologists to determine where the pythons are breeding, what kind of native (and non-native) wildlife they eat, and whether they are migrating to other parts of the state.
When the python hunting permits expired on October 31, the total number of trapped exotic snakes was 39. Most of these were relatively small pythons. Burmese Pythons can grow to more than 25 feet in length and weigh over 200 pounds. Half of the captured snakes were under 4 feet. The largest trapped python was just over 10 feet long. The snakes’ stomachs tended to be empty. So far, there is no evidence that Burmese Pythons are devouring all our native wildlife.
Despite the small number of captures, state officials consider the python hunting program a success. The timing made the program a big challenge for the hunters. Pythons tend to remain hidden during the day in hot weather, venturing out to hunt for food in the evening when they are more difficult to spot. However, the onset of cooler temperatures means the start of the regular hunting season, so the great python hunt had to be curtailed to ensure the python trappers’ safety.
State officials are discussing whether to have the python trappers return to the Everglades when the timing is better. From January through April, exotic pythons on the loose in South Florida will be breeding. That means they will be coming out of hiding to bask in the sun and look for mates.
Be sure to watch where you step.
Paul Quinlan, "Statewide python hunt yields only 39 snakes," Palm Beach Post, November 4, 2009; Python Permit Program Updates, www.myfwc.com, October 19, 2009
November 3, 2009: Pet iguanas wild in other places besides Florida*Florida is not the only state where pet owners are abandoning iguanas by letting them loose in parks and undeveloped areas. Green Iguanas and Mexican Spinytail Iguanas have been identified as invasive species in Hawaii and southern Texas. In many other states, feral iguanas can be found running around neighborhoods until the cold weather hits.
Abandonment of pets is unfair to the animals, who must fend for themselves in an environment for which they may not be suited until winter temperatures kill them. It is also unfair to residents of states where adaptable species may thrive and breed year round, eventually overpopulating and becoming a nuisance.
The iguana pet craze first swept the country in the 1980s, peaking each time a “Jurassic Park” movie was released. This is because full-grown iguanas look like miniature dinosaurs. They are undeniably cool looking, so iguanas are still a common impulse buy in the U.S. Typically selling for low cost at pet stores and on reptile Websites, cute little juvenile iguanas appeal to children and people looking for an "easy care” pet. This is hardly the case.
If iguanas do not receive adequate diet and UV light, they will suffer and die. Pet owners do not realize how much fresh dark greens and fruit they will need to prepare every day for their growing iguana. They do not realize their iguana may live 12 to 20 years in captivity. How can pet owners make sure their iguanas are able to bask in sunlight for at least 3 to 4 hours a day? Pet breeders do not inform them that their full-grown iguana will need these things. Sellers do not tell buyers that iguanas need climbing space of at least 6 feet and a cage at least 8 feet wide. How do pet owners make sure their iguanas have access to water for bathing? How easy is it to get a pet iguana into a bathtub or kiddie pool? It can’t be easy when the pet is 6 feet long with a sharp tail and teeth.
Sellers do not inform buyers that iguanas can grow to lengths of 6 feet or more.
Buyers are typically unaware that their cute little baby iguana will become a time intensive and unmanageable adult. Once these docile pets reach adulthood, many owners find themselves unable to house and feed such large animals. There are few sanctuaries that will shelter unwanted iguanas, and many zoos refuse to take any more since they already house more than enough. This means thousands of pet iguanas are let loose in the U.S. every year.
Abandoned adult iguanas are found all across the country in sewers, dumpsters and trash cans. Many become road kill. Others die of malnutrition and/or poor living conditions. It’s hard out there for a feral iguana.
Some species of iguana are endangered due to overhunting by the international pet trade. This is difficult for residents of South Florida to imagine, now that our parks and neighborhoods are overrun with feral lizards. However, it is the multibillion dollar pet industry combined with our short-lived interest in cool animals that has created the current global imbalance in the population of certain iguana species. The only way to correct this imbalance would be to stop buying these reptiles as pets.
At least, it could be a place to start.
*Steve Dale, “The iguana squad: super heroes rescue iguanas,” www.stevedalepetworld.com
October 15, 2009: Federal study cites threats from exotic snakes*On October 14, the U.S. Geological Survey released a report on the potential risks to humans, wildlife, and ecosystems posed by the various giant exotic snakes invading U.S. soil. The 302-page study identified South Florida as ground zero, the central focal point of this bizarre environmental issue.
Of course, South Florida offers a welcoming climate year round, one that allows non-native reptiles to thrive. This area is also home to many importers and breeders of exotic animals, businesses large and small. The biggest exotic snakes are being bred in or brought to South Florida, sold to the pet trade, and eventually dumped in our parks and neighborhoods.
The study also cited other high risk areas including South Texas, Hawaii and America’s tropical islands. Because invasive species are highly adaptable, it is also possible that some invasive snake species could eventually migrate into other southern states--and survive.
The report emphasizes the risks for environmental damage and wildlife destruction, while seeking to reassure readers that human fatalities from giant snakes are highly improbable. Those who recall last summer’s fatal attack on a Florida child may not take such optimism to heart. Although unprovoked attacks by giant snakes are rare, wild animals native to undeveloped environments may behave in unpredictable ways in a non-native suburban or urban area.
The threat to our ecosystems and wildlife is unequivocal. As predators, huge snakes like pythons and boas or anacondas move fast, adapt to a variety of habitats, and eat other animals in great quantities. They grow rapidly to a large size, mature quickly and produce many offspring, and will expand their populations to great sizes. These snakes can climb trees and they are able to camouflage themselves so they are difficult to spot. They may serve as hosts for parasites and diseases. For all of these reasons, the exotic snakes found in the wild in Florida could upset our natural ecosystems, dominating areas like the Everglades, becoming impossible to eradicate.
This may be the case already. With smaller populations, like the boa constrictors on the Deering Estate in Miami, the occasional Green Anaconda, or the African Rock Pythons found in restricted areas, the snakes may be captured and removed from the wild. With the tens of thousands of Burmese Pythons breeding in thousands of square miles of South Florida, the problem may already be beyond our control. Control measures have never succeeded in eradicating an invasive snake population from an area greater than a few acres.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service will use this study to evaluate proposed legislation aimed at preventing further colonization of the U.S. by giant exotic snakes. The agencies will turn to this report by the U.S. Geological Survey when making a decision sometime next year on whether to list giant exotic snakes as "injurious species." If listed as such, pythons, boa constrictors and anacondas would no longer be allowed to be imported or sold as pets in the U.S.
The multibillion dollar pet industry thinks this step would be unwarranted. Florida residents may disagree. Last month, a four and a half foot boa was captured outside the cafeteria of an elementary school in Miami. The snake was relocated to a nature preserve, where it will live out its life in a cage.
For the full report go to www.fort.us.gov/FLConstrictors.
*R. U. Reed and G. H. Rodda, "Giant Constrictors: Biological and Management Profiles and an Establishment Risk Assessment for Nine Large Species of Pythons, Anacondas, and the Boa Constrictor," U.S. Geological Survey, 2009
October 7, 2009: Feeding feral iguana causes injury to child, neighborhood squabble*In neighborhoods where iguanas run wild, some residents treat these non-native animals like pets, feeding and naming the creatures. Others do not like the large lizards and resent the damage they do to plantings, gardens, pools and docks. Homeowners annoyed by the growing iguana population may opt to trap and remove them from their neighborhood. Occasionally, problems arise from these stark differences in attitude toward the feral iguanas living all over South Florida.
On September 24, a seven-year-old girl visited a neighbor in Oakland Park, where she was told she could feed a six foot long iguana that often came into the yard. The girl had learned about Green Iguanas in school, so she knew that the vegetarian reptile likes fruit. Walking up to the huge iguana, she scattered some strawberries on the grass. The iguana grabbed the girl's right foot, probably mistaking it for food. The animal used its sharp teeth to rip through skin and tendons before letting the child go.
The child was taken to a hospital emergency room, where she received 23 stitches. She must undergo surgery soon to repair the damaged tendons.
The girl's mother contacted local police, wildlife officials and animal control to ask that the iguana be removed from the neighborhood. Iguana Catchers, a private company, offered to trap the lizard for free. However, the owners of the property where the incident occurred refused to allow the trappers access to their backyard. The Broward Sheriff's Office dispatched officers to the scene to control a heated argument between the mother of the injured girl and the family protecting the iguana.
By October 5, a handwritten sign was posted at the home where the incident occurred stating that the iguana had been transferred to another location. If the iguana was released elsewhere on public property, in a park or along a canal for example, this was done illegally. Abandoning exotic animals in the state of Florida is a misdemeanor which can result in a prison sentence and a fine.
Children need to be instructed on how to behave around wild animals. Iguanas living on their own in South Florida parks and neighborhoods are wild animals and should not be approached, fed, or handled by children. These animals are not aggressive, but may react overenthusiastically to food and defensively when cornered. Feral iguanas are best observed from a respectful distance.
*Juan Ortega, "Iguana that bit Oakland Park girl is gone, sign says," South Florida Sun Sentinel, October 5, 2009; Rachael Hatzipanagas, "Girl gives iguana food; iguana gives her stitches," South Florida Sun Sentinel, October 1, 2009
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