Federal health officials have seized several dangerous pests called Giant African Land Snails from Wisconsin classrooms and have started a national search for the creatures, which reproduce rapidly, destroy plants and can transmit meningitis.
The snails, which are illegal to have in the United States, were used in classrooms by unwitting school officials, said Willie Harris, eastern regional director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Safeguarding, Intervention and Trade Compliance Program.
Snails have been seized in the past month from Wisconsin cities including Big Bend, Menasha and Milwaukee. Officials so far have not found any others elsewhere.
They are concerned the snails, about the size of a person’s hand, could be transported to states with warmer climates, where they can rapidly reproduce and destroy plants.
In 1966, a Miami boy smuggled three Giant African Land Snails into the country. His grandmother eventually released them into a garden, and in seven years there were more than 18,000 of them. The eradication program took 10 years, according to the USDA.
Five of the snails donated to Nicolet Elementary School in Menasha by a parent were seized after teachers learned they were illegal, said the school’s principal, Linda Joosten.
“They were very cool creatures,” Joosten said.
The snails, native to Africa but also found in parts of Asia, are known to consume as many as 500 different plants and their mucus can transmit meningitis.
Snail smugglers can face fines of up to $1,000 per charge. Harris said people who have the snails without knowing they are illegal will not face punishment.