Photograph by author Steve Featherstone as he holds a python
By Steve Featherstone
Captain Jeff Fobb knelt on the lawn outside the University of Florida’s Research and Education Center in suburban Fort Lauderdale, surrounded by a crowd of about thirty onlookers. Dressed in cargo pants and a long-sleeved shirt, his hair pulled back in a thick black braid, Fobb is one of the stars of Swamp Wars, a popular reality show on Animal Planet that follows the escapades of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue’s Venom One Response Unit. But the crowd wasn’t there to see him. They’d come to see the creature writhing in the cotton sack at his feet.
“Two things separate us from a lot of other animals,” Fobb announced. “We have enormous brains. Big, big brains for our body size. Turn it on, use it. And keep a nice calm presence.”
Fobb loosened the drawstring and gently shook out the contents of the sack. A dark, glistening blob the size of a beach ball rolled onto the grass, and the blob slowly unraveled into a hissing, thirteen-foot Burmese python. Fobb grasped the snake by the tail and dragged it around the edge of the circle to give everybody a closer look. People held out their smartphones. Some shouted questions.
Are pythons venomous? (No.) Where did it come from? (Everglades.) Do they get tired? (“I get tired,” Fobb joked. “My hope is that the snake gets tired before I’m tired.”)
Fobb’s python demonstration was the main attraction at a kick-off event for the first-ever Python Challenge, a month-long contest sponsored by Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) that allowed anyone who paid the $25 entrance fee to hunt Burmese pythons on state land. Fobb was there to introduce people to a creature most had never seen and knew little about. When he let go of the python’s tail, it gamely lifted its head then fell limp, curling into a defensive coil. Fobb stood over the snake, holding a hooked metal pole at his side, and fielded another round of questions.
Will the python bite you? (Maybe.) Do you grab it by the head or tail? (Depends.) How do you kill it? That was the question on everybody’s mind. A middle-aged man in khaki shorts and white socks pulled up to his knees suggested a .410 shotgun.
“Sounds like the best thing to do is dispatch it at twenty feet,” he said. “Don’t try to get a lot closer.”
“You have to hit it right in the head,” Fobb cautioned.
“Right,” the man said.
“And it’s not just going to go, ‘Here’s my head!’ You know what I mean?”
“No,” agreed the man, adjusting his cell phone holster, “you gotta take the brain out.”
People began debating the contest’s rules on firearms. Everyone agreed that the FWC allowed handguns and shotguns, but there was some confusion over rifles. Someone claimed he heard a game warden okay the use of .22-caliber rimfire. Another man argued that rifles chambered for pistol rounds should be included. In the end the crowd resolved that rifles of all types were banned. Shooting at night, or shooting from roads and levees, could also get you disqualified.
“What if you don’t have a gun?” asked a young woman with a pierced nose. She sliced the air with her hand. She planned to hunt in rest areas along the highway with a machete.
“A machete is not a very refined instrument,” Fobb said. “I’m not a big fan of the machete.” A network engineer and self-described “outdoor person” asked Fobb what he recommended instead. This presented Fobb with a dilemma. Normally he didn’t kill the pythons that he captured; he turned them over to researchers at the University of Florida, who euthanized them. But Python Challenge contestants didn’t have that option. Contest rules required that they kill the snakes before taking the carcasses to designated check-in stations. (The other option was letting hundreds of amateur snake hunters barrel down South Florida’s highways with live, wild pythons in the trunks of their cars.) In reply to the engineer’s question, Fobb pulled out a pocketknife no bigger than his thumb. “I carry a little, uh, Gator,” he said, “a Gerber Gator.”
Scribbling the model name in his spiral notebook, the engineer looked up and asked, “Serrated?”
“Nope,” Fobb said. Sensing where this line of questioning was going, he implored those in the crowd intent on hacking off the heads of captured pythons to do so in a humane manner.
“The brain stays alive for an hour,” offered the man in khaki shorts.
“Yeah, we don’t want it to suffer,” Fobb said. He began describing how to destroy a python’s brain by running a metal rod up its severed spinal canal into its cranial bulb. But nobody in the crowd was interested in learning how to euthanize an animal so reviled that the state was giving out prizes to slaughter it en masse. People trickled away to the display tables, snatching up snake identification brochures, bumper stickers, and free snacks made from other invasive species endemic to Florida: caiman chili, snakehead tacos, iguana ragu. Fobb coaxed the python back into the sack and tied the drawstring. He never got a chance to address the second thing that separates humans from other animals, aside from our enormous brains. But if I had to venture a guess, I’d say that we’re the only animal exempt from being classified as invasive.
According to a recent study published in the journal Zootaxa, 137 exotic species of frogs, toads, skinks, salamanders, newts, chameleons, crocodiles, monitors, snakes, turtles, iguanas, and geckos—collectively known as herpetofauna—run loose in Florida, more than any other place in the world. The number-one source of these animals, by far, is the exotic pet trade. By now, fifty-six species, mostly lizards, have established breeding populations in the state, including Python bivittatus, or the Burmese python. In 1979, a Burmese python was found alongside the Tamiami Trail, a highway that bisects Florida’s southern tip—the first documented case of a feral Burmese python in Florida. Nobody knows if it had escaped its cage, was deliberately set free, or was truly wild. Whatever the case, it didn’t belong there. Twenty years later, authorities declared that Burmese pythons had established a foothold in the state. Since then python sightings have skyrocketed from dozens to well over a thousand. In 2005, a scientist flipped over a chunk of mattress foam lying in the weeds near the Tamiami Trail and found a clutch of hatched Burmese python eggs, removing all doubt that they were reproducing. How many wild Burmese pythons live in Florida today is anyone’s guess, but estimates range from 5,000 to 150,000. Their typical lifespan is twenty-five years.
Few exotic species damage their adopted ecosystems enough to earn the invasive label. South American red-tailed boa constrictors have been breeding in a small nature preserve near Miami since 1970, but so far they haven’t spread beyond the preserve or disrupted its fragile ecology. Burmese pythons, on the other hand, are believed to have colonized virtually all 1.5 million acres of the Everglades National Park, as well as wildlife management areas as far north as Lake Okeechobee and as far south as Key Largo. Meanwhile, native wildlife populations in South Florida have plunged. Dr. Frank Mazzotti, a professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Florida, co-authored a study based on roadkill tallies that draws a direct correlation between severe declines in mammals and the spike in Burmese pythons. Mazzotti, who helped plan the Python Challenge, stops short of blaming the snake for gobbling up all those missing raccoons (99.3% decline), possums (98.9% decline), and bobcats (87.5% decline), but he does believe that pythons are tipping the ecological scales in the Everglades.
At the kick-off event in Fort Lauderdale, I found Mazzotti leaning against a display table, fending off a gaggle of reporters who pumped him for sound bites about exterminating the horde of man-eating snakes taking over Florida. He wearily insisted that the Python Challenge wasn’t about killing pythons; it was about getting data. How many pythons are out there? How far have they spread?
“So how many pythons are these people going to kill?” I shouted.
“Who knows,” said Mazzotti, throwing up his hands. “If ten percent end up catching snakes, that’s going to be more snakes than have ever been caught during any single month before. I think I’ll be ready to declare victory then.”
Eight hundred people registered on the first day of the Python Challenge. By the end of the contest, that number doubled.
Blake Russ and Devin Belliston, two snake hunters from the Miami area, were there to scope out the competition. “There’s going to be a lot of disappointed people,” Blake observed. Among the seventy-five or so volunteers who hold FWC permits to capture pythons year round, Blake and Devin know that it’s not easy to catch the cryptic snakes. Their bright orange t-shirts, emblazoned with a slithering python encircled by the words “Florida Python Hunters,” stood out among the sea of camouflage-patterned gear. “Most of the time I hunt in shorts and flip-flops,” Blake said. “We’re not trudging through the swamps. You can’t see anything in there anyway.”
“Here’s a python,” Devin said, showing me a photo on his iPhone. It looked as if he’d inadvertently hit the shutter key while hiking in the Everglades. He tapped the screen. “Right. There.” Amid the pale weave of sawgrass I could barely detect the giraffe-like pattern of tan and brown blotches characteristic of the Burmese python.
“How do you find them?” I said.
“It’s luck, and it’s just looking everywhere, all the time,” Blake said. He swung an invisible machete. “The only stupid thing to do is get out and bushwhack.”
The boundary between Miami’s exurban sprawl and the Everglades is Krome Avenue, a two-lane blacktop that zigzags south through Homestead to its terminus in Florida City. Lined with ornamental tree farms, fruit orchards, and shops specializing in lawn statuary of the urinating cherub variety, Krome Avenue is also the eastern flank of the Burmese python invasion. After inviting me to go “road cruising” for pythons on the night of the kickoff, Blake and Devin met me at an intersection off Krome, in the parking lot of a strawberry farm. Blake casually remarked that the name of his dark blue Toyota Prius was “Silent Night.”
“Why do you need a giant truck?” he scoffed as we whirred west toward Rocky Glades, a favorite hunting ground. He compared Silent Night’s fuel efficiency to the gas-guzzling pickup truck that his friend Ruben Ramirez, founder of the Florida Python Hunters, drove around. “We’re not your cliché python hunters,” Blake said, turning onto a levee road that ran parallel to a canal. “We have a college education.”
Stocky, with dark brown hair and glasses, Blake is finishing his degree in construction management. Devin is slight, blond, and teaches physical science at a high school in Miami. Both men are in their mid-twenties and married. Devout Mormons, they don’t hunt on the Sabbath, drink, or smoke. Their earnest wholesomeness might be considered trite if it weren’t channeled through their passion for snakes and lizards, as if abstinence from routine vices had turned them into reptile junkies. Blake grew up on a lake in Central Florida, where his mother encouraged him to catch alligators as a safe alternative to “partying and getting drunk and drunk driving.” A native of Utah, Devin keeps a photo gallery on his iPhone of all the reptiles he’s caught since moving to Miami two years ago. He shuffles through them like a boy with a shoebox full of baseball cards, always dreaming of his next acquisition.
“It’s so exciting!” Devin exclaimed, scanning the levee for pythons. The road we were driving on was inaccessible to the public, but the guys had a special key to unlock the gate to the levee. “It’s like such an adrenaline rush to see this big thing stretched across the road. It’s just like—” He searched for the most powerful expression his sensibilities permitted. “Wow!”
It’s no coincidence that most pythons killed or captured in Florida are found alongside roads and highways. That’s where human and python behaviors intersect. During the dry, cool winter months, pythons leave their burrows to find mates and bask in the sun, or to lie on warm roadbeds at night, making themselves visible to humans shuttling to and fro in air-conditioned vehicles.
The road glowed in the dusky light, two white strips cutting through the sawgrass. It was made of crushed limestone excavated from the adjacent canal, part of a network of canals, dams, and levees engineered to drain the Everglades to make room for crops and condos. The canals also function as superhighways for the heavy-bodied Burmese python, giving it easy access to distant corners of the Everglades untrammeled by humans.
“See how thick it is right there?” Devin pointed to an overgrown mango orchard on the other side of the road. “It’s like the Amazon. There’s just got to be lots of snakes in there that we can’t get to unless they cross the road when we happen to be driving by.”
“I hope we see a pygmy rattler,” Blake mused. “To me, those things are—” Blake hit the brake and threw Silent Night into reverse. “I saw a little curve on your side,” he said to Devin.
“That’s a snake!” Devin said, jumping out of the car. He reached into the weeds, pulled out a snake by its tail, and tossed it onto the road. It was a garter snake, about eight inches long and pencil-thin.
“How the hell did you see that?” I said when we climbed back into the Prius.
“His head was up like this,” Blake said, crooking the tip of his index finger. “A stick doesn’t sit like that.”
It was dark now and the soft trilling of tree frogs filled the air. Silent Night’s bobbing headlight beams caught ghostly glimpses of snowy egrets, night herons, and a screech owl sweeping low over the marsh. We turned off the levee road and bumped along a grassy track, scaring up scores of killdeer that darted like arrows inches from our bumper. Every half mile Blake stopped to examine a suspicious shape that turned out to be a blade of grass bent just so, a trembling shadow, a stick. “It’s hard with all these sticks,” he grumbled. We found two more snakes—a ribbon snake and a banded water snake—and one invasive cane toad squatting in the middle of the road. Except for the cane toad, I was blind to the visual cues that caused Blake and Devin to suddenly grab for their door handles.
“All right, let’s get a python here,” Devin said, casting aside a beer bottle that he’d mistaken for a python’s shiny skin. We’d been at it for three hours. The FWC estimates that volunteers in its Burmese python eradication program search sixty hours for every snake they turn in. Blake and Devin reckon their average is about ten hours, better than their buddy Ruben Ramirez, FWC’s most productive hunter. “He goes out ten times as much, but he doesn’t catch ten times as many snakes,” Devin said.
Blake jabbed his finger at Silent Night’s dashboard readout. “Look at that,” he crowed. “The last ten minutes we’ve gotten 100 miles to the gallon!”
“Ruben is probably getting 7 right now,” Devin said.
At one point we crossed paths with Ruben on the levee road. He pulled up alongside Silent Night in a black Ford truck jacked up so high he had to shout down at us to be heard over the growl of the truck’s diesel engine. A videographer from the New York Times sat next to him in the front seat. His friend Juan rode in the back, smoking a cigar.
“We got a pygmy, man, about that big,” Ruben said, holding his hands apart. “Beautiful, man. It was a big pygmy.”
“Did you pick it up?” Blake said. It was illegal to handle native animals on state land, but they all did it. You can’t give a kid the key to the candy store and not expect him to lick a few lollipops.
“Are you with FWC?” Ruben scowled. “Yeah, I did pick it up. We have pictures of it.” Blake told him that I got musked by a garter snake. Ruben snorted. “It’s perfume, man,” he said, and tromped the gas pedal.
“They saw a pygmy already?” Devin said as Ruben’s taillights dissolved in a cloud of white lime dust. “I’ve never seen one, dang it!” We drove around Rocky Glades for another hour, then Devin apologized for not finding a python on such a perfect night, echoing the lament of every hunter who has trudged home empty-handed. “You just never know,” he sighed. “They’re out there, a lot of them.” If there were just one snake for every forty acres, Devin reasoned, that would put the python population at more than 35,000 in Everglades National Park alone. They aren’t crawling all over the place as newspaper headlines suggest, but neither are the native snakes.
“If I came out here and said I’m going to find a red rat snake tonight, that would be hard. But we know there are plenty, plenty of red rat snakes all over the Everglades, everywhere, populating, breeding, doing great,” Blake said. “I think that’s how the pythons are too. They’re everywhere.”
Few creatures in the animal kingdom have a more vivid and diverse claim on human imagination than the snake. Aboriginal rock paintings of the “rainbow serpent” deity date back to the Neolithic era. Ouroboros, the symbol of a snake eating its own tail, appears in ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology. The serpent from the Eden myth has shaped the negative perception of snakes in Judeo-Christian cultures for the last 3,000 years. But the snake’s roots in the human psyche go deeper than symbology to something more primal. The stab of fear that many of us feel when encountering a snake comes straight out of the limbic system, the emotional center of our brain. Neuroscientists refer to the most primitive part of our brain, the one that controls the fight-or-flight response, as the “reptilian complex.”
“I’ve had people jump up and leave the room as soon as the snake slide comes on,” said Jim Duquesnel, a biological science technician for the U.S. Geological Survey who often gives public lectures about Florida’s wildlife. Jim, his colleague Michelle McEachern, and I were driving through Florida City toward the Southern Glades to do a python survey. Thanks to an unscrupulous reptile breeder who fled the country years ago, Florida City has the distinction of being ground zero for tegus—large, invasive lizards from South America. Many believe that the Burmese python invasion began here in 1992, when Hurricane Andrew flattened a big reptile breeding operation on the outskirts of town, but there’s no proof to support this theory.
We parked near a juvenile detention facility set in the middle of a marsh and walked down a rutted dirt road overgrown with cocoplum and pond apple trees. The road intersected with canal C-110, a lily-choked ditch about twenty feet wide and ten feet deep. The python survey involved walking a six-mile loop down one side of the canal and up the other, slapping at deerflies. Jim scouted a few hundred yards ahead while Michelle and I followed, chatting and scanning the undergrowth for snakes.
“Maybe we’re hardwired to fear snakes,” I said.
“I think it’s natural for animals to be xenophobes,” Michelle said, “and snakes are just so completely different from anything we know.” Michelle is something of an expert on xenophobic behavior in “humans,” her preferred term for “people.” Now in her mid-twenties, she began her career as a “tour guide Barbie,” cheerily reciting factoids about Florida’s wildlife to sweaty tourists on a glass-bottom boat in Key Largo. “You learn very quickly that part of America just really doesn’t know very much about the natural world at all,” she said. The sky was overcast, but Michelle was encouraged by depressions in the sawgrass that she attributed to alligators. If gators were out basking, pythons might be doing the same. Neither she nor Jim had ever caught a python. Michelle got her hands around one once, but it got away. Now they were feeling pressure to prove themselves.
“Here’s a dead one,” she said, kneeling in the shade of a buttonwood tree. It was a banded water snake, and it wasn’t actually dead, just sluggish. Clipboard balanced on her knee, Michelle jotted notes about the weather and habitat. I wasn’t much help with the search. It was all I could do to dodge branches of the caustic poisonwood trees that grew everywhere along the levee road. When we came upon a clearing, I asked Michelle what, exactly, I was looking for.
“You need to have a search image,” she said. For the python, she had two. In grassy or shady areas, she expected to see it coiled up to conserve heat. In the open verge where the grass meets the road, pythons stretch out to soak up the sunlight. “They’re not used to getting eaten, either,” she said. “Them and gators—that’s really the top of the food chain now. So unless you’re a giant gator, I think the pythons are like, ‘Whatever.’ Until you get a little close. Then they’re like, ‘Okay, maybe I should start moving.’”
Eight miles west, the state police were conducting a training exercise on an abandoned rocket test site. I could feel the dull thud of large explosions rippling across the sawgrass. We took a break at a water control station. The sun glinted off the windshield of a car driving toward us. The levee road was gated, and the vehicle, a PT Cruiser, wasn’t a state vehicle.
“What is this human doing out here?” Michelle said.
The driver stopped and rolled down his window. He had an FWC permit to hunt pythons and had never been on this road before, he said. Was it passable? Michelle and Jim nodded and the man drove on. I could hear branches scraping the side of his car when Jim and I got up to survey the other side of the canal. Jim moved to the Florida Keys in 1979 after college and never left. His first job was catching wild sharks and transporting them to marine parks all over the state. Most of his work now is terrestrial, but the way he lumbered down the levee road suggested that he was still adapting to land.
“We’re right on the frontier of pythonlandia,” he said, peering into a lacy clump of bracken fern. “We’re trying to identify patterns of land use, timing of movement, timing of activity, type of activities—anything that we can use as an Achilles’ heel.”
Adult Burmese pythons don’t have any natural enemies in Florida, and in some ways they have more in common with oranges than with alligators, the only other animals out here who match them in size and power. Both oranges and pythons originated in the tropics of Asia and were later introduced to Florida’s subtropical environment, where they now proliferate. Neither species handles the cold very well. The worst cold snap in decades descended on Florida in January 2010, damaging citrus orchards and wiping out entire vegetable crops. Stunned iguanas fell out of trees, littering patios all across South Florida. In Everglades National Park, it’s estimated that half the Burmese python population succumbed to subfreezing temperatures, including nine of the ten pythons that Frank Mazzotti had outfitted with radio transmitters. But for reasons that remain unclear, many pythons survived and their numbers have since rebounded.
“The subspecies that got imported to the U.S. primarily came from Myanmar, and is primarily of that southern race,” Jim said, raising his voice to be heard above an F-16 streaking toward Homestead Air Force Base. “We got the Confederates instead of the Yankees. Right now we’re trying to figure out if you ship a bunch of Confederates up north, do they die of cold?”
The provisional answer is not all at once. A biology professor at Davidson College relocated ten male Burmese pythons from the Everglades to an outdoor enclosure in South Carolina. They thrived for seven months until temperatures dipped below freezing. None made it through January, but two hardy specimens hung on in burrows for eight frigid nights during a prolonged fourteen-day freeze, the same unusual weather system that killed so many of their Florida brethren in 2010. Another study using climate modeling indicates that the Burmese python and its close cousin, the Indian python, would find suitable habitat in a crescent-shaped swath of the U.S. extending from southern California to Texas and Oklahoma, across all of the Gulf states, to the coastal plains of the Atlantic seaboard south of Washington, D.C. But a hospitable climate is only one variable among many that allow an invasive species to spread, and right now, pythons are infiltrating the Florida Keys. If they could pick off the scouts, or the first pythons to colonize here in the Southern Glades, Jim said, they could forestall a full-scale invasion. He was showing me an invasive tree, a spindly Australian pine brought to Florida as a windbreak, when suddenly he wheeled around on his heels.
“Oh! That’s a blue!” He lunged at a powder blue butterfly the size of a dime. “Come on, land!” Jim tracked it to a thicket, where it settled on a cocoplum leaf. “And it’s a . . . hairstreak, okay,” he said. The fine white stripes on the butterfly’s wings proved that it wasn’t a Miami blue, which is almost extinct in the wild. The 2010 cold snap hit Bahia Honda, the blues’ last major enclave in the Keys. The butterfly’s host plant was the first plant to bud when the weather warmed. Incidentally, that same plant was the only available food source for invasive iguanas. The iguanas ate the leaves, and along with them the last generation of Miami blue butterfly eggs—a dramatic example of the unpredictable and irreversible impact invasive species can have on native ecology.
We rendezvoused with Michelle to compare notes. Our survey of canal C-110 took three hours and yielded two banded water snakes (one dead) and a musk turtle shell picked clean by vultures—but no Burmese pythons. On the way out, as we drove past the razor-wire perimeter of the juvenile detention facility, Jim spotted a turtle in the road. He asked Michelle to stop but she refused.
“What?” Jim said. “You’re just going to leave him for the vultures?”
Michelle flashed him a tour guide Barbie smile and chirped, “Circle of life, Jimbo-slice, circle of life!”
Michelle and Jim work out of the Daniel Beard Center located in Everglades National Park, a low concrete building painted flamingo pink and aquamarine. The center is a monument to Florida’s peculiar history of invasions of one form or another. Built in 1964 on a reclaimed tomato farm in the heart of the Everglades, its retro color scheme disguises its original function as a missile base designed to intercept nukes launched from Cuba. The tomatoes and missiles have been replaced by invasive Brazilian pepper trees, a relative of poison sumac brought to Florida in the 1840s for use in Christmas decorations. Now the state is resetting the ecological clock by scraping the earth down to the limestone marl.
I could hear the rumble of heavy equipment in the distance when I visited the center one day to talk to Skip Snow, a federal wildlife biologist and godfather of Burmese python research in Florida. As I walked into his laboratory, the odor of unrefrigerated meat filled my nose, a gamey funk that reminded me of butchering deer in my family’s garage. Skip leaned over a lab table and examined a decapitated eight-foot Burmese python. Its head was in a sandwich bag destined for scientists at the University of Alabama.
“This one got run over by a tractor right outside the station,” Skip said. “That’s why it looks a little messed up.” Dressed in a t-shirt and jeans, Skip resembled a college professor on vacation. His graying goatee and thinning hair were offset by his deeply tanned face and scalp. Skip has caught hundreds of Burmese pythons and performed necropsies on hundreds more. He has no illusions about the scale of Florida’s python invasion, or the efficacy of the Python Challenge.
“We do not have any proven tools for the control or eradication of invasive reptiles on the landscape level, we just don’t,” he said. “Eradication meansevery single animal. All size classes, all sexes. It’s hard to make that connection to people that say, ‘Well, all you need to do is get eight hundred hunters.’ No. That’s not an effective tool.”
Running my fingers over its scales, I marveled at the python’s simplicity. There is nothing superfluous about a large constrictor. It has no need for limbs, fins, wings, horns, fur, venom, an enormous brain, or any of the other fussy adaptations other creatures developed to catch food, reproduce, and avoid being eaten. It’s essentially a feeding tube endowed with an appetite as voracious as it is indiscriminate. Scalpel in hand, Skip made a long incision in the python’s white underbelly.
“Their digestive process is so harsh and complete that they dissolve all the bone, all the teeth,” he said. “The only thing that really remains is keratin.” He palpated the python’s digestive tract. “Feels like we’ve got some bolus here,” he said, slicing open the intestine. He squeezed a few brown pellets covered in a syrupy liquid onto a metal tray, stirring them with his finger. “End product of a bird meal,” he mumbled to himself. The cabinets in Skip’s lab overflow with Ziploc bags containing a ghastly smorgasbord of wildlife recovered from dissected pythons. Some bags are pillowed with wads of possum, bobcat, or deer fur. Others hold a few ounces of alligator claws and scutes—the bony ridges and scales that make up a gator’s armor—as delicate as flaked quartz. Most contain a few eroded quills and bills of water birds such as herons, grebes, egrets, ducks, coots, ibis, limpkins, rails, and one Fregata magnificens, the magnificent frigatebird, a large tropical seabird that spends most of its life soaring over the open ocean. How the unfortunate frigatebird ended up so far inland is a mystery that delighted Skip.
“It’s like Christmas,” he said. “Most of the time it’s like a lot of science, it’s just pretty routine and pretty boring. You open things up. You get the data. And every now and then stuff like that happens.”
Florida’s python problem came to public attention in 2005, when a helicopter pilot buzzing over Shark Slough, a remote part of the Everglades, spotted a dead python floating in a marsh. The thirteen-foot snake had swallowed a six-foot alligator and burst open like an over-inflated inner tube. A gruesome photo of the gator’s hindquarters protruding from the python’s bloated carcass made international news. Headlines hyped a confrontation of Godzillian proportions. The National Geographic Channel dedicated an entire program to the discovery, complete with animated recreations. Consensus was that the epic battle ended in a fatal draw, with the dying gator disemboweling the python. Many web commentators were unsettled by the idea that the American alligator had to now share its title as heavyweight champion of the Everglades with a foreign invader. They claimed the photo was a hoax, or offered their own theories to explain how the gator ended up inside the python, including one scenario where the python was impaled by a flying gator during a hurricane. Skip’s field necropsy told a different story. The gator was partially digested. It had been inside the snake’s gut for some time.
“On occasion you’ll find bills of birds that poked through a python’s stomach and it gets encased in protective tissue, like a little cocoon. There’s no bleeding, no impairment.” Skip paused to make sure I understood, and said, “It survived having its stomach ruptured from the inside.” He speculated that an infection from wounds caused by the gator killed the python long after the gator died. “But who can say?” he said with a shrug. One thing he knows for certain: Burmese pythons don’t typically explode after swallowing prey. They are exquisite eating machines, capable of increasing the size of their hearts by forty percent to digest animals with a body mass almost equal to their own. No matter how feisty it may be, a six-foot gator is just another item on the python’s menu. Skip picked up a pair of scissors and butterflied a webby membrane of fat cells, revealing glistening yellow eggs the size of ping-pong balls clustered in the python’s body cavity.
“That’s a lot of python babies,” I said.
“The number of egg follicles inside a captured snake doesn’t tell you the whole story.” Skip scooped the eggs onto the lab table. “To make a population model, you need to know how many babies they have. So the important number is how many hatched, and that means finding nests.” But few python nests have been found, which explains why estimates of the Burmese python population vary so widely. In August 2012, researchers captured a monster 17-foot-7-inch, 165-pound female carrying 87 fertilized eggs. Even if Frank Mazzotti’s best hope for the Python Challenge came true, one pregnant python could still replenish all the snakes killed in the contest.
Eradicating pythons from Florida is practically impossible. They can only be controlled, like firearms. In 2010, the FWC banned sales of Burmese pythons and required pet owners to register their snakes, making Florida the only state where it’s easier to buy a Colt Python revolver than an actual python. The FWC also hosts amnesty days when people can turn in unwanted pythons, no questions asked, but no ban or amnesty program can address the pool of “illegal” pythons already circulating in the Everglades. Perhaps the only thing that can stem the Burmese python invasion now is the Burmese python itself.
“There’s a lot of work we need to do,” Skip said, thinking aloud. “You could use female pheromones in a broadcast way to confuse males and prevent them from breeding. Maybe. It’s like a risky investment in a portfolio. There could be a really huge return on investment, it could be a game changer, but it might also fail.”
Skip swept the eggs and the rest of the python’s remains into a garbage bag. We took it to a clearing at the side of a dirt road. Scattered on the ground were scores of python carcasses in various stages of decay. Some formed sine waves of white rib bones in the long grass; others were shriveled like rotten banana skins. Skip turned the garbage bag upside down. A bloody ball of flayed skin and pink muscle rolled into the weeds. He stood over it, shaking out every last scrap of entrails. “Recycling,” he said. Black vultures circled overhead. Of all the bird quills and beaks I saw in Skip’s cabinet of digested wonders, I didn’t recall seeing any belonging to a vulture. I nudged the python’s carcass with my foot, disturbing a cloud of feasting flies that seemed to appear out of nowhere. Vultures and flies, they were the big winners in this war.
I wasn’t having any luck catching a Burmese python, though not for lack of trying. I spent a day skimming over sawgrass prairie in an airboat with two old gladesmen who believed the government was a bigger threat to the Everglades than pythons. I hunted pythons with Jeff Fobb, who instructed me on the basics of wrangling dangerous reptiles while simultaneously critiquing the limits of neoconservative objectivism. “I am a producer, and all things that flow from my production are beneficial,” Fobb chuckled, poking a stick into the underbrush, “even the pollution.” I went on a six-hour night cruise in a minivan driven by a near-sighted Nicaraguan shipping clerk who ran over so many frogs that it sounded as if the road was made of bubble wrap. I searched for pythons with one of the co-authors of the invasive reptile study published in Zootaxa, who also moonlights as a cast member on the reality program Gator Boys. As a consolation for not finding any snakes, he showed me a secret location outside Florida City where lime-colored veiled chameleons from Yemen clung like exotic fruit to the branches of a giant strangler fig tree. I called Ruben Ramirez to see if I could hitch a ride with him, but he was boycotting the Python Challenge because the FWC didn’t count four snakes he turned in that week. They even searched his house for pythons he might have stashed before the contest started.
“We’re busting our ass to catch some snakes,” Ruben shouted into the phone. “I’m not freakin’ Scarface, dude, you know? I mean, raiding my house like I’m a drug dealer for a freakin’ python? I’m doing them a freakin’ favor! Every time I go out it costs me a hundred bucks, you know what I mean?”
I heard through the python hunter grapevine that Michelle McEachern almost caught a twelve-foot “Burm” while resurveying canal C-110. She grabbed the snake by the tail, but it was anchored around some mangrove roots and escaped into the water.
One morning after hearing this story, I stripped the case off my pillow, filled a water bottle, and drove through Florida City toward C-110. Florida City is the Detroit of South Florida. That’s the name thirty families from the real Detroit gave their swampy new hometown in 1910 before they realized their mistake and moved back North, taking the name with them. Florida City hasn’t changed much since then. Its main industry is still agriculture, and tourists don’t stray far from the gas stations, outlet stores, and mold-stained motels lining the stretch of the South Dixie Highway that cuts through town. I passed fields of peas, tomatoes, corn, green beans, and wax beans. In one field, migrant workers moved slowly under the baking sun, carrying red plastic pails of zucchini on their shoulders. I stopped to ask a supervisor if he’d seen any pythons.
“Oh yeah, if the weeds get too long, we get the pythons,” he said. “When they disc the fields, they find the pythons all cut up.”
A few miles from the entrance to Everglades National Park I saw Jimmy Meyer, an unemployed steel worker and python hunter I’d met on the trail a few days earlier. He was standing by the gate to canal C-111E, smoking a cigarette. I told him I was headed over to C-110. Did he want to join me? He jerked his thumb toward his three young children sweating in the backseat of his wife’s banged-up Hyundai.
“We’ve been walking all morning,” he said, “and I got to get the car back before my wife goes to work.” Glancing at me from beneath the rim of his ball cap, Jimmy took a long drag on his cigarette. “C-110? I caught two black racers out there last week,” he said. “Man, they’re fun.”
“Do they bite?” I said.
“That’s all they do is bite.” Jimmy laughed and flicked his cigarette butt into the canal. “The thing to do is hold him right up to your face, just out of striking range, and look him in the eyes. He’ll concentrate on your face and won’t bite your hand.” I thanked him for the advice and drove away. By the time I parked my car near the juvenile detention facility, I was having second thoughts about hunting pythons by myself. It was illegal, for one thing; I didn’t have a permit. I wanted Jimmy to come with me because he did have an FWC permit, and because I lacked the presence of mind to attempt hypnosis on a snake that was trying to bite my face. In the end, it didn’t matter. I scoured C-110 until dusk, scaring up ducks, herons, anhinga, and a big gator that launched itself into the canal with a heavy splash. But no pythons. Walking back to my car, I recognized the PT Cruiser from the other day, scraping through the cocoplum branches hanging over the levee road. The driver asked if I’d seen any pythons. I told him about the twelve-footer that got away.
“Can you show me where?” he said excitedly. Middle-aged, balding, he seemed harmless enough despite the eight-inch knife strapped to his hip. I climbed into the back seat next to a cooler labeled with a piece of masking tape that read dangerous reptiles. We exchanged pleasantries as I directed him toward the spot. His name was Jim Howard, from Fort Lauderdale. He was a “left seat” for U.S. Airways.
“Left seat?” I asked.
“I’m a captain,” he said with a modest shrug. “Here, take the wheel a sec.” He stood on the driver’s seat, poking his upper body through the sunroof. I lunged over the console to keep the car from drifting into the canal.
“So you’re an airline pilot?”
“Yup,” he said. He put his foot on the steering wheel. “Okay, you can let go now.” We crept down the levee road in second gear, Jim steering with his foot and hanging out of the sunroof like a seventeen-year-old prom queen in a rented limo. It was almost dark when we found the break in the mangrove where Michelle lost the twelve-footer. Jim got out and shined his flashlight around. Something skittered in the leaf litter and emerged among the tangle of gray-fingered mangrove roots. It was a brown basilisk, an exotic reptile from Central America also known as the Jesus Christ lizard for its ability to walk on water. It skated across the canal on its hind legs as blue tilapia, invasive fish from North Africa, nipped at insects in its wake.
“There could be ten pythons right there and we could never hardly know it,” Jim said. He walked down the road, waving his flashlight over the dark thicket of cocoplum and poisonwood trees. “I mean, look at this! There could be five million of them out here. It’s like looking for sharks on Miami Beach.”
Python hunters with FWC permits didn’t compete directly with regular Python Challenge contestants. Each group had its own pool of prize money at stake. It was only fair. Permit holders could hunt anywhere except the national park. Ordinary contestants were limited to searching in wildlife management areas north of the Tamiami Trail. The difference between the two areas was starkly evident on my GPS, which displayed python sightings dating back to the mid-Nineties as little red flags pinned to a digital map. Roughly 95 percent of the flags were in areas of the Everglades off-limits to Python Challenge contestants.
Experienced python hunters arm themselves only with pillowcases, maybe a snake hook, at most a knife. They took a dim view of the contestants. Jimmy Meyer called them “machete masters.” News coverage of the challenge did little to improve upon this description. In media accounts across the country they were portrayed as an army of machete-wielding, gun-toting rednecks slashing and blasting their way through the Everglades. In this regard, Roy Suggs, a contractor from Bradenton, Florida, was catnip for reporters and television producers. He had the backwoods drawl, the camouflage boonie hat, the shotgun and machete. The first thing he told me when I met him at a campsite off the Tamiami Trail was that you could spot him walking through the swamp in background footage of a CNN story about the Python Challenge.
“I hate snakes, man,” he told me. “I mean, I got my gun, but you can’t shoot from the roadway or nothing. But in the woods, I bust his ass.”
Suggs was like a lot of the guys I grew up with in upstate New York. If they didn’t have the excuse of a contest to head into the woods with a shotgun or rifle slung over their shoulder on their day off, they’d be there anyway, plugging holes in old refrigerators and washing machines. Killing snakes was a bonus. A few miles down the road from Suggs’s campsite I met five young lawyers at the FWC check-in station. They were unloading shotguns and bandoliers of shells from the trunks of their cars. Each had a semiautomatic pistol strapped to his thigh, or tucked into his waistband, or holstered to his hip. One brought an AR-15 semiautomatic carbine, but he left it in the trunk when he heard about the rifle ban. They ducked under a gate and stood atop a levee road that shot straight through miles of open sawgrass prairie, not a poisonwood tree in sight. All at once, they cupped their hands around their mouths and lit cigarettes. Looking down sheepishly at his feet, one of the lawyers said, “Do you see anyone other than myself in snake boots?”
“I don’t think you’ll need snake boots out here,” I said.
“Don’t tell him that,” his friend said. “He just bought them.”
“We’re heavy on guns, cigarettes, and bravado,” another observed, “and light on information.” They hailed from Brooklyn, Chicago, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina. All but one went to law school in Miami. Some of them stayed in Florida to work as state prosecutors or defense attorneys. Since graduating, they didn’t see each other too often and the Python Challenge provided an occasion to get together. “Just so we can feel blue-collar again, you know?” said the guy from Brooklyn.
They walked five abreast down the levee road, pausing to take pictures of one another. “We’re like Vogue guys,” one of them joked. “It’s like Cosmomagazine out here.” I was in the midst of explaining how to search for pythons when I got a call from Devin Belliston. He and Blake were driving up to Fort Lauderdale with a twelve-foot python in the trunk. They yanked it out of the mangrove off C-110, Devin said, right where I told him it might be. We agreed to meet in twenty minutes. Hanging up, I noticed a big alligator wallowing in the marsh at the foot of the levee. The lawyers had walked past it.
“Guys,” I shouted. “Gator!” They ran to the edge of the levee and started taking pictures. One of them crab-walked down the embankment, cradling his shotgun.
“Hey! Don’t shoot it!” His friend shouted.
“I’m going to take a picture of it for my folks,” he said.
“Pet its face!”
“Yeah, sit on it!”
“I’m not even going to go close.”
“Honestly, I don’t even know if it’s alive.”
“It’s alive, dude.”
“I want him to charge.”
“Look at him. He notices me. Come on up, buddy, I’ll give you something.”
“Yeah, she’s wiggling.”
“Don’t shoot that. It’s a big ol’ fine.”
“I’m drawing. Doesn’t mean I’ll shoot. I’m drawing, though.”
The indifferent gator basked on its bed of sawgrass, unblinking, flanks slowly rising and falling like armored bellows. As I turned to go back to my car, one of the lawyers stopped me and said, in courtroom deadpan, “I just want to tell you that what the FWC is doing here is irresponsible. This is a very dangerous competition, and somebody is going to get hurt.”
“We should be sprinkling our business cards along the trail,” his friend said, and they all burst out laughing.
I followed Silent Night to a gravel parking lot near a busy intersection. Blake popped the hatch and hoisted a blue plaid flannel sack—sewn by Devin’s mother, a home economics teacher in Utah—over his shoulder. “It was a battle,” he said. They played tug-of-war with the python for twenty minutes until the snake wore out. It was the biggest one they’d ever caught. “Now you’ll see it’s like a stuffed animal,” Blake said. He set the sack in the grass and untied the knot. “You can pet it on its head and it won’t even open its mouth.”
The python emerged from the sack hissing and poised to strike. Blake grabbed it by the tail. The python doubled back on itself and struck at him, snagging a tooth on his jeans. Blake shook it off. “Boy, he’s getting cranky,” he said. The python reared back for another strike. “I’m not scared to catch him,” Devin said, “but I’m scared to let him strike because he has a bigger range than the ones I’m used to.” Watching Blake and Devin dodge and weave around the python, snatching at its tail, waving their hands, I thought of medicine men performing a ritual dance. There’s something supernatural about a person who doesn’t fear snakes. The fiery-eyed Pentecostal minister, speaking in tongues and waving rattlesnakes around; the Indian snake charmer, playing his flute to a wicker basket full of cobras; even the guy at the reptile exhibit with the albino boa dangling around his neck seems endowed with a kind of dark magic. Rubberneckers braked to watch Blake and Devin’s snake dance. One guy pulled over to take pictures.
Exhausted, the python fell limp and Blake scooped it up.
“You want to hold him?” he asked.
“Are you sure it’s okay?”
Blake looped it over my shoulders. “Just hold him tight,” he warned, “or he’ll get his teeth in you.” I gripped the python hard behind its knobby jawbones. Its wedge-shaped head was the size of my hand, and its body was as big around as a two-liter soda bottle. To support its weight I adopted the pose of a scarecrow, arms outstretched. The python wasn’t limp. It had the latent energy of a coiled spring. I could feel its powerful muscles rippling against the back of my neck, tensing and relaxing. The only part of it that moved was the tip of its tail, which curled around my ankle in a gesture that seemed more reflexive than predatory.
“He’s beautiful,” I said.
“We wish we could send him home to Asia and let him go, you know, because they’re endangered over there,” Devin said. “And here we’re killing them.”
Blake and Devin took the python to the University of Florida to be cataloged and euthanized. It was such a fine specimen that Frank Mazzotti’s team decided to implant it with a radio transmitter and return it to canal C-110 as part of the redundantly named “Judas snake” program. The idea is that the snake will betray its fellow travelers and lead researchers to their secret hiding spots. The “twelve-footer”—it turned out to be a little over eleven feet—earned Blake and Devin $1,000 in the Python Challenge for the longest snake. Ruben Ramirez’s boycott of the contest didn’t last longer than our brief conversation about it. The eighteen pythons he turned in accounted for more than one quarter of all the snakes caught during the contest (68). He donated his $1,500 prize to charity.
While I was in Florida, I often cruised for pythons in the neighborhoods west of Krome Avenue, letting the little red flags scrolling across the screen of my GPS dictate my route. One evening I found myself near Chekika, a picnic area just inside the boundary of Everglades National Park. Mist drifted over the fields, and frogs hopped across the road. While stopped at an intersection, I noticed a serpentine shape on the asphalt, about three feet long and thicker than a garden hose. It wasn’t a strip of shredded tire, or a broken fan belt. Nor was it a native copperhead. It dawned on me that I was staring at a Burmese python hatchling, and I froze, gripped by the same panic that overcame me at sixteen when I saw my first buck on opening day of deer season. Hunters know the feeling as buck fever; or in this case, python fever. The hoarse screech of a night heron unnerved me into action. I texted Devin Belliston for advice. His reply came almost immediately.
Grab it and throw it in the trunk
Devin assumed that I understood what he meant by “grab,” and that my rental car had a trunk. He also didn’t know that the python was so close that I couldn’t open my door without spooking it. We exchanged a few more texts, sorting out the details of the situation. All I wanted was reassurance that it wouldn’t bite me.
It will definitely bite, Devin texted. It will only hurt for a few minutes, but the pride of catching a Florida python will last forever.
I’d never thought of them as Florida pythons, but Devin was right. The hatchling lying on the road next to my car was as authentically Burmese as I was Irish. It was born in the Everglades. It had as much claim to Florida as the snowbirds and tourists, the sugar cane and oranges—invasives, all—that have fueled the state’s economy and contributed to the permanent destruction of more than half the Everglades. The python wouldn’t be considered such a big problem if it brought something to the table instead of eating everything on it. I climbed over the passenger seat, holding a plastic Walgreen’s shopping bag in one hand. On my other hand I wore a canvas workman’s glove that I found on the side of the road. I crept around the back of the car, trying not to think of the python’s three rows of needle-sharp teeth.
When I turned to attack, it was gone.
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