Hunting Snakes In The Everglades To Protect Native Species

Jan 17, 2016
Originally published on January 19, 2016 12:44 pm

Florida's Everglades is known for its alligators, and in recent years, pythons. Burmese pythons aren't native to the Everglades. But over the last two decades, the snakes, which can grow up to 20 feet, have become established there and taken a big toll on native wildlife.

With the pythons, there's another new Florida species — the python hunter. They've been featured on National Geographic and the Discovery Channel. And hunters are descending on the Everglades this month for a competition — the Python Challenge.

Several hundred people have signed up to take part in the monthlong python hunt. This weekend, Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission held a kickoff event where it showed prospective hunters how best to corral a 10-foot long snake.

While biologist Jenny Novack narrates, snake wrangler Jeff Fobb works to control and bag a Burmese python that weighs 50 pounds.

"Now this animal has gone into fight behavior. He knows that Jeff is there. He's not happy about it. He's hissing a little bit," Novack says.

She describes how Fobb controls the snake. "Then he's just going to grasp the animal right behind the head. He can feel the jawbones on his hand," Novack says.

In the last python challenge, three years ago, 1,600 people took part, but they caught just 68 snakes. Researchers say there are tens of thousands of Burmese pythons in the Everglades. Catching them isn't easy. Finding them is even harder.

Veteran snake hunter Bill Booth says in the last python challenge, his team hunted seven days before finding their first snake. They ended up taking second place.

"We got six snakes, and one got away," he says, laughing. "We were being followed by National Geographic and they were filming a show. And they actually borrowed the snake from us to re-enact one of the other hunters. And they came back and said the snake got away. So, we wanted to kill them."

Booth, a firefighter from the Tampa area, took a month off of work for this year's challenge. He grew up in Miami and says he spent much of his childhood in the Everglades. Burmese pythons, Booth says, have had a dramatic impact on wildlife there.

"The thing is, you don't see anything. It's like a wasteland out there," Booth says. "I think in the 30 days that we spent on the last python challenge, I think we saw maybe one or two otters in 30 days. And rabbits and stuff like that, they're just not around."

As preparations were underway for this year's python challenge, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called on Florida to tell participants not to cut off the heads of pythons they capture. The animal rights group said when decapitated, pythons can remain alive and writhe in agony for hours.

Ron Bergeron is a commission board member and a longtime snake hunter who says the best way to kill a snake is whatever works.

"You know, as an expert, I catch them alive. But we don't really recommend that to the public," he says. "It can be dangerous. A snake can turn around and bite you."

Some Floridians are not just hunting invasive species — they're eating them.

At the kickoff to the python hunt, chef Jimmy Rodriguez was serving up samples of invasive species. There were no snakes. But he did have two marine species — snakeheads and lionfish, fried. Plus tacos made with slow-cooked green iguana, an invasive species he says is taking over.

"We're trying to educate the public on how gorgeous the texture of this meat is," Rodriguez says. "Not just the texture, the flavor."

With the extensive media coverage, Burmese pythons have become Florida's best-known invasive species. The python challenge attracts people from across the country. Howard Hudson and his wife, Diana, came with their friend Chip Williamson from Cincinnati, Ohio, to join in what would be their first python hunt.

"This is also just an adventure. We'd love to be able to help protect the native wildlife from the invasive species," Hudson says. "We know that they're really hard to find out there. But, I think we'll have a ball."

I point out to the Hudsons and to Williamson that they'll be up against some serious python hunters.

Hudson says they're not worried, they're mostly there to have fun. "We're going to enjoy ourselves and have a good time," he says. They could end up catching the biggest snake by chance. "You never know," he says.

As for catching a python, the Ohioans say they think they know how to do it. They've seen it done on Animal Planet.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Florida's Everglades - the area is known for the alligators and in recent years, the pythons. Burmese pythons aren't native to the Everglades, but over the last two decades, they've taken up residence in the swampy mangroves. With their voracious appetite, they're taking a big toll on native wildlife. Now comes along another Florida species, the python hunter. And often in hot pursuit of the hunters are the television cameras.

NPR's Greg Allen reports on the hoades that are descending on the Everglades for a competition, the Python Challenge.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Several hundred people have signed up to take part in the month-long python hunt. This weekend, Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission held a kickoff event where they showed perspective hunters how best to corral a 10-foot long snake.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JENNY NOVACK: So now this animal has gone into fight behavior. He knows that Jeff is there. He's not happy about it. He's hissing a little bit.

ALLEN: While biologist Jenny Novack narrates, snake wrangler Jeff Fobb works to control and bag a Burmese python that weighs 50 pounds.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NOVACK: And then he's just going to grasp the animal right behind the head. He can feel the jawbones on his hand. He's just using two fingers around the neck to control the animal. That all we need is to control the animal.

ALLEN: In the last Python Challenge three years ago, 1,600 people took part, catching just 68 snakes. Researchers say there are tens of thousands of Burmese pythons in the Everglades. Catching them isn't easy, but finding them is even harder.

Veteran snake hunter Bill Booth says in the last Python Challenge, his team hunted seven days before finding their first snake. They ended up taking second place.

BILL BOOTH: We got six snakes, and one got away (laughter). We were being followed by National Geographic, and they were filming a show. And they actually borrowed the snake from us to reenact one of the other hunters. And they came back and said the snake got away. So we wanted to kill them.

ALLEN: Booth, a firefighter from the Tampa area, took a month off work for this year's challenge. He grew up in Miami and says he spent much of his childhood in the Everglades. Burmese pythons, Booth says, have had a dramatic impact on wildlife there.

BOOTH: The thing is, you don't see anything. It's like a wasteland out there. I think in the 30 days that we spent on the last Python Challenge, I think we saw maybe one or two otters in 30 days. And rabbits and stuff like that, they're just not around.

ALLEN: As preparations were underway for this year's Python Challenge, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called on Florida to tell participants not to cut off the heads of pythons they capture. The animal rights group said when decapitated, Pythons can remain alive and writhe in agony for hours. State officials declined to take a position on that.

Ron Bergeron is a commission board member and a longtime snake hunter.

RON BERGERON: You know, as an expert, I catch them alive, but we don't really recommend that to the public.

ALLEN: Because what - it's...

BERGERON: Well, there - it can be dangerous. A snake can turn around and bite you.

ALLEN: The best way to kill a snake, Bergeron says, is whatever works.

JIMMY RODRIGUEZ: That's what we're trying to do. We're trying to educate the public on how gorgeous the texture of this meat is - not just the texture, the flavor.

ALLEN: At the kickoff to the python hunt, chef Jimmy Rodriguez was serving up samples of invasive species, no snakes - two marine species - snakeheads and lionfish, fried. Plus tacos made with slow-cooked green iguana.

RODRIGUEZ: Make sure you come back for that green iguana taco because that's another invasive species taking over.

ALLEN: With the extensive media coverage, Burmese pythons have become Florida's best-known invasive species. The Python Challenge attracts people from across the country. Howard Hudson and his wife Diana came with their friend Chip Williamson from Cincinnati to join in what would be, for them, their first-ever python hunt.

HOWARD HUDSON: This is also just an adventure. We'd love to be able to help protect the native wildlife from the invasive species. We know that they're really hard to find out there, but I think we'll have a ball.

ALLEN: I point out to the Hudsons and to Williamson that they'll be up against some serious python hunters.

H. HUDSON: Yep, yep.

CHIP WILLIAMSON: We're not them.

H. HUDSON: We're not them. We're going to enjoy ourselves and have a good time.

DIANA HUDSON: But we could catch the big one. We could catch the biggest one.

WILLIAMSON: Yes, that is true.

H. HUDSON: You never know.

ALLEN: As for catching a python, the Ohioans say they think they know how to do it. They've seen it done on Animal Planet.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.