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02.25.10

The Great Python Hunt

Thousands of 10-foot pythons roam the Florida Everglades, menacing man and beast alike. Catharine Skipp prepares to join the historic hunting expedition designed to stamp them out.

Thousands of 10-foot pythons roam the Florida Everglades, menacing man and beast alike. Catharine Skipp prepares to join the historic hunting expedition designed to stamp them out. Plus, read about Catharine's hunt here.

There are giant beasts stalking South Florida. Seriously: Burmese Pythons that can grow as long as a Winnebago and have been known to swallow German shepherds who take a wrong turn. There are an estimated 30,000 of them, slithering through Miami and surrounding counties. The reptiles wreak havoc on the local ecosystem. They can also kill people. Just last year, an 8½-foot family pet Burmese escaped its cage and strangled a 2-year-old girl while she slept in her crib.

Click the Image to View Our Gallery of the World's Deadliest Snakes

Concern about the snake menace has been growing for years. Last summer, the state offered 19 hunters licenses to chase down the critters, hoping they could help bring the population under control. It didn’t work. So now, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is taking a far more dramatic step: On March 6, they’re declaring open season on the giant pythons, opening up 736,000 prime snake-hunting acres to any Floridian with a hunting license. People from as far away as Australia want in on the action. For six weeks, an expected crowd of hundreds will get to take their best shot at bagging the beasts.

Local authorities talk of the need to bring in outside firepower with an almost comic bureaucratic calm. “In order to increase the numbers of reptiles of concern taken, we believe it is important to give the hunting community the tools for success, and that means the knowledge they need to apply their skill,” said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Chairman Rodney Barreto, in announcing the need for to unleash hunters. Translation: The newbies need to follow the vets around, learning how to track, locate, and grab the suckers, then chop their heads off with a knife or machete. Those too squeamish to get close will shoot the snakes, with pistols, rifles, and shotguns.

Those too squeamish to get close will shoot the snakes, with pistols, rifles, and shotguns.

The siege of the Burms, as they’re affectionately known, is a relatively recent phenomenon. The snakes are not native to the region; biologists believe that the pioneers may have escaped from animal warehouses damaged during 1992’s Hurricane Andrew. Others were family castoffs—tossed out after the cute 19-inch hatchling picked up at the local pet store grew six feet long and more than 100 pounds in a year’s time (biologists believe most of South Florida’s pythons are two to three years old, and in the six-to-ten foot range). And still others were flown in as part of South Florida’s active exotic animal trade.

Once established, the population exploded. They feel at home, the Everglades resembling their native Asian habitat. The region’s vast network of waterways affords plenty of room to roam for creatures that can swim for miles, and hold their breath underwater for minutes at a time. When they’re not swimming, they’re mating—at an impressive rate. A 3-year-old mommy pops out between 40 and 60 sticky white leathery eggs each breeding season, and can keep up that clip for five years.

And there aren’t many big threats in the local ecosystem. The hatchlings can fall prey to a raccoon, a bird, or a rodent. But by the time the python’s had his growth spurt, forget about it. The largest native snake—the endangered Eastern Indigo—weighs just 13 pounds. Pythons, boasting 100 teeth in four rows, hidden by gums, squeeze their dinner to death with crushing force; they battle gators to a draw.

Local authorities tried all kinds of population control. They captured females, implanted them with the snake equivalent of LoJacks, then released into the wild—tracking them to their love lairs, in hope of snagging the lurking lotharios. There was a brief attempt to train a beagle named Python Pete to track the snakes. Sen. Bill Nelson, the Florida Democrat, has introduced federal legislation to ban the importation of nine big snakes into the country, including the Burmese Python. And the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission tried government regulation—imposing licensing requirements limiting the sale of pythons and other scaley nuisances. Authorities say there are only 398 licenses statewide—a figure that grossly undercounts the number of snakes in homes. There’s even a yearly amnesty day, when owners of illegal or unlicensed exotics can turn in their pets—no questions asked. In its fifth year, a few dozen pythons, measuring three to 10 feet, have been handed over.

Capt. Jeff Fobb, head of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue’s Venom Response Bureau, is one of the early adapters. He’s been tracking the pythons since last summer, and “dispatching” them, as he calls it. (Fobb and company have rounded up only about 45 since then. “They were mostly doing it on weekends, says Gabriella Ferraro of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “They weren’t quitting their day jobs.”)

Fobb says he loves the Everglades—loves snakes, too—and that man is doing far more damage to the area than the reptiles. He doesn’t relish slaughtering them. But he sees the problem, says “it’s the right thing to do.” Lately, the pythons are slithering out of border wildlife areas, and into farmland. Each fall, hundreds of snake parts are found in the tractor tracks of newly plowed fields. Fobb says a friend of his counted over 20 dead pythons in one freshly tended 40-acre field.

This weekend, Fobb will be out hunting python again. The cold weather helps flush them out of hiding; they’ll be sunning themselves on the canal banks, and on the roads. He’ll sneak up on them, grab them with quick hands, or his hook, and bag them. Back at his truck, he’ll weigh and measure them, then decapitate them with a knife.

On Saturday, before the hordes descend, this reporter will be going out with Fobb to learn how it’s done, carrying pen, paper, camera—and an extreme distaste for the sight of blood. Stay tuned.

CORRECTION: This article originally misstated that there are 137 licenses statewide. It has been updated to 398.

Catharine Skipp is a former senior reporter at Newsweek magazine where she covered the Southern and Caribbean regions.