02.28.10

How to Catch a Giant Python

The Everglades, overrun with huge reptiles, is about to host its first-ever open season on snakes. Catharine Skipp nabs her first python—and gets out alive.

The Everglades, overrun with huge reptiles, is about to host its first-ever open season on snakes. Catharine Skipp nabs her first python—and gets out alive. Plus, read about the preparations for the hunt.

If you have to plunge into the dense and spooky thickets of the Everglades in search of gigantic, deadly reptiles, for the purposes of capturing and maybe killing them, Capt. Jeff Fobb is a good guy to have by your side. Fobb, 43, heads up Miami-Dade Fire Rescue’s Venom Response Bureau, which might be the only governmental office in the country dedicated exclusively to snake emergencies. He’s a proud member of the Choctaw Tribe of Oklahoma, a ponytailed ex-Marine, a self-described “anarcho-capitalist non-propertarian”—and a man equally at home quoting Mencken, Hegel, and Bugs Bunny. He’s also a licensed python tracker. And today—a week ahead of a surge of snake hunters who will descend on South Florida to help the locals eradicate the out-of-control population of over 30,000 slithering nuisances—he’s showing me how it’s done.

Click The Image To View Our Gallery Of The Python Hunt

My photographer and I meet Fobb at his spread in Redlands, Florida, a 10-acre homestead which reflects his love of animals, great and small; among the residents are dogs, cats, rabbits, chickens, guinea hens, goats, horses, donkeys, a Siamese fighting fish named Pudge—and, yes, a reptile or two. For the mission, which could bring us face-to-face with creatures over six feet long and cresting 100 pounds, Fobb has armed himself with an unimpressive hunting knife, a couple of bottles of insect repellent, a little hook and a few mesh laundry bags.

We start out alongside a busy highway and pick our way down a path into the woods, stopping to turn over dumped couch cushions and rotting plywood along the way. There! We spot a snake! It’s no bigger than the span of my hand, a native ring-neck snake—dark brown with a bright red underbelly and a red band just behind its cute little head. Fobb picks it up and it coils up its tiny tail—displaying it like a little red berry to confuse a predator. He releases it and it sprints away. We are hunting far bigger game.

We continue to work our way over fallen trees, around dumped boats and abandoned rusting cars. We circle a large pond, hoping to catch a python sunning itself along the bank. It’s been cold overnight, with temperatures in the 40s, so the snakes should be on the move in search of warmth. Last month’s two-week cold spell stressed and killed hundreds, according to wildlife biologists. But at the moment, there is nothing moving in these woods. The area is a disturbed wetland, invaded by non-native melaleuca trees that have crowded out native flora and fauna. As an ecosystem, it leaves a lot to be desired. But more than a dozen invasive and ornery African Rock Pythons have been spotted here in the last five years. It is areas like these that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission hopes hunters will scour when the state holds its first-ever open season on snakes, for a six-week period starting March 8.

We finish checking the north edge of the pond. The terrain is mucky, and the pickings are slim; patience and boredom are a part of the hunt. We are on the last leg of the walk, and beginning to lose hope of a serpent score. Mounting a levee heading north, Fobb suddenly stops dead, bringing his finger to his lips to silence us. “I hear something,” he whispers, his eyes locking on a section of thick brush about 15 feet away. He bolts toward the suspicious noise and lets out a whoop. “CATHARINE, WE FOUND ONE!! COME HERE!!!”

I stumble to his side, just in time to catch a fleeting glimpse of the target, thick as a fat man’s thigh, gliding through the brush. The snake charges into an open area en route to the canal, where it can swim to safety. But Fobb cuts off the python’s escape route, seizing it—barehanded—by its tail.

No sooner does he have the snake in hand than another sound distracts him; he spies a second, smaller python heading for the water about 20 feet away. “Here, hold this,” he barks, handing me the back end of the writhing monster. Fobb runs off to try to capture its companion. But I dare not watch him go, focusing instead on the gift he’s just given me: a shovel-headed constrictor that suddenly seems all mouth, as it stretches its jaws wide, exposing soft, white gums that I know from careful research conceal 100 teeth in four rows. They’re now pointing toward my throat, and lunging straight at me.

Catharine Skipp: Preparing for the Great Python Hunt The first strike goes wildly off the mark—thank God—as the python’s head hits its own thick middle. As she recoils, I jump back, bobbing side to side, having internalized Muhammad Ali’s moves after a recent viewing of the documentary Thrilla in Manila. Fearful of a second strike, I drop the tail—Fobb would not be amused—but manage to press my Doc Maarten down on her midsection, and snatch the tail again.

Fobb is chasing the other python over the levee when he suddenly realizes he’s left an inexperienced reporter alone to wrestle with an ornery 10-foot, 50-pound reptile—a Northern African Rock Python, to be precise, which I’ll learn later, is one of the largest species of snake in the world. At least I’ve got the right critter; the Rock Pythons are among the more invasive recent arrivals to the Everglades, and are a prime reason for the upcoming hunting season (what the bureaucrats like to call a “reptile of concern.”)

As Fobb makes his way back, I reach into my backpack with my free hand and dig out a mesh laundry bag. The snake is wriggling like crazy, but now has its neck wound around a couple of scraggly bushes. Fobb gets his hook ready to pin the head, as I pull the snake free, so he can grab the neck.

With the business end neutralized, I can relax a little, and take stock of our catch. Once you get past the striking mouth and slithering tongue, it’s actually a glorious beast—all sleek and shiny with a random pattern of dark ringed yellow blotches on a brown background, and eyes as black and bright as beads. My reverie is quickly interrupted: As I stuff the python into the bag, it spews out a variety of secretions. Fobb thankfully handles the head, stuffing it in before tying off the sack. I’m left literally holding the bag, as Fobb heads back for the other quarry, still there on the near bank, its head reared back and watchful. But this one gets away, sliding under the water and heading for the bottom of the canal.

The shovel-headed constrictor suddenly seems all mouth, as it stretches its jaws wide. Its teeth are now pointing toward my throat, and lunging straight at me.

Stuffing the bagged snake into a backpack, we head for the truck. Standard operating procedure calls for weighing and measuring the serpent, and registering any other observations of interest in a notebook to aid state biologists. Fobb then typically “dispatches” a snake by lopping off its head with his knife and penetrating the brain and spinal cord with a rod; decapitation alone isn’t sufficient to still its nervous system, and Fobb tries to kill the creatures as quickly and humanely as possible. He then deposits the carcass back in the woods, where Mother Nature takes care of the cleanup. “Why remove the energy from the ecosystem?” he asks.

So far, local animal-rights activists have not spoken out loudly against the coming eradication effort. But that could change once the hunters descend—hunters more interested than Fobb in snake meat, for example, or the resale value of their skin. Says Martin Mersereau, director of PETA’s Emergency Response Division: “The last thing we need is a clumsy and crude massacre of these animals who, through no fault of their own and due to the exotic-animal trade and the ignorance of people who pay into that, ended up abandoned in the Florida wilds. If we need to get rid of these animals, they need to be rounded up and euthanized by qualified wildlife experts. Don't put a bounty on their heads and expect every yahoo with an itchy trigger finger to do this right."

Fobb knows how to do it right. Inspecting our catch, he notices the snake’s girth stretches from neck to tail; it’s not the sort of bulge a lump of food in the digestive system would create. He suspects our snake is pregnant, and puts in a call to Dr. Skip Snow, lead python biologist with the Everglades National Park. We drop it off for further study; Snow could add to the growing body of data about when Rock Pythons mate and what they’re eating. If she is pregnant, we will have removed not just one snake—but headed off the arrival of 20 to 30 babies as well. Having done my part to help quell South Florida’s python epidemic, I hang up my snake bag, and head for a celebratory milkshake.

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