Broward News

As 2016 Python Challenge Begins, Wildlife Officers Explain How to Catch Burmese Pythons

Edward Mercer, a bearded wildlife technician with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, cracked open a series of thick, black boxes, each made of plastic and filled with lumpy, dirty pillowcases. I stood in a crowd of 14 people who surrounded him in a semicircle. Mercer grabbed one of the sacks, which was tied off with black electrical tape, and tossed it onto the grass in front of us. The bag hissed.

“Most of these guys have been caught so many times, they’re pretty used to it,” he said, bending over and tearing the sack open. He turned the bag upside-down — a snake, thick as a human arm, bounced out. It was knotted into a ball.

Mercer, along with his colleague, Jenny Novak, were showing people how to trap and bag a Burmese python, in preparation for the 2016 state-sponsored "Python Removal Challenge" in the Everglades, which begins tomorrow and lasts for four weeks — until Sunday, February 14. Thanks to human tampering, Burmese pythons, native to Southeast Asia, have invaded the Everglades in the past few decades, likely after being brought to Florida as pets. The snakes are now one of the top predators in the entire Everglade ecosystem, able to eat wading birds, rabbits, white-tail deer, and, in some cases, alligators.

To raise awareness about the issue and to get rid of some snakes, the Wildlife Commission created the Python Challenge in 2013. During the challenge, average citizens were encouraged to trap (and kill) as many pythons as possible. Some 1,600 participants caught 68 pythons.

The second-ever Challenge begins at 10 am Saturday, with an "Invasive Species Awareness Festival" at Florida International University’s Modesto Maidique Campus in Miami. At noon, the hunt begins. The folks who catch the most snakes win cash prizes.

(If you'd like to participate, you must first register online.)

The FWC has been hosting a series of "Python Training" courses that aim to teach would-be snake charmers the best way to spot and safely capture one of the Everglades' top predators. The sessions begin with a short PowerPoint presentation. After that, attendees try catching live snakes. 

At the University of Florida’s Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center in Davie yesterday, Novak explained that the first and hardest step to python hunting is simply finding a snake. Amid the dense, greenish-brown clusters of grass carpeting the Everglades, the python — which is spotted just like a giraffe and can grow up to 20 feet long — blends in almost perfectly. The snakes are nearly impossible to find, even for wildlife experts.

If you do encounter a python, she said, stay calm. “There are about 10,000 other things in the Everglades that can injure you,” she said. It’s best to observe the snake for a few minutes and figure out whether it seems more likely to fight or flee, she added. “But once you pin the python, you have to commit.”

Staying calm in the face of a nine-foot python, however, isn’t exactly easy. “We have people who, once they touch the snake, go into this panic response, where they can no longer hear or speak English,” Novak added.

After Mercer dumped a python on the ground, I felt the color immediately drain from my face. Ever the expert, Mercer simply took a big step back, circling behind the snake, careful to stay away from its mouth. The snake responded by straightening itself out and zooming directly toward us. I briefly imagined my mother telling her friends that an angry python had eaten her only son.

Luckily, Mercer nabbed the animal by the tail and yanked it back toward him. Having found a new enemy, the snake turned to face him instead.

“Remember,” Mercer said, holding a “snake stick,” which is basically a golf club with a hook at the end, “the snake can strike from a distance about a third of its body length. If I stand here, I’m OK.” He leaned forward a bit. “But if I start to get in closer, I could get bit.”

After circling around a while longer, the snake calmed down and laid its head down flat on the grass. At this, Mercer struck, using the stick’s rubber grip to pin its head to the ground, as the snake, rightfully agitated, snapped its jaws open and shut. Mercer then took his left index finger and thumb and wrapped them just behind the python’s head, while, with his right hand, he dropped the stick and grabbed one of the pillowcases. He stuffed the snake’s head inside, feeding the body in after. He then tied the bag off with electrical tape.

It was then our turn to try. Mike Ginzburg, from Coral Springs, elected to go first, having attended one training session already. His snake seemed fairly sleepy, and he pinned it within seconds. Later on, I asked him if he got nervous at all. “Every time,” he said, laughing. “You don’t know what’s going to happen.” He bikes through the Everglades often and wants to be prepared in the event that he encounters a snake.

Andrea Kennedy, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, said she's working on an Everglades conservation project at Florida Atlantic University and actually does encounter snakes often. 

After two more volunteers bagged their snakes with relative ease, I stepped forward, and Mercer handed me the snake stick. The pythons, until that point, had been pretty docile. Mine, however, immediately tried to make a break for freedom the minute it was let out of the bag.

“You’ve got two choices,” Mercer said as I hobbled after the snake, straddling it with my feet. “You can get him now, or you can grab its tail and pull it back toward you.” Terrified at the thought of touching the snake with my bare hands, I attempted to bend over and pin the snake down with the stick. Instead, I missed and simply bopped the python on the head. It did not like this.

Mercer then stepped in front of me and pulled the snake back himself. Eventually, I managed to pin the snake and wrap my hand around its neck — its skin was loose and squishy, as if a layer of lotion separated its scales from its musculature. But when I shoved the snake into the bag, I felt a crack jolt through the snake’s neck, and the python stopped moving entirely. I wondered if I’d killed it.

Noticing the snake was lying limp, Mercer put his hand on the python. “It’s cold,” he said. “You'll have to feed it into the bag yourself.” I was certain he knew that I’d killed the snake and that he just didn't have the heart to tell me. Mortified, I began stuffing handfuls of the python into the bag. But with about six inches of snake left to go, the tail sprang to life and wrapped itself around my finger. My heart nearly stopped.

After the session ended, I asked Novak what people do with their snakes once they catch them. "Some people skin them and tan the hides," she said. "Others have them stuffed." FWC explains how to euthanize the snakes -- with a captive bolt, with a firearm, or via decapitation. 

If you catch a snake during the hunt, the Wildlife Commission is happy to take it from you, dead or alive, she said. But the commission accepts only same-day snake delivery. If you catch a python after the commission closes at 7 p.m., you're on your own.

There are more in-person python-catching trainings scheduled throughout South Florida between now and February 6.
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Jerry Iannelli is a staff writer for Miami New Times. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. He moved to South Florida in 2015.
Contact: Jerry Iannelli