Donna Kalil holds a ball python she caught in the Everglades. She adopted the snake, naming him Benny.
Donna Kalil holds a ball python she caught in the Everglades. She adopted the snake, naming him Benny.
Photo by CandaceWest.com

One of Florida's Only Female Python Hunters Risks It All for the Everglades

Donna Kalil steers her forest-green 1998 Ford Expedition down a narrow path through the vast expanse of the Everglades. Leaning far outside the open window, she scans the tall grasses. On the roof, her best friend, Renee Yousefi, perches on a brightly lit platform modeled after a tuna tower and shines a flashlight on the slow-moving alligators lurking in the dark water.

It's nearly 9 p.m. on a Wednesday in June, and the sky has gone dark save for orange pinpricks of light from faraway Miami. The occasional owl swoops overhead, and a legion of frogs provides an incessant, honking soundtrack as the SUV rambles along, bouncing over pits in the road.

Suddenly, Kalil — quick with mom jokes and encyclopedic in her knowledge of wildlife — stomps the brakes and throws the Expedition into park. In an instant, she's out from behind the wheel and charging toward a dark shape squiggling up the road. Dressed in camouflage pants, a T-shirt printed with Voldemort's pet snake, and a pair of dangly earrings made from python skin, Kalil sneaks up on the four-foot snake. Smiling, she bends down and reaches for its scaly skin.

But once she gets a better look at the reptile, she's disappointed: It's a green water snake, a nonvenomous species that belongs out here in the 1.5-million-acre stretch of prairies, marshes, and swamps.

Kalil is hunting Burmese pythons, the invasive, monstrous snakes that have nearly swallowed this place whole.

A onetime stay-at-home mom with a thin frame, long braid, and a ready laugh, the 56-year-old is one of the few women paid by the Florida government to track down and take out the fearsome intruders, which have taken over the Everglades.

This is physically demanding, sometimes dangerous work, fraught with snake bites and gator run-ins. In bagging more than 60 invasive snakes over the past year, Kalil once had a seven-and-a-half-foot python wrap around her neck and another time accidentally grabbed a venomous coral snake. She keeps a .44 Magnum, a machete, and a Japanese wooden sword stashed beside the driver's seat during her snake-hunting expeditions and once crossed paths with an 18-footer that slithered away despite taking a bullet.

As a woman in the male-dominated world of snake hunting, Kalil is sometimes underestimated — not so much by other hunters, but by the public. She takes pleasure in proving people wrong.

"Only when I start explaining what I do do I realize that, you know, this is something that people would call 'badass,'" Kalil says. "I want to prove myself. I want to show that I can do just as good as the guys. And I think I've done a pretty good job of that so far."

The Everglades' python problem is nearing catastrophic levels — a 2012 study suggested the alien snakes might have almost completely decimated the rabbits, raccoons, bobcats, and other fur-bearing mammals that once called the distinctive ecosystem home. Scientists who placed radio trackers on rabbits in 2015 were stunned to find 77 percent of them had been swallowed by pythons within nine months. Some experts think as many as 300,000 of the enormous snakes might already be roaming the Glades.

With little hope of eliminating the pythons, authorities are now fighting to contain them, and the 46 state-hired hunters such as Kalil are the first line of defense from an apex predator that some fear could spread across the Southeast.

However Sisyphean the task, Kalil loves the Everglades and she's convinced she's making a dent in the problem. That's why she puts in four nights a week trawling for pythons in the labyrinthine levees for minimum wage, occasionally persuading her husband and children to tag along on Christmas Eve and Valentine's Day.

For Kalil, a lifelong snake lover prone to calling the scaly creatures "cute," there's only one downside to the gig: having to kill the pythons after she captures them.

"They're all beautiful," she says. "I wish we could just ship them back to where they belong."

Kyle Penniston of Homestead, another hunter paid by the state, shows Donna Kalil the 7-foot python he just caught.
Kyle Penniston of Homestead, another hunter paid by the state, shows Donna Kalil the 7-foot python he just caught.
Photo by CandaceWest.com

Before she was a professional snake catcher, Kalil was a little girl who followed her older brothers as they roamed the wilderness of '70s-era South Florida in the area now occupied by Aventura Mall. "Take your sister with you!" their mother would say, and the boys would relent, letting Donna trail behind them.

"I wanted to be like my big brothers," Kalil says, chuckling. "They just caught anything and everything that moved, so I just figured that was the thing to do."

For the first six years of her life, the family lived in Caracas in a house with a flat roof where they'd spend hours playing I Spy while staring out at the nearby jungle — I spy with my little eye... a lizard! A snake! Kalil's dad, a Silver Star-awarded World War II airman and career military man, had been stationed there by the U.S. Air Force.

In 1968, he was relocated to South Florida, where Kalil's mom ran a bed and breakfast and taught exercise classes. On weekends, the family explored the Everglades.

Their first Christmas in Miami, a young Donna was given a book about reptiles. She memorized the various species and began catching them in earnest in the fields covered today by one of the largest malls in the nation.

There were garter snakes, yellow rat snakes, corn snakes. If one was particularly pretty, she'd carry it home and keep it for a day or two.

"My mom put up with it until one of them got out of the cage," Kalil remembers. After that, her mother ordered her to stop keeping reptiles in the house. She brought home a massive yellow rat snake and left it overnight in a cabinet before she got busted and decided to follow the rules.

"She sort of grew up in nature as this wild child and having a bunch of animal friends," says her daughter, Deanna.

Being a girl who was into snakes was a little unusual, and Kalil says she didn't have many friends. Then, one day, as she was trying to rescue a group of baby foxes, 14-year-old Donna flagged down a car being driven by a neighbor named Craig Kalil. The foxes got away, but the teens became fast friends. At 17, they began dating. When Craig was accepted to the University of Florida, Donna went with him.

The first time she met his parents, she had a pet snake under her hat, which they found alarming. "What kind of woman is this?" Craig remembers his father asking. At the time, Donna kept a three-foot Florida king snake tucked inside her cowboy hat — including on commercial flights. "I had a snake on an airplane before the movie came out," she says.

Craig thought Donna's love for snakes was endearing, even if he didn't share it. The two married in 1986, when he was 25 and she was 24. When their kids were born — Christopher in 1988, Deanna in 1990 — Donna stayed home with them while Craig began his career in international law.

She became a mom extraordinaire: the president of the PTA and the first parent member of the Miami-Dade School Board's community outreach committee. She organized student trips to Tallahassee to meet with elected officials and advocate for Dreamers. She ferried Christopher and Deanna to dance, soccer, and karate.

"I was a helicopter parent," Kalil says of the way she hovered over her children. "Then I went in like a SWAT team."

But she never forgot her love of the tropical environment. She joined the Sierra Club and rounded up PTA members to salvage native plants from development sites. She kept a stick in her Excursion to pick up snakes in the road and taught her children how to hold out their hands to let snakes smell them with their tongues. Deanna says she still doesn't understand why so many of her friends are fearful of the critters: "I'm like, 'They're cute little noodles! They just want to sun themselves and do their thing.'"

In 2005, around the time her kids were on their way out the door for college, Kalil learned about the growing Burmese python population.

She remembers opening an issue of the Miami Herald one day to see a now-infamous photo: the back end of an alligator bursting from the busted midsection of a gargantuan python. The 13-foot snake had apparently exploded after consuming the six-foot gator.

Kalil knew she had to put her long-honed snake-taming skills to work.

"Oh my God, these things are monsters," she remembers thinking. "That's an adventure; that's an adrenaline rush. That's what I want to go and do."

As a lifelong snake lover, Kalil says killing the Burmese pythons is the hardest part of her job.
As a lifelong snake lover, Kalil says killing the Burmese pythons is the hardest part of her job.
Photo by CandaceWest.com

As a pair of flabbergasted tourists looked and narrated the scene in heavy Southern accents, Kalil grasped a thrashing, ten-foot python by the tail. The snake fought furiously to try to slither away across the gravel road. When that didn't work, the struggling serpent twisted its body toward a nonchalant Kalil and revealed rows of needle-sharp teeth as it snapped at her.

Yousefi, her best friend, pulled the snake's head away using a hooked stick, giving Kalil a chance to bend down and grab both ends of the creature. She rose to her feet and, smiling, held the writhing python up for her audience.

"Is this normal?" ventured one of the visitors, who was recording the encounter on her cell phone.

The wide-eyed pair of visitors had stumbled upon the battle of woman versus beast while driving through the scenic loop in Big Cypress National Preserve in 2017. They were on vacation from Kentucky, where tree-thick snakes capable of swallowing a deer in a single gulp aren't part of the landscape. At least not yet.

The Everglades invasion that Kalil had decided to tackle head-on might have begun with just a few pet pythons turned loose by overwhelmed owners beginning in the '70s, some scientists say. Others believe the problem traces to Hurricane Andrew, which wrecked a reptile-breeding facility. Either way, giant snake sightings began hitting the news in the '90s: a 20-footer that hid under a house in Broward County, a 19-footer that washed ashore after Andrew, a 13-footer that swallowed a housecat in Miami Gardens.

The Southeast Asian snakes soon found an unnaturally, absurdly perfect home in the Everglades — more than a million acres of tropical landscape similar to their native environment but with exactly zero predators.

By 2000, researchers had confirmed the pythons were reproducing in the Glades, but authorities struggled to find a solution. In 2005, they trained an adorable beagle named Python Pete to sniff out the invaders, and the next year they sent out radio-tagged "Judas" pythons to track down mating spots. Two years later, they began holding Python Patrol workshops to teach the public how to locate the elusive snakes.

It wasn't until 2012 that the feds — who feared upsetting the multibillion-dollar exotic pet industry — finally banned the import of Burmese pythons. By then, it hardly mattered: The snakes had already taken over the Everglades.

The next year, Florida debuted the Python Challenge, a contest promising cash prizes for the most successful snake hunters. The monthlong spectacle drew hordes of heavily armed competitors. At the end of the 2013 challenge, the 1,600 participants netted only 68 of the snakes. When state officials repeated the event in 2016, the hunters snagged 106.

No one knows exactly how many Burmese pythons are slithering through the Everglades. The most optimistic of estimates puts their numbers at 10,000; the most pessimistic at 300,000. A key study showed that between 2003 and 2011, python-packed areas saw decreases of between 87 and 99 percent of mammals, including raccoons, deer, and bobcats. Worse, rabbits and foxes have seemingly disappeared. Native birds, including the endangered wood stork, have also been found inside the bellies of the ravenous snakes.

And their territory seems to be expanding. By last year, a python had been discovered sunning itself on a water-monitoring station in Biscayne Bay. Others have turned up everywhere from the Keys to the Panhandle, and some research suggests they might spread as far north as Virginia, gobbling up everything in their path.

Clearly, the state needed a new plan. Last year, they flew in singing Indian tribesmen whose ancestors were so successful at python hunting they drove the creature into near extinction. The Irula tribesmen caught 33 snakes over several weeks in South Florida.

Then, in early 2017, the South Florida Water Management District pitched the only-in-Florida idea of paying skilled hunters $8.10 an hour to look for pythons. "There was quite a bit of out-of-the-box thinking, to be honest with you," spokesman Randy Smith says.

The district decided to toss in $50 for any python up to four feet, plus $25 for each additional foot and $200 for those found guarding nests. The only requirements: a valid email address, a smartphone capable of being GPS-monitored, and a clean(ish) criminal record — no felony convictions in the past five years.

They were flooded with more than 1,000 applications in three days. "We had to basically close it down," Smith says. "And then we went painstakingly and carefully through those, and we came out with 25 of the most dedicated, professional, and caring hunters for the Everglades."

Kalil had a custom perch built on top of her truck to offer a better vantage point for python hunting.
Kalil had a custom perch built on top of her truck to offer a better vantage point for python hunting.
Photo by CandaceWest.com

Among them was Kalil. After seeing the notorious picture of the burst python, she began searching on her own for wild pythons. It wasn't until Christmas 2015 that she finally caught one. That day, the Kalils had just finished dinner at the Rusty Pelican when they decided to look for snakes along U.S. 41. Along the road, they saw a 12-footer. Kalil wrestled with the slithery creature and took it home in a pillowcase.

When she saw an ad for snake hunters, she didn't think twice about applying. It was a perfect marriage of her passions: catching snakes and helping the environment. "I'm pretty sure it's basically her dream job ever since she was a little kid," her son, Christopher, says.

But it wasn't until she was hired and sitting in a training session that she learned she'd have to kill the pythons she caught. "I've never killed anything other than mosquitoes — not even roaches! — without eating it," she says. Though she had long been a spearfisher and a hunter, killing the pythons without a use for them went against everything her family believed. "They're all very much like, 'If you hunt something and kill it, you eat it,'" Yousefi says.

But that's not an option with Burmese pythons from the Everglades, which researchers have found contain some of the highest mercury levels ever discovered in living creatures.

Ultimately, Kalil's love for the Glades beat out her love for the snakes. The pythons had to go. She could at least get the job done in the most humane way possible.

Still, killing her first snake wasn't easy. It was four feet long — pet-sized. She had spotted it one rainy night in April and approached slowly. It was a beautiful snake, she thought. She cried as she looked at it. For a moment, an idea flitted through her mind: He's so beautiful. I could just let him go, and everything would be fine.

But she knew she had to do what was right by the environment. Using a method the authorities recommended as humane, she quickly drove a knife through its head. It didn't feel fast enough; she'd later turn to single gunshots to the head instead.

When she was hired last winter, Kalil was the only woman of 25 hunters selected by the South Florida Water Management District. When the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) launched a similar program a few months later, she became one of eight women on a 27-person force. She's paid by both groups, depending upon whose territory she's hunting on that day.

"Donna's success is born out of her perseverance," says Tom Rahill, another paid hunter. "She goes out all the time and she's been very, successful, very dogged and determined, and has done a wonderful job."

In general, working in the machismo world of snaking hunting hasn't been a problem for Kalil, but some people have underestimated her. There was the time she and Yousefi asked an airboat captain to take them to python-heavy places in the Everglades. He seemed dubious — until Kalil began climbing a downed tree in search of snakes. Suddenly, the two-hour trip stretched to three hours as the guide carted the pair to one spot after the next and eventually called a friend to pick his kids up at school.

On a sizzle reel for a potential show about Kalil, producers asked her to deliver the line "Gladesmen are tough, but Gladeswomen are tougher" and cross her arms for emphasis. She struggled to get through it without laughing.

If there are difficulties of being a woman in this field, Kalil says it's having a smaller stature while handling 200-pound snakes. One night, she grabbed a python and was surprised when it yanked forward hard enough to pull her into the bushes.

"She's been out there all the time trying to prove herself," her daughter says. "I feel like she kind of always has that in the back of her mind: Let me just prove to these guys I know what I'm doing too."

Kalil patrols the sawgrass for anything that moves. "Can't catch 'em if you can't see 'em!" she says.
Kalil patrols the sawgrass for anything that moves. "Can't catch 'em if you can't see 'em!" she says.
Photo by CandaceWest.com

The sky over the endless Everglades glowed in shades of orange and pink when Donna and Craig Kalil pulled the Expedition to the side of the road on a muggy night last month. They spread a feast of crackers, meats, and cheeses across the hood of the SUV — an upgrade from the Tupperware of granola bars she usually snacks on during hunts — and poured sparkling juice into plastic wine glasses. As the sun set behind them, they clinked the glasses together for a toast.

It was their 32nd wedding anniversary, and just as they spent most holidays and Donna's birthday, they were searching for pythons.

"I could make a dinner reservation, but I'd be sitting there alone," Craig jokes. "She'd be out here."

Over about the past year, Kalil has caught 65 pythons, putting her among the program's top hunters, alongside the likes of Dusty "Wildman" Crum, a burly Gladesman who sometimes hunts barefoot. She says they have a healthy rivalry, mostly fueled by the private Facebook group where they share their catches. Earlier this year, she held a python party where they swapped tips over python chili — mercury be damned.

Park officials are wrangling maximum publicity out of their professional snake hunters. Earlier this year, one team of hunters was joined by Ozzy Osbourne, who was filming an episode of Ozzy & Jack's World Detour. The rocker didn't exactly enjoy the experience.

"Fuckin' rats, snakes, and spiders — not my cup of tea," he told Rolling Stone. "There were snakes everywhere... I wasn't the ol' Prince of Darkness then; I was fuckin' scared shitless."

But Kalil and her colleagues have done more than raise awareness. In May, a little more than a year after its inception, the water management district's force captured its 1,000th snake. FWC's hunters, who started later, have already captured a few hundred. Other initiatives haven't snagged enough snakes to offset costs.

Though the South Florida Water Management District launched the project as a three-month pilot, it's now continuing the paid python-hunting program indefinitely, and more land is being opened to the hunters. This month, Everglades National Park began allowing the paid hunters on its land for the first time. Kalil was the first one to catch a python there.

Still, even if the most optimistic estimates are true and there are only 10,000 pythons loose in the Everglades rather than 300,000, Florida's most successful attempt at handling the problem has removed only about a tenth of the rapidly reproducing animals.

As New Times tagged along for three nights of python hunts last month, the enormous odds of tracking the creatures in the vast wilderness were clear. Sticks, cords, and alligator tails all looked like pythons in the expanse of swampy water. One night, Kalil threw her SUV into reverse for an object in the road that turned out to be excrement. ("I've never seen a poop snake before!" she exclaimed.)

The snake hunt the night of her anniversary ended near 1 a.m., when the Excursion finally reached the yellow gate that closes off the state's land. Donna climbed off the roof of the SUV, where she'd spent the past five and a half hours scanning for snakes. Yet again, the search had been fruitless — another long night in a drought that would last another three weeks. But she wasn't discouraged.

"We're the ones that screwed it up," she says. "We're the ones that need to fix it."

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