We don’t need no Florida wildlife authorities to tell us snakes are bad. That’s been as plain as day since one slithered its way up Paradise Lane, catching Adam and Eve all unawares, leaving the rest of us to pay a steep price.
Snakes are really, really bad in Florida right now, which was reason again for the Sunshine State to hold its annual 10-day Florida Python Challenge in the Everglades that wraps up just before sundown on Sunday.
More than 800 hunters from 32 US states and various Canadian provinces plunked down $25 to register for the FPC, completed an online training course, and headed out to the big swamp, its size (in acreage) roughly twice that of Rhode Island.
Most python hunting is done barehanded, with hunters typically toting a pistol or knife just in case the capture-and-bag process gets, shall we say, outta hand. You know, break glass in case of emergency? Have no worry, dear reader, your faithful Second Thought columnist would be firing like Yosemite Sam the second he spotted even a measly dragonfly.
The snake problem in Florida is not going away anytime soon and, sadly, could be unsolvable. The FPC alone won’t dramatically change the course of Mother Nature’s python problem. There are just too many pythons and not enough predators, licensed or otherwise. Total population is unknown, but some estimates run into the hundreds of thousands. It could be in the millions.
Only about 500 people actually live in the Everglades, by the way, a number the pythons scrutinize daily.
“The war that we’re fighting,” Donna Kalil, among the state’s best known python hunters, told PBS two years ago, “is bigger than the battle that we are winning.”
If nothing else, the FPC hunt at least calls attention to the festering problem, the greatest of which is that the pythons — once marketed by pet stores as cute, exotic, and mysterious — have all but wiped out all wildlife in the Everglades other than alligators.
Imagine, we’re down to that, being thankful for alligators? Yet that’s Florida right now, specifically the swampy, buggy Everglades, where gators and pythons sit atop a once-robust food chain that the big snakes have all but otherwise gobbled up to extinction.
Various state agencies have reported in recent years that the snakes have devoured virtually every rabbit, deer, fox, panther, bobcast, bird, opossum … you name the species, and 90 percent of those critters have been 86ed from the menu. Unlike the woodchuck, forever quizzed over how much wood it could chuck, pythons are relentless eating machines, with even smaller gators typically losing out when a constrictor decides it’s dinner time.
The FPC, which began in 2013, is the state’s helpless though noble attempt to eradicate all pythons great and small, but specifically it targets the invasive Burmese pythons that are among the world’s largest slitherers, adults topping out around 20 feet and upward of 200 pounds.
The good news: Pythons are not venomous and they don’t see all that well. Hunters appreciate both qualities.
The bad news: A python’s mouth is jam-packed with sharp, needle-like teeth and it eliminates prey with a wrap-and-choke hold the equal of an IRS agent on or about April 15 each year. Hunters usually start their takedowns by grabbing the pythons by the tail, and close the deal by clenching an open hand behind the snake’s head.
The big snake typically drenches its attacker with urine, something curiously omitted in the FPC sign-up sheet. If you’re going, add “raincoat” to the list with pistol and knife.
Pythons, indigenous to southeast Asia, first showed up in the Everglades in the late 1970s. It’s commonly held that they were introduced to its waters and weeds by pet owners who ran out of the space or patience or courage to keep a killing machine cooped up in the family room for spits and giggles.
“You are not doing your pet a favor,” noted Kalil in the PBS special, “by saying, ‘Here, be free!’ It doesn’t work that way.”
The problem, already a decade-plus in the making, received a diabolical booster shot in August 1992, just 30 years ago, when much of south Florida was scraped off the map by Hurricane Andrew, the horrific storm with winds topping out near 175 miles per hour.
The storm razed a number of exotic pet operations adjacent to the Everglades, including, according to reports, a building just southwest of Miami that was a python breeding center.
“And right across Krome Avenue,” reminded well-known Florida outdoorsman Bill Booth, during a 2017 interview with Tampa’s WEDU, “millions of acres of wilderness.”
Over the road they went, their idyllic home with the front door wide open. “A cute little snake,” added Booth, “turns into a monster.”
Booth, 57, figures perhaps only nature can change the course of things. He grew up in the Everglades and can recall the days when an occasional freeze hit the area. He thinks a return to those frosty days, however brief, might kill the snakes and their eggs. Ongoing climate change wouldn’t seem to help those odds.
An adult female python can lay 100 or more eggs per year. That math, spread over 1.5 million acres, 30 years post-Andrew, is why 800 hunters weren’t about to solve the python problem these last 10 days.
A New York Times report in March offered the hope that bobcats, some still not listed among the wildlife gone missing, could be of help. According to a team of ecologists, per the NYT, there is evidence that the bobcats feast on python eggs. If the bobcats aren’t chicken, they’ll get to the eggs first, and maybe the problem’s solved.
But for now, the ecological splendor of Florida’s humongous snake pit is left literally in the hands of the individual brave women and men who try to haul them down one snake a time. Officials Saturday night were set to print checks of $2,500, one to the brave soul who brought in the longest python, and another to the hunter who bagged the most snakes over the 10 days.
They will all be back at the same time next year, the hunters and the hunted, with no end in sight. The snakes again have come slithering down Paradise Lane, and heaven knows, the price grows ever steeper.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.