Media Event To Start South Florida Python Hunt Bags 9-Footer
By David Fleshler, South Florida Sun Sentinel, July 17, 2009
The sawgrass whipped by at 35 mph as three expert snake handlers gazed from airboats at the vast plain of the Everglades.
It was the first day of a three-month hunt intended to gauge the feasibility of eradicating nonnative Burmese pythons from South Florida, using a select group of reptile specialists to catch and kill the snakes.
The media interest had been intense, with inquiries from newspapers in Japan and England, an article in Time magazine and a request for a live interview with CNN.
And it was largely to satisfy journalists' incessant requests to accompany the handlers on their hunt that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission arranged an outing in the Everglades.
No one expected to find anything, as pythons and other wildlife cleared out of the path of the posse of journalists, government officials and snake hunters powering through the Everglades on airboats.
But they found one.
They stopped at Brown's Camp, a hunting shack on a tree island, high ground where they expected the snakes to prey on rabbits, raccoons and other mammals.
As the group milled around a worn boardwalk, Greg Graziani, a Central Florida reptile breeder, saw a big Burmese python trying to slither under the boardwalk. He grabbed its tail and another hunter, Shawn Heflick, of Palm Bay, grabbed it behind the head, getting a minor nip from its teeth.
"He was on the move," Graziani said. "He saw us coming."
All three hunters and two members of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission grinned and held up the doomed snake, as journalists and wildlife commission staffers snapped pictures. The snake measured nine feet, eight inches.
"We really didn't expect to get one our first time out," Graziani said.
They bundled the snake into a white pillowcase, tied the end and put the pillow case in an Igloo cooler on one of the airboats.
Later back at Everglades Holiday Park, the hunters took the snake behind a tree -- with no media allowed -- and killed it by cutting its spinal cord just behind the head.
The hunt involves a handful of reptile breeders and dealers, well aware that their business has been blamed for bringing these animals into the country in the first place.
There's disagreement on how the snakes got into the Everglades, however, with some scientists blaming irresponsible pet owners for releasing them and others saying it's possible they ended up there through accidental escapes during Hurricane Andrew.
After they killed the snake, Heflick slit it open to examine its stomach contents, finding hair and small bones, indicating the snake had consumed a mammal, probably a rat.
Five people have been issued permits so far to catch the snakes. The state is processing more applications. Only holders of valid Reptile of Concern licenses will be considered. The state will allow them to sell the meat and hide as compensation.
Although they had found the snake quickly, no one expects it to be easy to catch a substantial number of them. The snakes live in remote areas, best known to hunters and airboat captains.
"We're going to have to partner with these airboat guys," Graziani told a state wildlife official. "You get the snake guys where we need to be and we'll catch the snakes."