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Florida on the hunt for giant snakes

State-run contest asks people to kill invasive Burmese pythons

By Lizette Alvarez
New York Times

HOMESTEAD, Fla. For as long as anyone can remember, hunters in Florida have wielded machetes, knives, rifles and crossbows as they swept past thickets of mosquitoes in pursuit of alligators, feral hogs, bobcats and vermin of all sizes.

But on the outskirts of the Everglades this month, a different kind of hunt is taking place, and among those on the trail are three men with little macho swagger and zero hunting finery. They drive up gravel roads alongside the brush in a red “man-van” (a well-lived-in Toyota Sienna) and a blue Prius (“You can’t beat the mileage,” says one).

And when they get lucky, they clamber down from their vehicles and snare enormous Burmese pythons with their bare hands, shrugging off the inevitable bites.

Two are brothers, reared in the swamps of central Florida with eight other siblings. The third is a Utah native, now a Miami high school teacher, who met one of the brothers in the apartment building they share. They quickly discovered they have much in common – they are Mormons, for one thing, and not afraid of snakes, for another.

Pythons far outnumber snake-savvy Mormons in South Florida.

But on this day, the brothers are in it to win it. They have joined Florida’s “Python Challenge 2013,” the first open-invitation contest organized by the state’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Invasion of the pet snake

So frustrated are wildlife officials with the prolific Burmese pythons that on Jan. 12 they began a one-month python hunt in South Florida, opening it up to just about anybody over the age of 18.

The only requirement is that contestants must take a training course – online. A prize of $1,000 will be awarded to the hunter who catches the longest snake and $1,500 to the one who “harvests” the most snakes. About 1,300 people have signed up.

The pythons, considered invasive and uninvited, arrived as pets. After some escaped or were let loose by fed-up owners, they slithered toward marshy land, mostly in and around the Everglades. There, they snack regularly on native wading birds, gators, deer, bobcats, opossums, raccoons and rabbits.

Killing the snake is a requirement of the “Python Challenge,” and for this the website suggests a firearm or a captive bolt (a slaughterhouse stunning tool).

“Regardless of the technique you choose, make sure your technique results in immediate loss of consciousness and destruction of the Burmese python’s brain,” the website states.

Tracking natural habits

The task is daunting. Estimates of how many Burmese pythons live in the wild there range from 5,000 to more than 100,000.

The snakes are everywhere and nowhere. Catching them is easy. The pythons – which can stretch to 20 feet and more – are lazy. They dislike moving. They rarely travel. Instead, they wait out their prey and ambush it, sinking their teeth in to hold it in place while they wrap it up tight, suffocate it and swallow it whole, little by little.

It is finding them that will drain hunters of all patience and fortitude.

Because the snakes blend in with the yellowish-brownish brush, they are hard to find. “It’s like looking for a piece of camouflage,” said Devin Belliston, 26, the science teacher in the group.

Seeing just one is enough to excite a hunter for days.

“It’s like seeing Bigfoot,” said Bryan Russ, 35.

Belliston and Blake Russ, Bryan Russ’ younger brother, make up part of a fivesome who call themselves the Florida Python Hunters. The group was founded by Ruben Ramirez, who has been catching snakes for 27 years.

They have an impressive success rate at spotting snakes, catching them with their hands. Last year, Ramirez and George Brana nabbed an imposing 16-foot, 8-inch python. Blake Russ and Belliston, who started python hunting in May, have caught 15 pythons since then.

The best time to find one is the morning after the temperature drops into the 60s or below. The snakes surface to warm up in the sun. They stay close to water, so canals and levees are a good bet. They like rock piles.

As of Tuesday, 27 pythons were caught in the competition’s first week. Ramirez and his team have caught eight.

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