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      Killers of Serpents

      March 25, 2013

      By Jed Lipinski


      A nine-foot Burmese python with a 9mm bullet hole in its skull. Photos by Jason Henry.

      On July 1, 2009, a pet Burmese python in Oxford, Florida, escaped from its terrarium, slithered into the crib of a two-year-old girl, and strangled her to death. The snake, named Gypsy, was eight and a half feet long, weighed 13 pounds, and had not been fed in a month. The child’s mother and her boyfriend—who had six prior felonies—were each sentenced to 12 years in prison for third-degree murder, manslaughter, and child neglect.

      The incident was Florida’s first known case of a nonvenomous constrictor killing a child, and it set off a media frenzy. In stepped a tattooed Florida wildlife rescue expert named Justin Matthews. About a month after the girl’s death, Justin made national news when he captured a 14-foot Burmese python in a culvert outside a Sweetbay Supermarket near his Manatee County home. He identified the snake as an escaped pet and scolded its owner for not having a radio-transmission device implanted in the animal, as required by law. He named the snake Sweetie, after the Sweetbay chain. Local news outlets declared him a hero. 

      But later that summer, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) discovered that Justin had actually purchased the animal at a reptile supply store and staged the capture. He made a public apology, insisting that he had simply been trying to demonstrate the dangers of keeping pythons as pets. “I did it for wildlife education,” he told the Tampa Bay Times. But Justin was quickly written off as a loose-cannon redneck seeking personal glory and publicity for his rescue business and faded from public view. 

      Now, more than three years later, Justin, a rangy 50-year-old with a beard and a Pall Mall-induced rasp, is walking through Big Cypress National Preserve—a 720,000-acre patch of cypress marsh in the northern part of the Florida Everglades. His mission is to kill Burmese pythons, which can grow as long as 20 feet. He is one of 1,400 people who have signed up to hunt, shoot, and decapitate as many of the snakes as they can in a month as part of Florida’s first-ever Python Challenge. 

      Many media outlets have described the 2013 Python Challenge as a “bounty hunt.” But the contest’s chief organizer, Frank Mazzotti, a professor of Wildlife Ecology at the University of Florida, prefers to call it an “incentive-based market solution.” Participants compete in two separate divisions: one for general competitors, another for year-round permit holders. The winners receive cash prizes for kills—$1,000 for the longest, $1,500 for the most.

      For the FWC, the hunt’s chief sponsor, the Python Challenge is an effort to raise awareness of the dangers an invasive species like the Burmese python pose for the Everglades. A study from last year suggested that Burmese pythons have almost entirely eliminated the Everglades National Park’s raccoon, possum, and bobcat populations. Florida biologists worry that the Burmese python has the potential to wipe out rare and endangered species like the wood stork, Key Largo wood rat, roseate spoonbill, and the purple gallinule. If no solution is found, some scientists speculate that the python population could keep expanding until there is no more available prey, effectively turning the Everglades into a writhing, two-million-acre snake pit. 

      No one knows exactly how so many Burmese pythons ended up in South Florida. Some blame Hurricane Andrew, which ripped the roofs off reptile breeding facilities around Homestead and Florida City in 1992, sending baby pythons sailing through the air inside Styrofoam containers. (This is often referred to as the “frisbee” theory.) Others blame python owners who released their snakes into the wild after they’d grown too big to handle. A more conspiratorial hypothesis accuses government scientists of introducing the pythons into the Everglades to garner support for a ban on pet snakes. 

      The only thing experts agree on is that the source of the problem is South Florida’s booming exotic reptile trade. In their book Invasive Pythons in the United States, Michael Dorcas and John D. Wilson note that 110,000 Burmese pythons were imported from Southeast Asia between 1990 and 2006. Most of these snakes passed through or ended up in Florida, many of them illegally. 

      Whatever the cause, Burmese pythons are now ubiquitous throughout Everglades National Park and the surrounding wetlands. Biologists believe there may be hundreds of thousands of them. Over the last 20 years, wildlife experts have employed various methods in an attempt to curtail the invasion and protect the local populations of birds, coyotes, and other fauna (including the already endangered Florida panther). They have set traps, hunted them with dogs, tracked them with GPS devices, and cruised for them at night with handheld spotlights. The most effective strategy remains the most accidental—running a snake over with your car. 

      South Florida is virtually devoid of the Burmese python’s natural predators. This combined with their prolific breeding capabilities are the main explanations for the explosive population growth. Like many reptiles, the typical adult female reproduces every two years and lays about 40 eggs at a time. But the largest specimens can be even more fertile. This past August, for instance, researchers in the Everglades captured a 164-pound, 17-foot seven-inch Burmese python with 87 eggs in her womb. This is even more terrifying when you consider that female Burmese pythons can produce offspring without mating. The process, known as “facultative parthenogenesis,” might as well be called Immaculate Conception. According to researchers in Amsterdam, newly hatched Burmese pythons conceived in this way are genetically identical to their mothers. 

      Humans, it seems, are the only ones capable of getting the python population in check. And while pythons are capable of both killing and eating us, they rarely do. The Humane Society reports that only 17 people in the US have died from constrictor-snake attacks since 1978. (By comparison, dogs kill about 30 people a year.) There are no real statistics on exactly how many people have been bitten, but many have been menaced, like the 18-year-old aquarium employee in Tarpon Springs, Florida, who in 2006 was nearly strangled to death by a 14-foot, 100-pound snake in front of a crowd of horrified tourists, before the police arrived and tased it off of her. 

      Scientists have developed climate models that predict the glut of Burmese pythons could eventually spill over from Florida into the southeastern United States. This is why the organizers of the Python Challenge encourage contestants to turn in data sheets and GPS track logs, detailing where they found snakes and which areas have yet to be affected by their wrath. The best hope of controlling the problem remains gathering as much information on them as possible in hopes of finding a solution. 

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      Topics: python, bounty hunt, florida everglades, python challenge, snakes

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