Killers of Serpents
Justin's 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.
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.
The second day of the Python Challenge. Python hunters and reporters marvel at a snake that was shot in the head.
The 2013 Python Challenge rule book lists the preferred methods for killing a Burmese python, in order: Piercing its brain with a captive bolt pistol, Anton Chigurh-style; shooting it through the brain with a gun; or decapitating it with a machete and then shooting it through the brain with a gun. Clubbing them to death, à la the classic “Whacking Day” episode of The Simpsons, is ill-advised.
By January 25, the third weekend of the competition, only 28 pythons have been caught. Justin Matthews—dressed in desert camo pants and a straw cowboy hat—is monitoring the right bank of a gravel levee, where pythons sometimes warm themselves in the sun. A sheathed machete hangs from his belt. “Anybody can shoot a snake,” he says as if it were an easy feat. His tactic is more personal: grab the snake by its tail, dodge its strike, then plunge the machete through its brain. In the pre-event coverage, Justin had declared his intent to hunt pythons with his trained pet Harris’s hawk but later shelved the idea, citing a lack of trees from which the bird could attack.
Hunting alongside Justin is his brother-in-law Roy Suggs, also 50. Roy, in a camo fedora and wraparound shades, seems content in his role as the quippy, potbellied sidekick. He hates snakes with a passion; his job, he says, is to alert Justin to their presence and then get the hell out of the way.
Justin is not just some wild man with a penchant for killing snakes. As a licensed wildlife educator, he is mostly interested in research and conservation. In addition to his pet hawk, his home menagerie includes a possum (Fancy), a raccoon (Bandit), a tortoise (Tank), an eight-foot alligator (Wally), a hybrid wolf (Nakia), an iguana (Causeway), a vicious great horned owl (Cosmo), and three large snakes—two boa constrictors and a Burmese python (Bon Jovi, Steven Tyler, and Axl Rose, respectively).
Prior to staging the capture of that “killer” python, Justin was best known in Florida wildlife circles for having domesticated hybrid wolves that had been roaming around Manatee State Park. When the story appeared in local papers, a group of Seminole Indians invited Justin to their reservation and dubbed him “Sleeps with Wolves.”
As Justin and Roy study the edge of the swamp, an airboat zips by, obscured by a wall of cattails. In the boat is Bill Booth, a Myakka County fireman and host of a local fishing and hunting show. Justin somewhat begrudgingly tells me that Bill has already caught four pythons, and has a National Geographic film crew tagging along with him. Justin and Roy have not seen a single python in five days. The only thing they’ve caught is an emaciated great white egret, which they personally delivered to the FWC headquarters.
This is my first trip to the Everglades. I had expected the vast marshland to be a kind of primeval wildlife sanctuary, leaping and chirping with swamp life. But the only animals we see are dead: the dried-up husk of an alligator, an eviscerated black buzzard, and the shells of dead turtles, their arm bones hanging out like discarded chicken wings.
Around 4 PM, we arrive snakeless at one of two Python Challenge checkpoints. It is manned by a small, bespectacled research biologist named Joy Vinci, whose comprehensive knowledge of snakes seems to command the respect of the tough-looking male python hunters assembled. She knows how difficult it can be to find pythons, even as their population increases exponentially. Dragging on an e-cigarette, she tells a story about tracking one through a swamp with a transceiver when she suddenly realized the snake was directly beneath her, underwater. “Eventually it just swam away,” she says.
As dusk falls, a black pickup roars up to the checkpoint with florida python hunters emblazoned on its rear window. The Florida Python Hunters, a team of five, are currently the front-runners in the permit-holders competition. Two large men, George Brana and Ruben Ramirez, step out of the vehicle, root through the truck bed, and haul out two large pillowcases. George reaches into his sack and removes a giant, glistening, live snake by the neck. Ruben pulls out a skinnier dead one, its head torn open by a pellet-gun shot.
A python wraps around the arm of Miami-Dade captain Jeff Fob as he demonstrates the proper technique to catch the deadly creatures at the Python Challenge kickoff event.
Joy lays the dead snake on the gravel and measures it at approximately seven feet long. The hunters had spared the larger snake after discovering a radio transmitter embedded in its skin, which biologists use to track individual pythons. Joy carefully places it into an oversized cooler in her truck with plans to either rerelease it into the wild or dissect it.
George says they caught the pair of snakes in Florida City, a small town bordering the southern portion of the Everglades. He is cagey about how many they’ve caught so far, but mentioned that it’s more than eight. With two weeks left in the contest, anything can happen. “Someone could find a mating ball,” he says, referring to the squirming orgies in which clusters of male pythons attempt to breed with a single female at its center. “If that happens,” George continues, “someone could get four or five pythons, like boom boom boom. And suddenly they’re in the lead.”
After dropping our gear at a nearby campsite, I drive with Justin and Roy to a bar called Lucky’s Loop Road Outpost, hidden away amid the freshwater prairies of Big Cypress National Preserve. There we meet Lucky Cole, the jovial white-bearded owner. Lucky offers us a tour of his three-acre compound, which consists of a few interconnected trailers, an aboveground pool, and a private shooting range.
“Those pythons have killed everything around here,” Lucky says, sitting under a MASH tent and lighting his cigar with a blowtorch. “We used to have rabbits, possums, raccoons, frogs, deer, all the small animals. Armadillos, even. Not anymore. There’s more wildlife in Miami than there is in the Everglades.”
By midnight, a group of python hunters gathers on the property. Someone produces a gallon of apple-pie moonshine in a plastic sweet-tea container. Keg cups are passed around. As the party gets louder and blearier, I ask Justin the question I’ve been avoiding: Why did he go to the trouble of staging that python capture back in 2009?
Justin tells me that in the wake of the two-year-old’s strangulation, an exotic wildlife trapper named Vernon Yates had appeared on TV and compared Burmese pythons to big teddy bears. (Vernon denies making the comparison.) Justin disagreed: “If I didn’t feed Axl for a month and he gets in a room with a two-year-old, watch what happens.” Vernon instantly became his archenemy.
Soon after, Justin went out and bought the biggest, meanest Burmese python he could find and turned it loose outside the Sweetbay. Then he called 911. A slew of TV cameras and reporters descended on the scene, and by the next day he was a local celebrity. But then Vernon, who’d seen footage of the capture on TV, identified the snake as one he’d personally caught a year before and sold to the supply store. “Animal rights groups are taking our animals away from us,” Vernon tells me later on the phone, “and people like Justin Matthews give them power.”
Justin was hit with a felony charge for “misuse of 911” and spent a night in jail. He also got a $700 fine, two years’ probation, and 100 hours of community service. People quit calling his rescue service, and local farms and elementary schools stopped inviting him to give presentations. He lost his house, his truck, and 30 pounds from the stress. When he first heard about the Python Challenge, he wanted nothing to do with it. But his wife convinced him to enter. “You need to do this, Justin,” she told him. “For redemption.”
The blood-soaked hand of python hunter Jim Ferguson. He cut it while searching for snakes near Mack's Fish Camp, on the edge of the Florida Everglades.
The next morning Justin and Roy venture out to a different levee. The gravel path is flanked by mangrove trees and studded with alligator tracks. At one point, Roy sees what he thinks is a Burmese python, sending Justin scrambling down the bank. But it turns out to be a southern black racer.
“It’s karma,” Justin sighs. “That’s why we’re not catching any snakes. If only I hadn’t made that 911 call.”
“Yeah, but it takes luck, man,” Roy says.
After a fruitless three-hour hunt, they give up and double back. Near the levee’s entrance, we run into Bill Booth, who’d ripped past us on the canal the day before. A burly, confident guy with a mustache and sunburned cheeks, Bill tells us that he’d recently shot a Burmese python while the National Geographic cameras rolled. This brought his total to five snakes, putting him in the lead of the general competition. As Justin eyes him enviously, Bill says, “If I win this thing, maybe I’ll get a call from Jay Leno.”
Back in the truck, Justin says, “I have to catch at least one.” After a pause, he adds: “But even if I don’t, we’re helping the cause by telling the FWC where these snakes aren’t. That’s part of the redemption thing.”
With the sun beating down, we drive to a nearby store called Tippy’s for some Gatorade. The manager, Molly, an ethereal woman covered in turquoise jewelry, tells us that dozens of python hunters have stopped in since the contest began, poking around for tips.
Tacked to the wall behind her is a photograph of a grotesquely swollen Burmese python, with the relevant statistics scribbled below: “15½ feet, 225 pounds, 76-pound deer in stomach, Nov 2011.” Molly mentions that she recently killed one herself. “A couple weeks ago, I tried to get one in my driveway with a knife,” she says brightly. “But I just wound up running it over a few times with my car.”
On my way out of the Everglades that afternoon, I stop by the checkpoint one last time. Joy has been replaced by three tired-looking guys in their early 20s. No more pythons have been turned in since my last visit; the most action they’ve heard about is a rumor of a swimsuit model getting her picture taken on the levee. Now and then, a solitary rifle shot rings out in the distance.
After the contest ends, I reach Frank Mazzotti by phone at his lab in nearby Davie. He tells me that around 70 pythons total have been turned in. “Some people are disappointed by the low number,” he says, “but that’s almost exactly what we could have predicted. The contest achieved what it was meant to do, which was to increase public awareness.”
Data provided by the contest should add to the understanding of how big Burmese pythons are getting, where they’re hiding out, and what they’re eating, Frank adds. He’s spent the last few weeks conducting necropsies and examining the feces of harvested pythons. “It’ll be six months before we get the test results back,” he says with a sigh.
I speak with Justin later that night. He and Roy had spent six more days in the Everglades, two of them with Bill. “We’re tight now,” Justin says. They hadn’t seen any pythons, but the experience inspired him to apply for a year-round permit.
Having declared his pet hawk unfit for the Everglades’ mostly treeless terrain, Justin says he is now considering buying a kestrel falcon. “They hover, so you don’t need trees,” he says, his tone suggesting that kestrel falcons might be the answer to Florida’s impending python apocalypse. “In all that saw grass, it helps to have a bird whose eyesight is 50 times better than yours.”
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