David Steen traded the comfort of a college biology classroom for the swamps of south Florida in January, looking for snakes — big snakes.
Steen, a wildlife ecology professor at Auburn University, was one of about 1,060 people who have been poking around in the Everglades for the past month in hopes of catching Burmese pythons, an invasive species that has made itself at home there.
"We were walking dirt roads along canals, looking for snakes that were basking alongside them, in a landscape of grassy wetland," said Steen, a veteran snake-spotter. The days were warm and the nights surprisingly cool for Florida — "but that was good for the pythons, because they wanted to come up and bask the next day."
It's the second time Florida has declared open season on the snakes, which are gobbling up the other animals that live in the marshlands outside Miami. The "Python Challenge" started in mid-January and wraps up this weekend, with state officials offering prizes of up to $5,000 for the most snakes and $3,000 for the biggest.
It was slow going for Steen and his team. They eventually collected a single snake, a 10-footer, which one of his teammates spotted in the brush near a canal.
"It did not want to go. It did bite him," Steen said. "And it was 10 feet long, so it had some strength, and he did need to work to get it into the pillowcase."
As of Friday morning, the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported 102 pythons had been caught. Captured snakes are euthanized and will be available for research. Hunters can keep the skins if they like — but due to high levels of mercury, authorities don't recommend eating python meat.
Unlike the state's October hunt for black bears, this effort has drawn a more muted response from animal rights groups and conservationists.
"Black bears are a native component of Florida biodiversity. In the past, they've been threatened and protected by the state," Steen said. But the pythons "are not part of the native diversity, and they are threat to that diversity."
'PETA would prefer that if the snakes have to be removed, that it not be left in the hands of amateurs.'
The first Burmese pythons were spotted in the Everglades in the 1980s, according to Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. With no natural predators, some snakes have gotten as long as 17 feet (5 meters). Their population has ballooned to more than 100,000 by some estimates — and they're rapidly swallowing up other species in the marshlands west of Miami.
"I'm hoping people understand this is an effort to conserve Florida's native wildlife in the Everglades ecosystem," said Carli Segelson, a spokeswoman for the FWC, which put on the hunt. "It would think that maybe that's why people are in support of this effort."
When researchers from the University of Florida and the US Geological Survey outfitted marsh rabbits with radio collars for a year-long study, they found four-fifths of the bunnies who died during the experiment were eaten by Burmese pythons. Other studies have found that sightings of raccoons, opossums, and bobcats have nearly stopped, with the snakes the prime suspect in their disappearances.
"As a biologist, I've read some of the studies. I realize these snakes are having an adverse impact on the ecology of that South Florida ecosystem," said DJ Schubert, a wildlife biologist with the Animal Welfare Institute. "But we have to remember, this is not the snakes' fault."
The original Burmese were believed to have been exotic pets, which either escaped or were dumped in the marshes by overwhelmed owners.
"Going even further back, this is really the fault of the industry — the reptile trade industry that promotes reptiles as pets and is responsible for importing these animals from Indonesia, Malaysia, the various places where these species are found," Schubert said.
The Animal Welfare Institute and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) objected to the practice of offering a bounty for snakes. PETA urged Florida authorities to allow only the use of firearms or captive bolt guns—think Javier Bardem in "No Country for Old Men"—to kill snakes, warning that decapitation can leave the beheaded reptiles writhing in pain for hours.
"PETA would prefer that if the snakes have to be removed, that it not be left in the hands of amateurs," said Lori Kettler, deputy general counsel for the PETA Foundation.
After an objection by PETA, state officials changed their euthanasia protocols to recommend that only trained personnel kill the pythons, Kettler said. But she said the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission still lists decapitation as an option on its website.
"The animals lose out either way in this situation," she said.
This year's haul has already blown far past the first event, in 2013, when only 68 snakes were caught. The Python Challenge isn't going to make a significant dent in the snakes' population, but it's likely to help public awareness of the problem, Steen said.
"I spend a lot of time on outreach, convincing people not to kill snakes," he said. "But again, those are native species, not Burmese pythons."
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Photos by Stephen Neslage