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Meet the bounty hunters fighting Florida’s python epidemic

The men fighting Florida’s python epidemic

Tens of thousands of Burmese pythons have decimated the wildlife of the Everglades. John-Paul Flintoff joins the posse on their tail

Tens of thousands of Burmese pythons have decimated the wildlife of the Everglades. John-Paul Flintoff joins the posse on their tail

John-Paul Flintoff | February/March 2019

At 6pm one summer’s evening, two men rendezvoused at Tippy’s, an isolated, palm-thatched grocery shop in the wilderness of the Everglades, 21 miles (34km) from the urban sprawl of South Florida. In the distance a bank of cloud, purple and throbbing with lightning, veiled the setting sun.

One of the men wore a red baseball cap over long, greying hair. His comfortably rounded belly filled out a black vest, on the back of which was written the word, “Wildman”. His grey beard jutted down towards a pendant made of a hog’s tusk. The most distinctive thing about him was his feet, which were unshod. The other man was darker, slimmer, altogether smarter. He wore blue jeans, western boots and carried a revolver, which hung from a snakeskin belt. Both men had sunglasses on.

Dusty “Wildman” Crum and Mike “Cowboy” Kimmel are participants in the Python Elimination Programme of the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD). They work as bounty hunters in the Everglades, a sultry wilderness that covers the southernmost reaches of the Sunshine State, and are paid to catch and kill as many Burmese pythons as they can find. But laying their hands on fast-moving, highly dangerous, camouflaged reptiles in a swamp that extends for thousands of square miles is about as easy as it sounds.

The pair don’t always work together. When they hunt alone, they get to keep all the bounty for themselves. But you never know when you might find yourself facing a giant python. And Wildman’s mother worries about him when he ventures out alone.

No one knows precisely how many pythons inhabit the Everglades. The authorities estimate that there are around 100,000, but there could be more. And no one can offer a clear explanation of how they got there. As their name suggests, Burmese pythons are not native to Florida. They come from South-East Asia, where they are endangered. Most experts point towards the destruction of a ramshackle breeding facility by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, during which many pythons escaped. The population has grown thanks to the addition of a large number of pet snakes released by their owners over the course of many years.

Pythons are not the most obvious choice of animal sidekick. They are not soppily affectionate. They do not sing, perform tricks or tumble around with balls of string. You can’t take them for a walk in a park. Nevertheless, many people appreciate their company. According to the American Pet Products Association, in 2016 just under 1% of American households – which still amounts to nearly a million – kept at least one snake as a pet.

Having fallen for an adorable baby snake, however, many pet-owners are unable to cope with a fully grown one. Pythons can reach lengths of up to 23ft (seven metres). They become dangerous long before that. In 2011 in Florida, an 8ft python was found coiled around a dead toddler in her cot, its fangs embedded in her forehead. This is how a python dines: it bites first, then coils around its victim, squeezing hard to cause suffocation. Finally it dislocates its jaw to swallow the meal whole. Using its tail, it can cram more than its own body weight down its throat.

In the python’s native habitat, it’s not unheard of for a snake to kill and consume a full-grown human. In the summer of 2018, a 54-year-old Indonesian woman was discovered, intact and fully clothed, inside a 23ft python found occupying her vegetable garden. The dead woman’s flashlight and machete lay nearby.

In the unthreatening environment of the Everglades in Florida, the python population has expanded rapidly. Pythons face few predators here. In the spring, each adult female lays up to 100 eggs. Once her female children reach the age of four, they too begin to breed. It hasn’t taken many generations for the snakes to dominate their habitat. According to a study by the University of Florida in 2012, the number of native furry mammals – raccoons, mice, rats, deer, wildcats – fell by between 87% and 99% (depending on the creature) in areas known to be infested with pythons between 2003 and 2011. According to the South Florida authorities, over the course of five years the average python will consume one raccoon, one opossum, four alligators, five American coots, six little blue herons, eight ibises, ten squirrels, 15 rabbits, 15 wrens, 30 cotton rats and 72 mice.

In 2017 the local district decided that it was time to act. The bounty-hunter scheme builds on the experience of another state body, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which in 2013 and 2016 ran a month-long “Great Python Challenge”. Snake-catchers were invited to Florida and the project attracted considerable attention across America and beyond, with 1,500 hunters signing up.

Yet pitifully few snakes were caught. Most of the hunters were weekend warriors who lacked experience and didn’t know where to look for a python. When they did stumble on one, they tended to shoot at it. But you need to hit an area of the brain no bigger than a coin to kill a python with a bullet. Miss that, and it will slither away unharmed.

A handful of specialists were responsible for all of the pythons that were successfully culled. These experienced hunters knew what they were doing and were bolder than the others. Instead of shooting, they seized the snakes just behind the head to dispatch them later. Learning from that experience, the South Florida authorities hired these hunters. They gave them a licence, access to restricted land and payment in cash for every python caught.

There was no precedent for a public authority such as the SFWMD acting like a sheriff in the Wild West by doling out cash to bounty hunters. Many ethical, commercial and financial questions needed consideration. Would hunters be paid as much for young specimens as mature ones? How could they avoid creating perverse incentives? What if, for example, hunters incubated the eggs they found, instead of handing them over, and claimed bounties for 100 snakes when they hatched? But by early 2017, the SFWMD was in a position to launch the scheme with 25 licensed snake hunters.

Hide and seek 
Wildman stalks through the Everglades

Cowboy and Wildman got into a white pickup and drove from Tippy’s to Levee 28. Accessible only with a key supplied by the district, the levee is a single-track gravel road on raised embankments that runs 30 miles north to south through the Everglades. On either side there is a steep drop into crowded mangroves of cypress trees that rise out of the water. Beyond these lie vast plains of three-foot-high sawgrass, which lacerates anyone who ventures across.

Weather changes fast here. After a few minutes’ drive, the stormy sky dissolved. Late sunlight gilded the cypress leaves and cast the elongated shadow of the pickup across the trees to the right. Far off, a few ragged scraps of cloud shrank perceptibly.

The mood in the pickup was lively, expectant. Cowboy streamed country music through his phone to the pickup speakers:

There were 13 kids and a bunch of dogs,
A house full of chickens and a yard full of hogs
I spent the summertime cuttin’ up logs
For the winter...

After a few miles the phone signal died and the music stopped abruptly. There was a moment of silence, then the bullfrogs started singing – just a few at first, then dozens at a time.

Cowboy stopped the pickup and the men got out to look around. Their presence disturbed a hawk in a nearby tree. It took off, carrying something that looked like a walking stick, except that it was writhing furiously. Was it a python? Or just one of the many native snakes found here?

The hawk came to rest in a tree 100 yards ahead, and the hunters, abandoning the pickup with its doors open, followed at a brisk pace.

Cowboy peered up the tree for a moment. “That’s a python,” he said. He couldn’t altogether conceal his pleasure at seeing a specimen so early in the evening (pythons generally lie low during the heat of the day and move around only after dark).

The hawk blinked as its prize continued to wriggle between its claws and a cypress branch.

“He’s laughing at us,” said Cowboy. “Like, ‘Look what I got, suckers!’”

“That’s 50 bucks for us,” said Wildman. Or it would be if he could somehow shimmy up the tree and surprise the hawk. “But I don’t want to take it from him,” he decided. “Let’s leave him alone.”

Wildman didn’t wish to deprive hawks of their prey. He did not even harbour a particular animus towards snakes. He just wanted the other animals in the Everglades to have a fighting chance. Pythons, said Cowboy, “aren’t like snakes in a zoo, layin’ still most of the time. They’re active, and they need more food. The Everglades is a buffet for them.”

Their passion for conservation can lead the pair to extreme risk-taking. Recently Cowboy had rescued an alligator from a python. If he hadn’t intervened, “only the claws would be left over,” said Wildman, with relish.

They climbed back in the pickup and moved on. Cowboy drove with his door open, leaning halfway out and scouring the undergrowth, one foot on the accelerator and one hand on the wheel.

The sun had barely set when the pickup halted again. Cowboy got out and began to affix bright strips of LED lights to the side of his vehicle.

Skin up
Brian Hargrove, one of the licensed hunters, with a former acquaintance

Wildman walked over to the right-hand side of the levee, where cypresses rose out of the swamp. He scrambled down the embankment and waded into the warm, knee-deep water to look for snakes. Sunglasses abandoned, his pale eyes darted everywhere. It was here, at 11pm on an October night in 2017, that Wildman faced one of his most formidable opponents – a python just under 17ft long – as he filmed “Swamp Mysteries”, a show on the History Channel in America in which he stars.

Unable to reach the python’s head, he had grabbed the tail, wrapped it around his arm and held tight. The python struggled to get away, pulling him through the water and buffeting him against the trees. Impulsively, Wildman did something he’d never done before: he sank his teeth into the python’s tail. “I thought, I’m a snake hunter. If I let this thing go, I’ll have to give up and retire.”

But the snake was so strong that he was forced to unclamp his teeth. He cried out to the film crew, “Hey, put down the camera and help me!” Eventually they wrestled the snake under control. It weighed in at 122lbs (55kg). In photographs taken the next day, Wildman wore the snake over his shoulders like a stole. The python’s torso was wider than his head.

Tonight, however, there was nothing to be seen. Wildman waded back towards the levee. As he scaled the embankment, Cowboy yelled from behind his pickup, “No shit!”

He was dangling a 3ft python by the tail. It danced like a skipping rope.

“It was right by my feet,” he said.

Cowboy allowed the yearling to open its tiny head and clamp down on his tattooed forearm. He didn’t so much as wince, but grabbed the head and waited for the snake to let go.

Then he handed it to Wildman, who let the python slide from one palm to the next, as if stroking its belly. It settled into a figure of eight, shifting only to take in the strange smell of the humans on its flickering forked tongue.

“He’s relaxed, see,” said Wildman.

Cowboy took the young snake, photographed it and lowered it into a drawstring bag. “I know, I’m sorry, it’s not your fault,” he muttered as he placed the bag in a compartment at the back of the pickup. Then he made some notes on his phone, logging the size of the snake, the time of capture and the location. He also took a few photographs.

For a snake less than 4ft long, like this one, hunters receive $50. Every additional foot in length earns them another $25. On top of that, they get the minimum wage –$8.25 an hour in Florida – for the time they spend on district land.

From an adjacent compartment, Wildman withdrew a rolled snakeskin and walked backwards to unravel it. It was the hide of the giant snake he’d captured in 2017. Tanned by professionals, it felt soft and smooth.

Wildman commissions designers to make wallets, customised sneakers and golf shoes, from the skins of his own conquests, as well as raw hides that he buys from other hunters. A friend recently asked him to cover a car in snakeskin. “You might want to do the dashboard first,” Wildman said, “because that could be real costly.”

Through this venture, he hopes to support his fellow hunters, most of whom barely break even. Though he’s already sunk $20,000 on tanning, he hasn’t found many buyers so far.

Night fell at around 8pm. Close up, the light from the LEDs was blinding. Dense clouds of mosquitoes, dragonflies, moths and a species of brown fly that enjoyed the taste of humans swarmed around us.

The Everglades has always been inhospitable to humans. The ground is sodden and the temperatures for much of the year are oppressively humid. One of the region’s first explorers described it as “a most hideous region” filled with “alligators, serpents, frogs and every other kind of loathsome reptile”. When Andrew Jackson invaded Florida in 1817, he was unable to defeat the native Americans holding out in the swamps and mangroves.

In an attempt to make the region habitable, a dam was built at Lake Okeechobee at the beginning of the 20th century to drain the swamp. But this led to a drought that threatened to destroy the ecosystem entirely. Gradually, progressive thinking turned towards restoring the land to its natural condition. Today, a network of canals and levees, built by the Army Corps of Engineers, provides an imperfect balance between wet and dry.

Wildman climbed up onto the back of the pickup and we set off down the levee. On average, hunters spend 12 hours searching for each snake they catch. It’s an exhausting business. In the flickering shadows, as torches and LEDs flash through the wilderness, every mottled stick looks like a python. But Cowboy and Wildman know what they’re looking for: something with a slight sheen, as though wrapped in cling-film.

Occasionally, they stopped to admire the other wildlife. An owl on a branch, staring back sternly. A wild hog pausing in its noisy tour of the undergrowth. An alligator in the water, resting its jaws on the bank like a sleepy drinker at an all-night bar.

“I can feel it, we’re gonna catch a snake real soon,” said Cowboy. He didn’t sound convinced.

Wildman and Cowboy didn’t have time to burn. Like most hunters on the programme, they have business of their own. When Wildman is not hunting or making TV shows, he runs an orchid wholesale business. Cowboy’s main job is pest control, shooting hogs for farmers.

For a long time, neither man spoke. They spent days in each other’s company and felt comfortable with silence. After five hours’ driving, we came to a dip in the road. Water rushed across, two or three feet deep.

“Best not go further,” said Cowboy, and started turning the pickup in the middle of the flood. A 6ft gator swam slowly in front of us.

“Don’t want those teeth in the tyres,” called Wildman from above. “Imagine changing a wheel here.”

Even after midnight, the air remained warm and sticky. Wildman sprawled across the pickup roof. “Gettin’ to that point,” he called.

“What point’s that?” asked Cowboy.

“The point where my neck aches.”

“I hear ya.”

Something fell across Cowboy’s face. In the corner of his eye he saw a spider crawling up his shirt. He batted it away, but filaments of web clung to his hair and whiskers. “Man, I hate spiders,” he muttered.

All of a sudden, bright lights appeared on the levee ahead.

A pickup pulled alongside. It contained Tom Rahill, another of the licensed hunters.

“Caught anything?” he asked

“Nah,” said Wildman casually. “A hatchling, I reckon.” It wasn’t something to boast about. The hunters sized each other up warily but remained polite.

Rahill’s pickup contained two other men – scientists studying how much pythons of different sizes can swallow. “It might help to understand what kind of wildlife is at risk,” said Bruce Jayne, a talkative professor.

He was on the lookout for specimens. Wildman expressed mild interest in supplying them.

“What’s it worth to you?” the professor asked. Without waiting for a response, he said, “If it was 20 bucks for a head, that would definitely be worth it for me.”

The pair swapped details and the pickups set off in opposite directions.

“I need a snake,” drawled Wildman. “To wake me up. Get my adrenaline goin’.”

“I hear ya,” said Cowboy.

For a long while, there was silence.

Then, suddenly, Cowboy’s phone picked up a signal again and bluegrass burst from the pickup’s sound system. They were nearing the levee’s entrance. Between them, they’d earned a grand total of $50 for the night’s work.

Skin in the game
Wildman among the python skins
 

Leader of the pack
Tom Rahill issues instructions

Before he sets out to look for pythons, Tom Rahill has usually worked a full day in his job as an IT contractor at Fort Lauderdale airport. He manages to get by on little sleep, powered by strong Cuban coffee and the unwavering belief that he is doing God’s work.

Unlike Wildman and Cowboy, Rahill is extremely chatty. Conversation skips from heartfelt sentimentality to teasing wisecracks. The first thing he did when he discovered I was British was talk about football: “You’re from London? Come on Tottenham! Or do you like Arsenal? I’m a Liverpool man myself.” He then began to lay out his views on Brexit before suggesting we compose a musical about pythons together. “Like this,” he cried and burst into song. “Oh, I’m just an innocent python, eating a deer for my tea.”

“I’ve been told I can be a bit too much, sometimes,” he said. “If that happens, let me know.”

Brought up Catholic, Rahill drank too much as a young man. After he had children, he feared he would follow the poor example of his own alcoholic father. So he quit alcohol, found God in a different church and decided to do some good in the world.

He discovered his purpose in life in the Everglades. His children had grown up, his wife worked 1,000 miles away as a university professor in Arkansas and he had lots of free time between IT projects. As a volunteer, Rahill had cleared and signposted trails for visitors. That’s when he started to notice pythons. “The first was in 2008,” he said. “It was 10ft long.”

He has had some narrow escapes since then. He once had to be airlifted out after spending a night up a tree, having disturbed a mother bear and her cub on his bicycle. In the aftermath, his wife pleaded with him not to go hunting by himself.

So Rahill began to bring veterans, most of whom have mental-health problems, along with him. He knew the difference that outdoor work had made to him – the slower pace of life, the enlivening proximity to nature – and he reckoned that python hunting could help cure depression. He set up Swamp Apes, a non-profit organisation, to formalise the therapeutic trips.   

On the evening I accompanied him, Rahill sat up front with Jayne, the professor from Ohio. On the back of the pickup was one of Jayne’s graduate students and Leonidas Konstantakos, a veteran of the Iraq war and a confirmed conservationist.

Rahill stopped the pickup and scrambled down the embankment towards a canal full of alligators.

“Can you see a python out there wearing shades?” he asked, sounding serious. “I was wearing my prescription Oakley glasses when I tackled a python here recently. I lost them and the snake got away. I like to think it’s still out there, wearing the shades and snickering at me.”

Since history began, ecologies have adapted and evolved. Some animals and plants have thrived, others have gone extinct. But in a highly connected world, the sheer speed of change can cause whole ecosystems to collapse.

With its hot, damp climate and its role as a trade hub that connects America with Central and southern America, Africa and Europe, Florida has been particularly receptive to animal immigrants from across the globe. More than a quarter of all animal species here are non-native, as is more than half of the  plant life. The interloping plants crowd out natives and the carnivores, if they lack predators, consume native creatures incapable of defending themselves.

Conservationists around the world often struggle to capture the popular imagination when they talk about the dangers of  invasive species. But in America, with its strong Judeo-Christian tradition, the existential threat posed by serpents is easy to grasp.

We do not know what will happen to the Everglades when the native species die out. But we can be confident that when the pythons run out of prey they will look farther afield. If they move into built-up areas, they may take pets or, worse, young children.

The bounty hunters’ effort to keep the snake population in hand seems like a forlorn hope. The area covered by the district’s scheme amounts to 2,446 square miles, or about 25m tennis courts. In practice, most hunters rarely stray from the levees, which cover less than 0.3% of the whole territory. Focusing on levees helps to reduce the chance of pythons harming humans, which was one of the main reasons that the authorities launched the hunting scheme. But if we assume there are 100,000 pythons and they are evenly distributed across the region then, at any one time, there are 333 on the 1,400 miles of track that cross the Everglades. That’s a lot of ground to cover.

Rahill approaches the task by driving as fast as possible. Unlike Cowboy, he shuts the pickup door. And he keeps his eyes on the road in front, relying on his passengers to spot anything unusual. Konstantakos, the veteran, was quick to drum on the roof whenever he saw something.

Early in the evening, Konstantakos stopped the truck with a bang and jumped down. When Rahill caught up with him, he found Konstantakos holding a yearling, about 4ft long.

“What’s this one called?” asked Rahill. It was the 24th they had caught this month, so, according to his custom, its name would begin with the 24th letter of the alphabet: X.

Konstantakos gave it some thought. “Xenophon,” he said, handing over his catch.

The professor took the startled snake, folded it in half to find the end of its stomach and discovered a lump. He flipped her upside down and firmly palpated the smooth belly to push the contents up the python’s gullet.

The graduate student held Xenophon’s jaws open with a pen and – slowly, very slowly – a morsel of digested food emerged.

“It’s a frog!” he exclaimed, as what looked like a leg flopped out of the snake’s gaping mouth.

Then another dangling appendage, connected to a ball of something black, damp and furry, was ejected. For a moment, this assortment of moist components presented a puzzle. It couldn’t be a frog, because one leg was too long and there was no foot at its end. Was it some kind of tail?

“It’s a rat,” said the professor confidently.

Having emptied Xenophon’s guts, the professor allowed himself to admire the snake. “People think they’re slimy,” he said. “But they’re not. The scales are smooth and shiny. But so is glass. Nobody thinks glass is slimy! And look at those beautiful colours. People like birds for their colours. Why not snakes?”

I asked him if he loved snakes.

“Oh, absolutely,” he replied, and started to explain why. As he paused for breath, Rahill jumped in and enthused about python musk, the foul-smelling spray that is released from the anus as a last line of defence.

“It’s the finest cologne known to man,” he said. “The smell of adventure. Ain’t that right, doc?” He mimed dipping a finger into his hand and dabbing behind his ears.

Wanted: dead or alive
Cowboy wrestles his catch under control

To collect their bounty, hunters bring their snakes to be measured and weighed at the SFWMD weighing station, a rudimentary wooden frame at the back of a nondescript building in suburban Homestead. Inside stood a long table for measuring snakes with a ruler along its front edge. A tattered stars and stripes hung from the ceiling.

A heavy storm was on its way and the atmosphere was thick. The hunters stood chatting in the open air, slapping fire ants – another invasive species – that climbed up their legs.

The most successful hunter on the programme, Brian Hargrove, had shown up. Stocky and strong, Hargrove teaches jujitsu when he’s not hunting. Despite having caught more snakes than anyone else, he was painfully modest. “I’m just lucky, man,” he said.

Hargrove doesn’t have any fancy kit. He hunts with just a head torch. After bagging the 1,000th python since the programme started, he appeared on the front page of the local newspaper, holding the snarling snake. But he does not like being known as a snake killer: “I hate killing snakes, man. I love animals.”

As a point of principle, he allows the snakes he catches to bite him. “It’s the least I can do. It’s karma, ’cause I’m going to euthanise them.”

Hargrove offered to skin a 10ft snake for one of the other hunters. He started at the head, making an incision below the jaw like the collar of a shirt, then cutting around the neck. Removing the first inch or so was difficult and involved much rubbing with his thumbs. When he’d pulled off enough skin to grip, he asked another hunter to hold the snake’s head, and peeled off the skin with both hands. It was like removing a tight wet sock. The pale pink flesh was revealed. Hargrove would give the skin to Wildman to be tanned.

The rest of the snake was discarded. In Asia, python steak is a delicacy. But Florida’s snakes are full of mercury, from industrial run-off that pollutes the Everglades. The peeled python was fit only for the alligators.

“It’s real sad,” said one hunter. “Nobody wants to kill them, but what else can we do? A woman said to me. ‘They’re God’s creatures, they deserve to be here.’ But they’re killing everything. Sure, it’d be great to ship them back where they came from, but we can’t because they carry American germs and bugs.”

“It’s not their fault they’re here,” another hunter said. “They didn’t all get together in Asia and say, ‘Let’s go over to the Ever­glades and fuck things up’.”

Cowboy was last to arrive at the station. He had stayed in the Everglades for the entirety of the previous night. Returning to Levee 28, his headlights picked out a large python on the road ahead. He leapt out of the pickup to catch it.

As he approached, the snake slithered quickly down the embankment towards the water. But Cowboy moved faster. Leaping after it, he reached for its head but it reared at him, hissing, and swaying. He tried again, this time successfully grabbing hold of it. With his other hand, he took hold further down its writhing body but it began to slither away and he had to use his legs to pin it down. Having finally secured the snake, he lifted its head above his own and staggered back up the slope, swaying like a man doing semaphore as the snake twisted and turned.

The python had curled its tail around Cowboy’s torso, but he was strong enough to unwind it. It was 10ft long, its beautiful skin lustrous and flecked with colour, even in the artificial light.

Once it was dead, it looked floppy, diminished and faded. At the top of its skull was a tiny bullet hole. Its mouth was edged with blood. Its eyes were dull.