Unexpected cold weather may descend on the Florida Everglades late at night. The stars stain the sky. The frogs croak and croak, their mating calls echoing through the air.
All is peace and wonder until you remember why you’re out at this hour, in the bed of a van equipped with searchlights, trying to find invasive creatures hiding in the shadow.
A python hunt might conjure up images of hunters trudging through swamps and plucking reptiles from the mud. In reality, it’s about traveling the lonely roads that cross the Everglades in an SUV, hoping to catch a glimpse a giant snake. It’s strange work, tiring on the eyes, brutal on the sleep schedule.
“The thrill is incredible,” Amy Siewe said from her Ford F-150. “I absolutely hate that we have to kill them.”
Over the past decade, Florida organized six state-sponsored competitions to raise awareness and reward hunters who humanely capture and kill the most Burmese pythons, the scourge of the beloved Everglades. Firearms are not permitted; air guns and captive bolt guns are.
The annual competitions, held over 10 days in August, resemble a reality TV show, with hundreds of people looking for their five minutes of fame and competing for the best places to find the snakes.
This year’s Python Challenge attracted 1,035 hunters and captured 209 pythons. The winner caught 20 snakes and received $10,000; Ms Siewe won a prize for catching a 10ft 9in python.
State agencies pay about 100 contractors to continue hunting throughout the year, giving them access to levees closer to the man-made canals that run through the Everglades, closer to the snakes. Since 2000, more than 19,000 pythons have been removed from Florida, a little more than two-thirds of them by contracted “python removal agents,” according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The program, which started in 2017, is not particularly lucrative, paying up to $18 an hour, plus $50 per foot for the first four snake feet and $25 for each subsequent foot. Remove a python nest? $200.
“It was designed to say, ‘Hey, after work, go find some pythons and we’ll pay for your money,’” Ms. Siewe said.
So avid hunters like Ms. Siewe, 46, who sold real estate in Indiana until 2019, struck out on their own, becoming full-time guides who teach beginners how to find and euthanize Burmese pythons. They’ve created a cottage industry around an invasive species that has adapted so well to Florida that it appears to be staying there, despite years of efforts to eliminate it.
“I have people who have been on safari in Africa. Conservatives. Locals want to learn how to do it,” said Ms. Siewe, who lives outside Naples on the edge of the Everglades. “I had family that went hunting with me instead of going to Disney World.”
Florida is full of non-natives monkeys, iguanas And tegu lizards. But Burmese pythons are perhaps the most infamous invaders of all. While the federal and state governments have spent billions of dollars restoring the Everglades, pythons have decimated native birds, rabbits and deer since they were documented as an established population in 2000.
They were imported from South Asia as exotic pets, the theory goes, many of whom were let go when they grew too big. They headed north, the US Geological Survey discovered in a study this year, reaching West Palm Beach and Fort Myers and threatening more of the ecosystem.
Scientists don’t know how many pythons live in the wild in Florida, how old they grow, how often they breed or how fast they move. They are tracking some of them by radio and hope to monitor more using drones.
One day, new genetic techniques could help wipe out the population. But for now, there’s nothing else to try but hunting.
Effective, this is not the case.
“It takes an average of 12 hours to catch a python,” Ms Siewe said. But, she added, “each one we remove saves the lives of hundreds of our native animals.” »
Ms Siewe, who calls herself the python hunter, started her guiding business in January. In the winter, she and her fiancé, Dave Roberts, take clients on a boat to hunt pythons in the Ten Thousand Islands, off the southwest coast of Florida.
She keeps the python carcasses in a large “freezer for the dead” in her garage – “It was my Christmas present from Dave one year,” she said – and skins them on the porch of her apartment. (His neighbors know it.)
Hanging on a clothes rack in his living room are dozens of skins, dyed in deep hues by a tannery that helps him make python leather products, including Apple Watch bands. In the corner is a glass tank for the rare albino python that she and Mr. Roberts, 45, kept after a friend found it in her suburban Miami backyard and called Ms. Siewe to capture it. They named him Hank.
The couple used to see marsh rabbits on the road leading to their subdivision. Now they are finding pythons.
In their first year there, “I never saw a python,” Ms. Siewe said. “The second year, I saw a few dead newborns. The third year I saw a 10-footer. And then last year, I tell you, I caught around twenty.
In July, she helped remove a record 19-foot python on the chest of a student who was hunting with his cousin.
One night in August, the hunt looked promising. The Python Challenge had just ended, so the roads were emptier. There are so many people during the competition that Ms Siewe thinks the pythons are scared.
She jumped onto a platform in the back of her pickup, nicknamed the Snake Bridge. Mr. Roberts drove down State Road 29, lined with pitch-black wetlands on either side. Ms. Siewe was talking about identifying pythons by their bluish hue or periscopic heads when, suddenly, she screamed.
Mr. Roberts braked. It was a hatchling, about a foot and a half long – so small that Ms Siewe asked Mr Roberts to look for a possible nest. “It just hatched,” she said. “It looks like he hasn’t eaten yet.”
The newborn slid through Mrs. Siewe’s hands, around her fingers and wrist, up her arm, down her leg. “There is a very good chance he will bite me,” said Ms Siewe, who was bitten several times. “He’s starting to get a little nervous. OK my friend.”
People would see hatchlings and think, “Oh, well, that’s not a very big snake,” according to Ms. Siewe. “It will be,” she said. “It will be 10 feet long in three years.”
But that didn’t make the rest any easier.
“I mean, who doesn’t fall in love with this little guy?” she asked, as she and Mr. Roberts drew a pellet gun that they use to euthanize smaller snakes.
Back in the F-150, the first hour has passed. Then the second. The whole thing seemed strangely meditative.
Squint your eyes into the brush. Trees, grass, trash. The team spotted native brown water snakes and a large alligator. Spiders weaving orbs. Lots and lots of rats.
Other hunting teams occasionally passed by. They too came back empty.
Recently, one of Ms. Siewe’s friends caught a 17-foot, 2-inch python — so big and heavy, weighing 198 pounds, that it took several people to contain it. They called her to euthanize him.
“I arrived and there were five of them sitting on this python, keeping her safe,” she said.
It was the second heaviest Burmese python recorded in Florida.