Snake hunt

Stalking pythons in Florida with a team of cold-blooded killers.

Sean Sterrett didn’t know what part of the snake he was grabbing. He was in water that came up to his ankles, rummaging through some vegetation, when he glimpsed the fat body swimming past. Before he could make sense of the situation, a surge of adrenaline sent him lunging for the beast.

His long fingers landed about 10 inches behind the snake’s head. “Probably the worst place you can grab it,” he says. The animal swung its diamond-shaped skull around and latched its muscular jaw onto Sterrett’s forearm. Blood streamed out as rows of sharp, back-curved teeth slashed his skin like tissue paper. “I’ve been bit hundreds of times by snakes, but not by anything this big.”

Sterrett is a pro, but this was far from ideal. The impulsiveness of his pounce put him at a disadvantage, and he had to form a game plan as the snake wrapped around his leg. His nearest teammate was three-quarters of a mile away, and the thick drawstringed sack he needed to shove the animal into was stuffed in his backpack, which was zipped up and sitting on the side of the trail.

With the huge constrictor still attached, Sterrett managed to slog out of the mud, drop to his knees, and unzip the backpack using only his teeth.

That’s when the snake went for his neck.

coiled python
Coiled. waiting. Paul Lachine

Welcome to the 2016 Florida Python Challenge, a monthlong, state-sponsored hunt in which thousands of dollars in cash prizes are doled out to those who capture the most and the biggest Burmese pythons. More than 1,000 people have forked over the $25 entry fee for the privilege of stalking one of the largest and most controversial snakes in the world. The participants come from as nearby as Miami and as far away as Wisconsin. There are retirees and high school teachers, off-duty police officers and college students, all hoping to bag a monster. Some have formed teams with names like Hammock Ninjas, All About the Girth, and Blood, Sweat, and Beers.

Sterrett’s team is called the Cold-Blooded Killers, and on paper it looks like an obvious front-runner. Sterrett is a wildlife ecologist who lives in Massachusetts, and specializes in reptiles and amphibians. The team’s spiritual linchpin is David Steen, a conservation biologist and research professor at Auburn University in Alabama. Then there’s Sean Graham, a biology professor at Sul Ross State University in Texas, who’s presently writing a book on snakes in America. Rounding out the foursome is Stephen Neslage, a producer at the Weather Channel who grew up dodging copperheads and cottonmouths in the middle of Tornado Alley. The team has nearly half a century of combined experience tracking down snakes in the wild. But they’ve never tangled with a Burmese python.

In recent years, the serpent has rocketed to prominence as the poster child of invasive species. Growing to upwards of 20 feet in length and capable of swallowing a deer whole, the pythons have upended the Everglades food chain. They’ve swallowed alligators to varying degrees of success (digestion can prove tricky) and feasted on endangered wood storks and Key Largo woodrats. Their abundant appetite, predatory acumen, and reproductive capacity scare the hell out of ecologists who say that raccoons, rabbits, and bobcats have all but vanished since the snakes arrived.

But for all the devastation they wreak, the snakes are exceptionally elusive. In 2013—the first and only other time the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission hosted a python hunt—nearly 1,600 participants found only 68 snakes over the course of a month.

hunting for pythons
“It’s a war of attrition,” says David Steen (foreground) of the methodic hunt for pythons along a road in the Southern Glades Wildlife and Environmental Area. David Steen

To Steen, those were some pretty abysmal odds. So to prepare for the challenge, he drilled down into the data on more than 2,000 Burmese python sightings logged with the Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health. He chatted up fellow herpetologists, and pondered lessons from his days of searching for eastern diamondbacks and indigos. After studying the dozen different sites open to the Python Challenge, Steen led the team to the Southern Glades Wildlife and Environmental Area, a 30,000-acre swath of sawgrass and marsh that’s flanked by Everglades National Park to the west and U.S. Route 1 to the east.

When they arrived in late January, the Cold-Blooded Killers were among the first to enter the area. To cover more ground, the team split into pairs. Steen and Sterrett, who met while working at an ecological research center in the sticks of western Georgia, buddied up and drove down a muddy service road pockmarked by an early downpour. The whipping crosswinds and silver clouds didn’t sit well with them. Nothing’s more important to a successful snake hunt than weather—a cool night followed by a clear, warm day is sure to lure pythons from the tall grass in search of decent spot to sunbathe.

A half-mile down the road, Steen’s black Chevy pickup turned into a grassy inlet and rolled to a stop. A bumper sticker slapped on the tailgate read: “Danger! Live Snakes Do Not Open.” The men grabbed their backpacks and settled in for a long day. “It’s not rocket science. We’re basically just walking and looking,” Steen said as they plodded down a straight dirt road. To their right, a shallow canal sprinkled with lily pads. To their left, a vast marsh that bled into the horizon. “It’s a war of attrition,” Steen said.

Burmese python
Burmese pythons can grow upwards of 20 feet in length; 18-footers have been captured in Florida. Once they reach 8 feet, they become a top predator. Liz Barraco

Nobody knows precisely when the first Burmese python slithered into the Everglades. Anecdotal sightings ticked up in the wake of Hurricane Andrew, which destroyed a reptile breeding facility when it smashed into Florida in 1992. During the same period, Burmese pythons flooded the exotic pet trade; in the 1990s and early aughts, more than 110,000 poured through U.S. ports by way of Southeast Asia. For a modest sum of money, Floridians could walk into a pet store or flea market and leave with a baby snake that had the potential to grow to the length of a front yard. Eventually, some overwhelmed owners mistook the Everglades as a humane dumping ground for their pet projects gone awry, and the results have been nothing short of disastrous.

By 2000, wildlife officials were confident that the species had established a breeding population within Everglades National Park. Six years later, after years of discovering python hatchlings, they uncovered the first nest. Soon they were finding clutches of three-dozen eggs, sometimes more. It marked an unprecedented and unfortunate reality: A snake of similar size had never set up shop outside its native habitat, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Worse, no invasive population of reptile has ever been eradicated.

Recent years have been marked by impressive captures. In 2012, a 17-foot-7-inch female was caught with 87 eggs developing inside it. The following year, an 18-foot-8-inch python set a state record. Another 18-footer was caught this summer.

python sightings in florida
Though 2,174 pythons sightings have been logged all over Florida (and one in Georgia), the snakes are mainly concentrated in Everglades National Park. Katie Peek

Those are just the headline-grabbing behemoths. Between 2000 and 2011, more than 1,700 Burmese pythons were removed from Everglades National Park. As to how many are out there presently, it’s anyone’s guess. Getting a reliable head count on a camouflaged serpent that’s capable of submerging itself underwater for 30 minutes and has spread throughout a largely inaccessible habitat is impossible—estimates range from as few as 5,000 to well over 100,000. Steen doesn’t waste time bickering over population estimates. “There are thousands of them,” he says. “When it comes to the exact number, what difference does it really make?”

Instead of thinking about how many pythons there are, he thinks about how many mammals there aren’t. A 2012 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that sightings of raccoons in Everglades National Park dropped 99 percent since Burmese pythons established a presence. Similar precipitous declines were recorded for rabbits, opossums, and bobcats. The study ignited controversy, and those in the reptile trade attacked its methodology and pointed to various other potential culprits, such as urban sprawl and pollution.

To shore up the argument that Burmese pythons have destroyed small-mammal populations, researchers recently gathered dozens of marsh rabbits and outfitted them with radio tags. Some were let loose in an area where no Burmese pythons are known to live, while the others were dropped into areas where the snakes thrive. In both settings, predators gobbled up the cottontails. In the python-free zone, mammals accounted for 71 percent of the kills. But in areas with snakes, 77 percent of the radio-tagged rabbits ended up in the digestive tract of a python.

“For me, this was kind of a case-closed moment,” Steen says. “Not only do we know that the mammal populations are decreasing, but this rabbit telemetry study showed that the pythons really are exerting a predation pressure that is probably unsustainable.”

python face
Although native to Southeast Asia, pythons have adapted well to Florida: They can eat a wide variety of food, ranging from eggs and rabbits to small deer. Kevin Enge

Throughout the day, Steen and Sterrett searched for pythons at a careful pace. They paused occasionally to inspect crushed eggshells and the remains of dead striped mud turtles that had been picked clean by scavengers. Every few feet, they disappeared into the brush and scanned the ground for a mound of coiled girth. The trick, they explained, is to look for shapes rather than patterns. Sometimes, if you stare long enough, what appears to be a pile of leaves and sticks materializes into an actual snake. But most of the time, it’s just a pile of leaves and sticks.

Sterrett knows the hardships of finding pythons all too well. As the afternoon crept on, he described a study he was once involved in. A roughly 100-foot-long, 75-foot-wide facility in South Carolina was sealed off and decorated with a pond, trees, underground refuges, and natural fauna. Scattered throughout were 10 Burmese pythons, ranging from 8 to 11 feet in length. Sterrett had approximately 45 minutes to find as many as possible.

“I was sticking my arms in holes and looking in the water,” he recalls. “I absolutely thought I was going to find one.” When the clock ran out, Sterrett emerged empty-handed.

It’s not just that the snakes are hard to find. The arsenal of tools to help track them down is woefully limited. There’s no spotting them from drones or helicopters; there’s no man-made scent that will draw them out; there’s no trap that can scoop up dozens in one fell swoop.

Researchers at the University of Florida have experimented with so-called Judas snakes, pythons that are caught, radio-tagged, and released back into the wild. The conceit is that they’ll slither to a bustling python hangout and broadcast the location. But the approach hasn’t uncovered any major hotbeds.

One of the newest weapons in the escalating war against invasive species is environmental DNA, or eDNA. “It’s really blown up in the past few years,” says Toni Piaggio, a research scientist and wildlife geneticist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As Piaggio explains, analyzing small samples of water or soil can reveal if a particular species has recently visited the area. The approach has been used to devise management practices for invasive carp and to study the distribution of feral hogs.

Knowing that Burmese pythons leave behind scales, saliva, and waste when they travel through water, Piaggio developed a polymerase chain-reaction test that’s proved capable of detecting minuscule amounts of the species’ DNA. All she needs is a few ounces of water from the swamp or pond in question, and she can tell you whether a python has visited it within the past 96 hours.

That information should help researchers clarify the known boundaries of Burmese pythons. Nobody argues that they’re in the subtropics of South Florida, but how far north can they push? While eDNA might help answer these types of big questions, it’s not going to pinpoint the precise location of pythons or help cull the population. “There are so many of them,” Piaggio says. “How do you control them?”

python on bullseye
Bullseye. Paul Lachine

None of the Cold-Blooded Killers traveled to South Florida under the illusion that their time here was going to make a dent in the python population. They understood that they could bag a 20-footer loaded with 100 eggs and not a damn thing would change. To a few lifelong snake nerds, the Python Challenge was a great excuse for a guys’ weekend. But as scientists, they felt that the best part was the attention the hunt brings to the threat of invasive species. Not everyone shares in that enthusiasm.

“The python hunt is just basically a big publicity stunt by the state of Florida,” says Andrew Wyatt, a government affairs specialist at the lobbying firm Vitello Consulting and a co-founder of the United States Herpetoculture Alliance. If there’s any doubt as to how big “Big Reptile” actually is, consider that a 2011 economic assessment valued the industry at a whopping $1.4 billion. Certain morphs—captive-bred snakes that are selectively bred for specific colors and patterns—can run well over $10,000.

Wyatt concedes that the Burmese python was once “one of the most widely owned pet snakes in the world” but says interest in it has waned significantly. Yet persistent hype around Burmese pythons in Florida, according to Wyatt, has led frenzied lawmakers to impose restrictions on all sorts of snakes, which threatens tens of millions of dollars in trade and impinges on the livelihood of law-abiding snake lovers. Wyatt further suggests that federal and academic researchers exaggerate the scope of the problem to keep funding streams flowing. “It seems like they’re almost preserving [Burmese pythons] as a study group so they can continue to get funding and do their papers and talk about it and scare everybody,” he says.

Each member of the Cold-Blooded Killers is troubled by the reptile trade, and they find the idea that scientists would manufacture ecological calamity preposterous. “We love snakes—but I think we love them for the right reasons,” Graham said while hoofing back to Steen’s pickup at the end of the long afternoon. “Then there’s this other group of people who love snakes, and they kind of love them too much. They love to have them in captivity…and only these ridiculous snakes will make them happy—these big snakes, these scary snakes.”

Graham sees the value of pet garters and corn snakes, which inspire interest in the animals, but he worries that Burmese pythons won’t be the last or even the worst snake introduced into Florida by overwhelmed pet owners. Just this month, wildlife officials announced they were investigating two green anacondas recently found on the outskirts of Orlando. Graham posed a scarier scenario: Say cobras get a foothold in the Everglades and start devouring Burmese pythons. “It’s entirely plausible,” he said, noting that in their native habitats cobras prey on other snakes, including pythons. The climate in South Florida is suitable for them, and the pythons would provide an established food base. “King cobras are in the pet trade,” Graham laments. “Some of these maniacs have them, and they do escape.”

That evening, over campfire PBRs, slugs of bourbon, and wedges of fresh mango, the team talked strategy. For all their degrees and all their years of fieldwork, the biggest advantage the Cold-Blooded Killers have is a collective sense of patience. Tomorrow they planned to search the same trails they searched today. The evening air was cool and getting cooler by the hour—exactly what they’d been hoping for.

sean sterett with snake
The python caught by Sean Sterrett latched onto his forearm when he went to grab it. “I’ve been bit hundreds of times by snakes,” he says, “but not by anything this big.” David Steen

When the Cold-Blooded Killers arrived back at the entrance of the Southern Glades Wildlife and Environmental Area, the morning was already magnificent. Sun poured down on the trails, and temperatures were steadily climbing.

Wanting to get farther down the service road to explore new nooks and crannies, Sterrett jumped on a mountain bike. After a few dull hours of pedaling around, he happened upon a flooded portion of the trail. The lush vegetation and the muddy water tickled his gut. “It looked really snakey,” he says. He tossed his backpack on dry ground, sunk his boot into the mud, and tried his best to think like a snake. Soon enough, he was tussling with a Burmese python.

The bloodletting bite, the man-versus-beast wrestling match, opening his backpack with his teeth: It all flashed by in a blur of stressful chaos. “It was very surreal,” he says. He freed his bruised and bloodied forearm from the snake’s jaws and grabbed its tail to undo the several full coils it managed to wrap around his leg. Still, the snake refused to relent.

“The scariest part was when it tried to coil around my neck. That was the point at which I was fed up.” A second jolt of adrenaline surged through him. He pried the animal off and started to shove it into the sack. It was like trying to put toothpaste back into the tube as the reptile’s muscular mass writhed. He can’t say for sure how long the ordeal lasted—five minutes, maybe 10.

examining a 10-foot burmese python
Sean Sterrett, David Steen, and Stephen Neslage (left to right) examine a 10-foot Burmese python that they captured in the 2016 Florida Python Challenge. Stephen Neslage

Unable to fit the sack of snake in his backpack, Sterrett performed a delicate balancing act by resting it on his handlebars. With blood still dripping from his forearm, he navigated his mountain bike down the rutted service road back toward his teammates. The sight of him overjoyed the Cold-Blooded Killers. They posed for pictures with the snake and reveled in Sterrett’s retelling of the dramatic encounter. “The power, the size, the beauty. It was a remarkable animal,” Sterrett says.

All told, Sterrett’s snake measured over 10 feet in length. It wasn’t a prizewinner. With two days left to go, this year’s Python Challenge has already yielded 102 snakes, including one reportedly 15 feet long. It’s not lost on anyone that, despite the animal’s elusiveness, roughly 500 fewer hunters have turned up more snakes than were captured during the first python hunt.

For men who’ve devoted their lives to studying reptiles, handing over Sterrett’s python to the Florida wildlife officials wasn’t easy. It came with the awful pang of knowing the animal would soon have its brain tissue destroyed by a captive bolt gun and be subjected to a necropsy. But that’s life for the Cold-Blooded Killers.

“I understand what it’s potentially doing to the Everglades,” Sterrett says. “That trumps any kind of feeling I have for the greatness of the snake.”