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What it’s like to be a Florida python hunter

By Willie Drye
for NatGeo News Watch

Greg Graziani thinks Burmese pythons are “fascinating animals” that shouldn’t be in the wilds of South Florida.

“They’re beautiful animals,” Graziani said of the non-poisonous snakes that can grow to 14 feet or longer. “If I could take them all to Southeast Asia, I would, but I can’t foot that bill.”

Graziani is one of about 15 people who have been issued licenses to capture or kill the giant constrictors in Florida. The National Park Service – which administers the Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve, both near Miami, wants the non-native reptiles eradicated from its lands. So do the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and the South Florida Water Management District.

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From left, Greg Graziani (licensed to kill or capture pythons in South Florida), Florida Fish and Wildlife (FWC)Commissioner Ron Bergeron, Shawn Heflick (another permit holder), and FWC Chairman Rodney Barreto.

Photo by Patricia C. Behnke/Courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission

Biologists fear that the giant snakes will decimate native animals, including protected species of wading birds. [Read conservation biologist Stuart Pimm's blog post: Pythons in Florida Everglades: Is the Snake Invasion Only Beginning?]

“I hate that we have to euthanize them, but they don’t belong there, and what are we going to do?” Graziani said.

The Burmese python’s native habitat includes China, India, Thailand, Vietnam, and Nepal. But they’ve also become a favorite of American snake collectors, especially in South Florida, where the climate is similar to Southeast Asia.

Graziani made weekly trips during last summer from his home in Venus, Florida to hunt pythons. He caught “three or four” during these trips, and plans to resume hunting them this year.

The best time to hunt the pythons is between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m. during a moonless night, but Graziani doesn’t plunge into the thick vegetation seeking the snakes. The cold-blooded animals are attracted to the warmth of roads that have baked in the sun all day, he said.

“They’re ambush predators,” Graziani said. “Night time is when they’re going to move. The worst time to hunt is during a full moon. There are no reptiles or frogs on roads during the full moon. I assume that’s because they know all other predators are out there because they can see so well.”

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Shawn Helfick, a licensed python-hunter, measures a Burmese python.

Photo by Patricia C. Behnke/Courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission

Graziani doesn’t carry a lot of equipment with him during a hunt, but he has equipped his truck with high-powered spotlights. And there’s no special technique for capturing the pythons. When he sees one, he simply grabs it by the tail and waits for it to start striking at him.

“I let it strike five to seven times,” he said. “Each strike became more labored. I wait for it to tire itself out.”

When the snake tires, Graziani grabs it behind the head and puts it into a large, lockable plastic container. He was bitten once by an eight-and-a-half foot python that his son captured. He said the bite wasn’t especially painful, but one of the python’s small, needlelike teeth did break off in one of his knuckles.

“We expect a defensive bite. It wants to hit you and get away,” Graziani said. “When that happens, it’s like 80 or 100 hypodermic needles puncturing your flesh and coming out.”

Graziani said the bite healed without becoming infected.

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Burmese python caught in Everglades National Park. More than 1,200 Burmese pythons have been found in the Florida Everglades.

Photo courtesy NPS

Graziani euthanizes the snakes captured on Florida Fish and Wildlife lands by severing the brain from the spinal cord. Snakes that are taken on National Park Service lands are turned over to the Park Service, which euthanizes them.

“National Geographic Explorer: Python Wars” airs in the United States on February 9, at 10 p.m. on National Geographic Channel. Click on the video above to watch an excerpt. Click here to view more excerpts and get additional information.

George Horne, deputy executive director of the South Florida Water Management District in West Palm Beach, said that more than 1,200 pythons have been found in a relatively small area in the Florida Everglades. And there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of pythons found in the past year, Horne said.

Some of the pythons were released into the wild by people who became disenchanted with their pets, Graziani said. But most of them escaped into the wilds when powerful Hurricane Andrew tore into Homestead–just south of Miami–in 1992, he said. At least 1,000 pythons escaped when the hurricane destroyed a dealer’s containment area near Homestead, he said.

Estimates of the number of pythons in South Florida vary widely, from a few thousand to as many as 150,000. Graziani thinks the number probably is between 3,000 and 5,000.

Horne said the snake-hunting permits were first issued about three years ago as part of the South Florida Water Management District’s effort to restore the Florida Everglades.

“One of the key things with the Everglades restoration, one of the measures of success, was that we had to be able to increase the bird population,” Horne said. The increasing python population could make it impossible for the bird population to increase, he said.

“We could have pristine water quality, and it could be lifeless except for these large predators,” Horne said.

Willie-Drye-thumb.jpg

Willie Drye is the author of “Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935,” published by National Geographic, and a regular contributor to National Geographic News. He has also written for the Toronto Globe and Mail, the Washington Post, the Tampa Tribune and the Orlando Sentinel.

Drye is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Visit his blog: “Drye Goods.”

 

 

Additional information:

The first phase of the FWC program to capture or kill “reptiles of concern” on state-managed lands in South Florida began July 17 and ran through October 31, 2009. Ten of 15 permit holders made trips on the wildlife management areas, capturing a total of 39 Burmese pythons, according to FWC. No other reptiles of concern were found.

The 2009 permit period requires potential permit holders to be Florida residents and to have a digital camera and a GPS unit. Permit-holders must “also must have experience in capturing wild snakes, handling large constrictors, euthanizing reptiles and working in remote areas,” FWC says.

Permit-holders are required to photograph and mark GPS locations, photograph and describe stomach contents of euthanized snakes, file reports with the FWC within 36 hours of capture, and euthanize pythons on site, or transport live pythons to be euthanized at a location with veterinary facilities, or deliver live pythons to someone who has a permit to keep a reptile of concern.

The FWC does not pay bounties for pythons. Authorized hunters may sell the hide and meat–although the agency notes that Burmese pythons from Everglades National Park have been found to have very high levels of mercury and may not be recommended for human consumption.

For more information, visit the FWC’s Python Removal Program Web site. 

You might also be interested in:

U.S. proposes squeeze on large snakes
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will propose to list the Burmese python and eight other large constrictor snakes that threaten the Everglades and other sensitive ecosystems as “injurious wildlife” under the Lacey Act.

USGS defends python-climate study
The finding that much of the lower U.S. could host large exotic snakes was reviewed extensively by the world’s leading experts, says the U.S. Geological Survey.

Justification for Congressional python ban unscientific, researchers say
Biologists and veterinarians are urging the U.S. Congress to hold off on a ban on trade in pythons and other large exotic snakes until research into how much of a threat they pose to U.S. ecosystems has been thoroughly reviewed by independent scientists.

Reptile owners weigh in on invasive snake issue
The people who say they know most about boas and pythons, the pet reptile owners and traders, have different perspectives about what’s needed to prevent and reverse the problem of the snakes breeding in the wild.

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Congress considers ban on importation of pet pythons
Prompt action is needed at the federal level to limit the number of invasive pythons released into the wild, South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) Deputy Executive Director George Horne said in written testimony to the U.S. Congress today.

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100-pound albino python seized from Florida Panhandle home
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Nine giant snakes threaten U.S. ecosystems, study finds
Giant nonnative snake species would pose high risks to the health of ecosystems in the United States should they become established in the country, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) says in a report.

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Pythons in Florida: Who are you Going to Call?
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission appeals to residents of the state to report wildlife law violations. FWC also hosts amnesty days for people to turn over for placement giant snakes they can no longer keep as pets.

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Pythons in Everglades: Is Invasion Only Beginning?
The giant snakes were imported to North America as pets, but released or escaped into Florida’s wetlands they are proliferating, challenging alligators for the top of the food chain, and potentially positioning themselves to invade much more of the United States. Conservation biologist Stuart Pimm discusses the problem.

Comments

  1. Joey
    Philidelphia PA
    August 10, 2012, 11:50 pm

    My name is Joey. I love animals and reptiles especially. I love crocdiles, alligators, snakes, lizards, and especially turtles. I always make sure to watch your show. Think that you are the best at what you do. Both catching the animals and teaching people about them. I hope to work wich animals when i grow up as i am in 9th grade. Keep up the good work!

  2. dixieweasel
    sebring, florida
    April 9, 2012, 7:22 pm

    w ness. You don’t know what you are talking about. The goal for these snakes in the US is extinction. Gators may have taken more pets than these snakes however they are just now coming into contact with humans. We will hear more and more about them taking pets and even young children. Maybe that will stop your misguided whining.

  3. Miche
    Edmonton,Alberta, Canada
    February 10, 2012, 4:06 pm

    In Canada we do not live and let live. We have wildlife management that tries it’s best to give accurate numbers of wildlife groups and issues or doesn’t issue permits in accordance with the numbers. The python is a problem it is not indigenous to America. The government is responsible to take care of the habitat to ensure it continues to keep that part of florida natural. When an outside element tips any element in nature it creates problems. If I were a citizen I would contact all my reps for the municipality and govt. and make them do their jobs by getting a plan of action going right quick!

  4. Chuck Burns
    Wisconsin
    January 31, 2012, 2:09 pm

    My home is Florida. It is a shame that open season has not been declared to wipe out this non native species before it destroys the Everglades. I just read an article suggesting that many native mammal species have been reduced by 90% and more.

  5. Bruce Mann
    Parkhill,Ontario,Canada.
    December 30, 2011, 12:28 pm

    Hello-I was very disappointed to learn from this article that no bounty is paid to you hunters for your risk,time,expense and expertise.Your dedication is to be commended-the state of Florida could at least honour you in some fashion.I am a ball python breeder-a snake admiror-be safe on your journeys-you take care of you.I thankyou and commend you for your efforts.

  6. Jeremie R
    Australia
    September 24, 2011, 7:43 am

    We in Australia do have allot of toxic snakes and pythons but the trouble is society is expanding like wildfire and the toads kill allot of snakes some are semi-immune to smaller toads.. our snake population is dying so we will have so many rodents creating chaos, the U.S. python evasion should deport these animals, everything in nature has consciousness they hurt… what if something more intelligent hunted us the same way we take the world with society ? does not make sense does it, if you kill any animal your a murderer.

  7. w ness
    cda
    July 18, 2011, 12:05 am

    I started to watch the Python Hunters thinking that they are collecting the smaller sized snakes and selling them to collectors. My children and I did not realize that they were killing them. Now we won’t watch the show. Its a shame that such magnificant creatures have to to be destroyed like this. Gators and crocs have taken down more dogs and cats and people. This kind of reminds me what happened to the wolf in the U.S. , hunted to extinction in most parts. In Canada, we just live and let live. In Austraila, they have more venomous snakes and spiders that are deadly and they don’t try to erraticate them.

  8. Patricia Gray
    Scotland
    July 16, 2011, 6:39 am

    Does anyone know what the music is from the Python Hunters trailer?

  9. Amy Voegele
    lutz, Florida
    July 15, 2011, 11:03 am

    If you guys need someone my husband would love to do what you do!!

  10. Melissa
    Lehigh Acres florida
    June 26, 2011, 12:53 pm

    I just want to say awesome show… My husband and I are pet lovers and we love to watch your show… actually watching it right now, My husband Mike tells me that your pet berm is sick and you may be looking for another well behaved berm to show around to kids and people to teach them about the snakes… I have a 11 1/2 ft. berm whom is very well behaved contact me if your interested… nfmgirl22@yahoo.com

  11. SNAKESS
    florida
    June 15, 2011, 3:20 pm

    I NEED THERE NUMBER AND FAST!!!!!!

  12. Shawn
    Ohio
    May 31, 2011, 12:11 am

    Ok, love the show and want move to Florida anyway.. So how do I get a job being a python hunter? And no I’m not kidding…How can I contact these guys for a job?

  13. caroline
    alaska
    May 24, 2011, 8:25 pm

    hi i’m caroline im a big fan of python hunters and i watch it all the time by the way im 8 soo… i love all reptiles and all of my friends hate snakes and all the other reptiles they say im just lieing and that i hate reptiles so the next day i went to the zoo and petted a monitor and a igwana ,a grass snake and a water snake. =)

  14. steve
    salt lake city. utah
    May 22, 2011, 6:18 am

    There is a python ou here that is 15-20feet long and weight is over 250+lbs

  15. bobby gonzalez
    califorina, orange county ,midway city 92655
    May 5, 2011, 4:17 pm

    I want to be a python Hunters, so I can caught python and study about them. I have a ball python very nice snake . I just love snakes , there awesome to have as a pet .