The giant snake sat perfectly still as Bill Booth eased toward it. The python was partly coiled and mostly hidden in ankle-deep scrub, but Booth could see enough of it to know this was a big one. So Booth moved carefully, slowly reaching forward with his right hand, planning to snatch it quickly behind the head.
Earlier in the hunting trip I had asked Booth—a firefighter who stands 6-foot 4 inches and is built like a Florida Gators lineman—how he goes about actually catching one of these wild Everglades pythons. His reply: “You grab it behind the head and keep it from wrapping around you.”
That’s one man’s simple solution to a complex ecological problem.
Invasive Burmese pythons, which have been repopulating in the Florida Everglades since 2000, have outpaced the agencies trying to stop their spread. The state has hosted two “Python Challenges” where teams of python hunters catch and kill snakes for cash prizes; universities have implemented detection dog teams to sniff out snakes; the Wildlife Commission flew in two snake trackers from the Irula Tribe in India, and researchers have attempted attaching tracking devices to “Judas snakes,” hoping the freed snake would lead them to other wild pythons. But despite all of these deployments, we’re losing the war on pythons. Estimates put the population anywhere from 30,000 to more than 300,000 snakes, and they range from the Miami suburbs through the Everglades wilderness.
As the next line of defense, the South Florida Water Management District is now turning to guys like Booth: licensed snake hunters who chase pythons mostly for sport and partly for the notoriety that comes with capturing a 15-foot serpent. They’re also offering a bounty. In March, the agency implemented this strategy with a 60-day pilot program and hunters caught 10 pythons in the first 10 days. The hunters get $50 per snake, plus an extra $25 per foot after the first four feet.
Booth isn’t so interested in the money. He likes catching pythons for the challenge, and to bring attention to a problem that’s squeezing the life out of the place he grew up hunting. But Booth knows that the state’s python hunters need to catch a lot more snakes if they are going to slow the spread of these invasives. And even then, eradication is probably impossible.
“We’re barely scratching the surface,” says Booth.
The Python Hunter
I expected Booth to have a deep hatred for pythons, the way some deer hunters loathe coyotes or quail hunters might despise invasive hog populations. But that’s not the case. Booth respects pythons, and even thinks they are beautiful. It’s hard to argue with him after seeing one of these iridescent snakes in the wild.
He went so far to lobby the state to start a transfer program to send trapped Everglades snakes back to their native habitat in southeast Asia, where pythons are listed as a vulnerable species by the International Unction of Conservation of Nature. But, the idea was shot down because it would be too costly and create too many logistical challenges, Booth says.
“I don’t know…pythons are just cool,” says Booth, who invited me and a photographer to tag along on a snake hunt with him in March. “I don’t like killing them if I don’t have to.”
That’s one of the reasons Booth insists upon catching the snakes by hand (personally, I was in the “let’s just shoot it” camp). The other reason is that grabbing a 15-foot snake by the head and wrestling it to submission makes for an exciting end to the hunt and creates compelling media content. Booth videos and photographs his hunts and has made a name for himself as one of south Florida’s python pros. He’s taken out the Discovery Channel, Troy Landry of Swamp People, and Ozzy Osbourne for television segments.
Last year Booth and his hunting buddies Duane Clark and Dusty Crum won the Python Challenge by catching 33 snakes, including a 15-footer. There were more than 1,000 people who participated in the month-long competition and 106 pythons were taken, which means Booth’s team accounted for 31 percent of the haul.
They camped for a month in Big Cypress National Preserve and hunted snakes on the state land around the Everglades National Park. Hunters are not allowed to chase pythons within the park boundary, which is one of the regulations that confounds Booth and his hunting buddies. (You can find the regulations for python hunting in Florida here).
“There’s no hunting in the park, so they have this nice little breeding ground and all the snakes have moved out from there,” Booth says.
The state didn’t host a Python Challenge in 2017. Instead of hunting for the competition, Booth spent the early spring taking media members out on hunts and chasing snakes on his own. He shares some of the stories and photos from the hunts on his website. From his perspective, the more attention he can bring to the python problem in the ‘Glades, the better chance he has (or the state has) at stopping the serpents from spreading.
In the Hunt
The old war adage “Hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror” applies perfectly to python hunting. We spent our nights driving long levy roads looking for snakes in the truck’s headlight beams. During that time of the year, the snakes were just starting to get active at night. The hotter, muggier, and buggier, the better for catching snakes. First thing in the morning we’d drive the same roads, hoping to catch snakes as they came out to sun on the gravel or in the levy ditch. During the day we relaxed in the shade back at camp, keeping the Thermacells running to keep the bugs away.
If we should see a snake, the plan was simple: Stop the truck, bail out, grab the snake, wrestle it into submission, and then stuff it into a laundry bag. Booth stressed that it was important not to get bit by a large snake. Pythons have rows of needlelike teeth that curve back toward their gullets. If a large snake clamps on to an arm or a leg, it instinctively coils around it’s victim and starts to constrict. In prey animals this constriction causes cardiac arrest, and almost certain death. But if a large python were to constrict around the arm or leg of a human, that limb can go numb in pretty short order, Booth says. And if you’re fighting a big python and lose use of an arm, things will turn bad pretty quickly.
During one of our long, slow drives Booth showed us a photo of a kid from New Jersey who had come down to participate in the Python Challenge. The kid had blood running from his face and arms, but a big grin on his face. Booth said the kid caught a big python while his dad was filming, but the snake bit him multiple times and was about to overtake him until his dad jumped in and helped wrestle the snake off his son.
“If a big snake gets a hold of you and you’re by yourself, you’re not going to be able to overpower it,” Booth says. “They’re all muscle and they’re very, very powerful. They can kill you.”
But after three nighttime and morning patrols, we had yet to spot a single python. We did see water moccasins and black snakes and hundreds of alligators. Just as interesting is what we didn’t see: not see a single small mammal during our whole trip. Booth compares to finding a python in the everglades to pulling a needle from a haystack. And, the analogy seems accurate: The first Python Challenge in 2013 brought 1,600 competitors and only 68 captured snakes, Booth says.
“You cover hundreds of miles over a week, and you come up with one or two snakes,” he says. “It’s a lot harder to find them than you think it is.”
So on the last day Booth decided we should try taking the boat down one of the nearby canals. As the sun rose over the cypress trees, we slowly motored down the canal, searching the bank for a glimpse of python skin.
By lunchtime we had made it a few miles without finding a python, so we got out on one of the spoil islands to tromp around. The island was about 60 yards wide by 200 yards long and was completely overgrown by nasty Florida jungle.
“Watch yourself,” Booth said as we worked around the island. “You don’t want to step on a water moccasin out here.”
We pushed through the scrub and prickers in a loop and were headed back toward the boat when Booth pointed and grabbed me by the arm.
“Look at that! It’s a Burmese.”
And sure enough, a two-foot section of snake was visible in the vegetation about 10 feet ahead of us.
Booth moved cautiously toward the snake and then quickly grabbed it right behind the head. Because this was an exceptionally large python, I circled behind Booth and grabbed the snake’s tail so it could not wrap around him. Booth wrestled with the lunging snake for a few minutes; I kept pulling it back to keep it from coiling.
The snake was strong, proving a handful even for two guys. Imagine a 15-foot-long muscle that bends in every direction and has a mouthful of needles at one end.
Just as heat and exhaustion were starting to set in, the snake played out. Booth pulled a laundry bag from his pocket, and we worked the snake in tail-first. Booth pushed the head of the snake into the bag, double knotted the draw-string, and we all took a big sigh of relief. Then there were the high-fives and the retelling of the encounter, and that familiar sense of accomplishment that only comes after a successful hunt that seemed hopeless until the very last minute.
Back at camp we measured the snake (it taped out just under 15 feet, making it one of the biggest pythons Booth has ever caught) and snapped pictures with the local park officers. That night we drank beers around the fire and stories of old adventures, not unlike a group of elk hunters who had just packed their bull out of the backcountry.
The next day we skinned out the python. Booth decided the snake was too aggressive to keep at the local snake sanctuary and shot it without taking it out of the bag.
A Monster in the Marsh?
Just a week after my hunt with Bill, a 23-foot reticulated python killed and ate a plantation worker in Indonesia. The search party that caught the snake also recorded a gruesome video of the captors gutting the python to find the human body inside. The story went ultra-viral, generating buzz around the world. At the same time, incessant monster-snake headlines out of Florida have created the impression stateside that there’s a killer python lurking behind every cypress tree.
The truth is that Burmese pythons are docile critters. They spend most of their time regulating body temperature by either chilling in the shade or soaking up sun. There has never been a recorded instance of a wild-python killing a human in south Florida.
The python’s success in the ‘Glades has more to do with human folly than any monster-like qualities of the snake. Burmese pythons are native to the jungles and grassy marshes of Southeast Asia and prey mostly on birds and small mammals. They are at home in the water, and can stay submerged for up to 30 minutes. Adult pythons can grow beyond 20 feet in length and live for 25 years. Once they surpass about six feet, they have no natural predators.
All of these traits mean the Everglades—a 734-square-mile area of tropical wetlands—are a prime spot for pythons to inhabit. They started to move in over the decades as irresponsible pet owners released snakes that had grown too big for captivity. Then in 1992, Hurricane Andrew destroyed a snake-breeding facility near the ‘Glades, allowing pythons to escape. And even as pythons began to populate the Everglades, Florida failed to ban the importation of pythons, because lawmakers worried it would hurt the $100-million-a-year reptile trade industry, according to a report from the New York Times. Finally, in 2012 the Obama administration banned the importation of Burmese pythons and several other species of large constrictors.
This new population of apex predators has been devastating the Everglades ecology. A study of road-side surveys conducted in 1996-1997 (before the python invasion) compared to surveys in 2003-2011 (after the invasion) showed 88 to 99 percent declines in raccoon, opossum, bobcat, rabbit, fox, and small mammal sightings. And pythons have all but wiped out the reintroduced marsh rabbit.
“When I was a kid we’d see rabbits and birds and deer everywhere down here,” Booth says. “Now in certain places it’s like a wasteland. There’s no wildlife.”
Some research suggests that pythons could spread throughout the southeastern United States and even west to California. Other studies say pythons won’t be able to spread much farther beyond south Florida because winters farther north would kill them off.
From what Booth has seen, Burmese pythons have continued to expand their range and increase their numbers. And bounty or not, he's going to keep catching and killing big pythons each spring and summer.
“It’s too bad we have to kill them,” Booth says. “But these snakes just don’t belong here.”
—Photos and video by Matthew Arkins