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Magazine Articles

Python Patrol

February/March 2014

Photographs by Karine Aigner and Ken Geiger

Florida recruits an army of wildlife workers and volunteers to wrestle with invasive reptiles.

The snakes keep getting bigger.

Christine Smith watches as each of her fellow trainees is presented with a successively larger Burmese python to chase down, capture and wrestle into a sack. The first person to volunteer got a roughly 5-foot-long snake, and the most recent person had a 9-footer. Smith would rather not go last and receive what’s likely to be the largest python, especially as she just learned that in Florida, the snakes can grow longer than 18 feet and weigh more than 100 pounds. 

The petite state wildlife worker finally steps forward for her turn. She resolutely watches the trainer pour a fire-hose-thick, 10-foot-long python from a white sack onto the ground. “OK, Christine,” he says, stepping back. “It’s all you.”

It’s a sunny May afternoon at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission office in Naples, and Smith and seven others are participating in a Nature Conservancy training session on identifying and capturing dangerous non-native reptiles, like the python currently unspooling across the grass.

Smith, a former accountant, darts across the lawn in her khaki uniform, chasing the muscular snake as it slithers toward the cover of a patch of shrubs. As she had been instructed, Smith grabs the snake’s tail and pulls it back into the open. Before it makes another run, she pins the python to the ground using the soft rubber handle of a 3-foot-long aluminum snake hook and then grips the reptile right behind its head with her hand. When held in this way, pythons instinctively back deeper into the captor’s fist, where they are safely controlled. This one, however, is hissing and twisting in Smith’s grip, displaying its rows of needlelike teeth.

“It’s OK if it rolls in your hand as long as you’ve still got the base of its skull," calls out co-instructor Cheryl Millett, a Florida Nature Conservancy staffer.

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A Florida wildlife worker practices capturing a Burmese python and stuffing it into a pillowcase during a controlled training session. In 2008, The Nature Conservancy started a hot line to report invasive snakes and established a program to send expert volunteers to bag them.

Smith relaxes her grip and the snake harmlessly rolls in her firm grasp. Holding up the white bag into which she plans to put the snake, she asks, “Now switch hands?”

“Yes,” says Jeff Fobb, “That way you always have control of the head, which is the biting end.” Fobb is a bit of a celebrity, having starred on the Animal Planet program Swamp Wars as a dangerous-animals specialist with the Miami-Dade County Fire Department’s Venom One unit. His ease with the animals rubs off on the trainees. Demonstrating earlier how to bag a python, he’d said, “You’re gonna pick it up just like dog poop.” The group laughed, but it worked: Fobb smoothly mittened the snake, turned the bag inside out around the python and was done in seconds.

Smith isn’t as quick; the python is wrapping itself around her forearm. With encouragement, she finally gets the animal safely bagged. “You caught a snake bigger than you,” drawls one wildlife commission officer.

Smith is relieved but can’t help but wonder how she’ll do trying to pull a snake out of a ditch or from someone’s chicken coop without Fobb standing right there.

For three years, Fobb and Millett have taught hundreds of Florida citizens to report and capture invasive reptiles like the Burmese python as part of the Conservancy’s Python Patrol program. The population of these Asian natives is thriving across southern Florida, devouring the region’s wildlife, and other recently introduced species are poised to do the same. It’s a threat that could change the region’s ecosystem forever. Python Patrol has proved to be so effective against the menace that the state wildlife commission is adopting the program from the Conservancy this January.

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Python Patrol volunteer Eric Raits brings his snake tongs to work when he leads tours in the Everglades. So far, he has captured three pythons.

Florida is famously overrun by invasive animal species, more than 500 at last count, from macaws to vervet monkeys to the lionfish that are hoovering the state’s reefs clean. One of the most notorious—and populous—is the Burmese python, which first made national headlines in 2005, when a 13-footer in the Everglades was found to have swallowed a 6-foot-long alligator whole, only to burst in half. The nonvenomous South Asian natives could once be legally bought at Florida reptile shows, where they cost as little as $20. While the young snakes measure only about a foot and a half, they can eventually become unwieldy. Says Everglades National Park biologist Skip Snow, “Do you really want an animal that may grow to 20 feet long or weigh 200 pounds, urinate and defecate like a horse, and live more than 25 years?” Compared with housing and feeding an animal like that, letting it slip out the back door might seem like a pretty good option, which is exactly how Snow believes the pythons became established in the Everglades.

Thousands of intentionally and unintentionally released snakes have  multiplied; scientists estimated that there may now be as many as 100,000 pythons in Florida. A study released in 2011 linked a 99-plus percent decrease in the frequency of raccoons observed in Everglades National Park since 2003 to the rise of invasive species, specifically Burmese pythons. That same study also found a nearly 99 percent decrease in opossums and an 87.5 percent drop in the bobcat population; rabbits were no longer observed in the park at all. More than 40 species have been discovered in the snakes’ bellies, including endangered animals like the wood stork and Key Largo wood rat. “They’ll eat anything they can get their coils around,” says Frank Mazzotti, professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Florida, who conducts necropsies on captured snakes at his lab in Davie.

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The Conservancy has helped train more than 450 Floridians, including this group, whose everyday professions take them near python-friendly habitats.

Most worrying is the python’s potential to spread. The snakes grow so large and so quickly—exceeding 7 feet in two years—that no Florida predators can curb their population. A female can lay as many as 100 eggs at one time, and they are comfortable in a wide range of habitats. Fishermen even spotted one python a half mile from the mainland, swimming between islands in Florida Bay. A 2009 U.S. Geological Survey report estimated that Burmese pythons could spread as far north as Washington, D.C. Other scientists dispute this projection, countering that regular winter frosts will likely keep the snakes confined to south Florida. So far, the northernmost known breeding population is about a quarter of the way up the Florida peninsula, on the Gulf Coast southwest of Naples.

In January 2013, a state-sponsored, month-long python-hunting contest with cash prizes drew nearly 1,600 participants and media from around the world but turned up only 68 snakes. Mazzotti wasn’t surprised—he’d predicted a haul of 70. For one thing, Everglades National Park was excluded from the contest. For another, the snakes are simply hard to spot. “They’re ambush predators,” says Mazzotti. “Their strategy is concealment. Even experienced hunters have a hard time finding them.”

Officials have tried setting traps for the pythons (with no success), locating them with dogs (with limited success) and sending out radio-tracked male “Judas snakes” during mating season to find breeding females (with some success, though that strategy is still in development). The Conservancy’s Python Patrol, in contrast, relies on citizens and trained detectors, who call a hot line when they spot snakes slithering after backyard chickens or basking on the road, and responders trained to capture them. From December 2010 through December 2012, Python Patrol responders have accounted for the capture of at least 143 Burmese pythons and other constrictors, but the program’s effectiveness in raising awareness and training goes much further.

Python Patrol began in 2008 in the Florida Keys, after scientists who were tracking endangered Key Largo wood rats found one of their radio-collared subjects inside the belly of a Burmese python. “It was a real wake-up call,” says Kristina Serbesoff-King, the Conservancy’s Florida associate director of conservation. If the snakes were robust enough to swim across saltwater from the Everglades, they would require an aggressive response—and what better place to test solutions than the controlled environment of an island. The Conservancy developed a cooperative solution: People like FedEx drivers and water meter readers were trained to report python sightings to a hot line (1-888-IVE-GOT-1), and qualified responders like Conservancy scientists, state wildlife officers and state park employees were dispatched to capture the animals. In 2010, Everglades National Park funded the Conservancy’s implementation of the Python Patrol on the mainland.

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Scientists believe that Florida’s python problem started when snakes either escaped captivity or owners released these difficult pets into the wild. (Burmese pythons can reach 7 feet in length in two years.) The state’s invasive python population has been estimated at upwards of 100,000 snakes.

The Python Patrol program has since trained more than 450 responders and 2,625 detectors, including field scientists, state wildlife commission staff, state park service personnel, utility workers for the city of Miami—anyone likely to encounter non-native snakes in the field—and even a group of war veterans known as the Swamp Apes. One trainee, 70-year-old Eric Raits, has now caught three pythons while working as a tour guide at Shark Valley Tram Tours in Everglades. Once, lacking a bag into which to deposit the snake, he simply held on to the 9-foot python for the remaining half of the two-hour tour. “I was sitting in the backwards-facing seat with the snake coiled up around my arm,” he says. “Unsurprisingly, no one sat in the two rows closest to me. They were all in the back, sitting on each other’s laps.”

Raits sees such events as teaching moments that might generate more calls to the hot line and prevent people from releasing dangerous pets. “We’re showing people the real threat to the wildlife,” he says. “These snakes are decimating the native animals.” He also likes capturing the snakes humanely. “It’s not the snake’s fault that it’s here, but they do need to go.”

When citizens call the hot line to report a python, they’re encouraged to text or email a photo of it to the dispatcher, to ensure it’s not a native snake. Responders turn over the snakes they capture to individuals who’ve been granted permits to receive them. Responders then log the encounters, including near misses, on the program’s Website, and the snakes are used for study or training.

“The Python Patrol is great outreach about invasive species,” says Jenny Eckles, a non-native wildlife biologist with the state wildlife commission, who helped coordinate the implementation of the program’s training. “Every time someone calls the hot line, even if the suspected animal turns out to be a native, it’s an educational opportunity.”

The program’s primary objective, says Eckles, is to limit the spread of pythons and other exotics by training as many spotters and responders as possible. “Think of this like containing a wildfire,” says Mazzotti. “If a spark flies out front of the existing burn, you squash it. Prevention
is a lot more effective, and less expensive, than managing an already-established animal.”

It’s not just Burmese pythons. The program also trains participants to identify boa constrictors, North African pythons, and two large lizards, the giant Argentine tegu and the Nile monitor—all introduced to Florida’s wild lands through the pet trade and now posing a serious threat to wildlife. Tegus and Nile monitors reproduce very quickly and will eat almost anything. Because they also brumate (enter a period of inactivity similar to hibernation) in winter, they may be able to colonize areas farther north than the pythons do. Tegus grow as long as 4 feet, and a mature Nile monitor can surpass 7 feet. The good news, says Mazzotti, is that officials have had success trapping the lizards once they’ve been spotted. “That’s why the Python Patrol is so valuable,” he says. “It puts more eyes out there on the ground.”

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The exotic pet trade has introduced many new reptiles to Florida, including the Argentine tegu lizard.

In April 2013, the hot line achieved what may have been its best success to date. A citizen called in a lizard sighting near Panama City, in the panhandle of Florida. When state wildlife commission officers responded, they found 34 tegus that had just emerged from hibernation in underground dens. The officers were able to trap all the lizards, which had been illegally left behind in a backyard. Arrest warrants have been issued, but the owner may have left the state. Nonetheless, says Millett, “it shows that the hot line is working, even hundreds of miles away from the Everglades, and for species other than just the Burmese python.”

As the Conservancy relinquishes control of Python Patrol, the Florida chapter continues to work on invasive species through legislation and building networks with other agencies. Following its 2010 success in lobbying to restrict ownership of eight non-native reptiles, including the Burmese python, by the state of Florida and the 2012 ban on the importation of three of those species federally, the Conservancy is currently stumping in Congress for the Invasive Fish and Wildlife Prevention Act, which would strengthen the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s ability to determine what non-native species may become problematic and restrict their importation. “No one knows what species now might turn out to be the next Burmese python,” says Serbesoff-King.

Millett, who will no longer conduct the trainings herself, will still chair one of the state’s regional cooperative invasive-species management areas in partnership with more than a dozen other entities, including the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Florida Park Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “The cooperation between agencies has been critical for the Python Patrol,” says Millett. “That needs to continue.”

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As the state takes over and expands the Python Patrol, the Conservancy will press for stronger legislation against the sale and ownership of potentially invasive pets like this veiled chameleon.

About three weeks after her training, Smith is dispatched to capture a python. A fisherman has reported the snake in a small body of water in a residential area near Naples, Florida. Two sheriff’s officers are already there, but neither has taken the Conservancy training. Smith fishes the 6-foot-long snake onto the bank with a hook. As the fisherman uses the foam handle of his pole to pin the snake to the ground, Smith reaches in to secure its head. She then quickly enfolds the snake in a garbage bag.

“I heard it hissing a bit, but it never tried to bite,” Smith says later. “It was a lot easier than my training snake. Everyone was impressed. They were taking pictures.”

Her first capture went as well as anyone could hope. And it was exactly the sort of scene that helps spread awareness about the need for vigilance—not just against the Burmese python, but against all manner of invasive species.