Inside the weird, wild world of state-sanctioned Florida python hunting
Last weekend Florida python hunter Jason Leon captured and killed a record-setting python in the Everglades that measured 17 feet and weighed 133 pounds. The state of Florida paid Leon, a private citizen, minimum wage to hunt and kill the snake, the largest ever captured through the South Florida Water Management Department (SFWMD) python elimination program, incepted in March of this year.
If you're wondering whether we're about to go down a Florida python-hunting subculture rabbit hole (where pythons also go), I will tell you right off the bat that f—k yes we're going to do that.
Now this probably isn't the most Florida thing ever, because a new one happens along every day, but it's still pretty damn Florida, largely because it's the action of the state itself: The Florida government pays a squad of private citizens minimum wage to kill pythons. The state kicked off the program this March, hiring 25 expert pythoners and giving them what amounts to an open season on pythons in designated areas of Miami-Dade, Broward, and Collier counties.
It's not as crazy as the actual words sound, though. Burmese pythons are an invasive species that menaces South Florida. The non-native snake was likely introduced to the region by what the state website calls "accidental or intentional" releases by owners. The state estimates that pythons can decrease the population of fur-bearing creatures in a given area by up to 99%. In one University of Florida project, researchers released 95 adult marsh rabbits into python-bearing parts of the Everglades. Less than a year later 77% of the rabbits had been killed by pythons. And yes: The researchers tracked radio signals to the bellies of alligators and pythons, then physically verified the type of animal and, when safe, measured it. On control sites (not in the Everglades) pythons killed an unsurprising zero percent of rabbits.
As you might already know, or if you didn't already know have probably correctly assumed, pythons, along with other snakes, also routinely show up on Florida golf courses. One python was caught on camera in a fight with an alligator on the shore of a water hazard.
But in all seriousness, the SFWMD citizen hunter program has been by all measures a raging success, and likely one of the most effective programs the state has ever created. They hired only the best: One thousand hopeful hunters applied for the privilege of getting paid eight bucks an hour to kill huge snakes, and only 25 made the cut. Part of the cut was having a valid email address and no felony convictions...well, in the last five years.
Applicants were also required to have an iOS or Android device, since the program requires hunters to use a special GPS tracking app to, according to the official government site, "verify participant's time and location while engaging in program activities on SFWMD lands." In other words the state of Florida doesn't trust its citizen python hunters not to try to con the government by killing pythons in a non-designated zone.
Despite these substantial hurdles, in the program's nine months of existence these 25 people have killed 743 pythons, which laid out tongue to tail would amount to a snake 5,000 feet long, a length that will be now and forever known to me as a Python Mile. The combined carcass weight comes out to about 11,000 pounds (440 pounds per hunter) or what will be now and forever known to me as a Python Ton.
Imagine if you will a tub of 11,000 pounds of dead python. It'd weigh about nine grizzly bears. Or 70% of a T-rex. Two rhinos. The biggest RV you can tow. Hell, here's a list of things that weigh ten thousand pounds that you'll probably read all the way through.
Hunters are permitted three "assistants" per sortie, and each crew is awarded an on-the-spot bonus of $50 if a python measures up to four feet, then an extra $25 for each foot after that. The 17-footer was a $325 payday, plus however many minimum wage hours went into the hunt. The state of Florida pays out a $200 bonus for each python found guarding a nest with eggs.
The state-funded program allows the use of guns, such as one hunter's AK-47 semiautomatic shotgun. Actually, you'd be stupid not to at least carry one, even if for protection from gators.
It's not just a "Florida Man" thing, either. You've of course got guys who pretty much fit your imagination, like 2016 Florida Python Challenge Champion Dusty "The Wildman" Crum, who, going by his video profile on the government website, is likely cooler than you'd imagine. Dusty also loves flowers and grows orchids as his other job, and has a pretty cool phallic/yonic balance going there. You've also got Tom Rahill, who, styled after Teddy Roosevelt, leads a team of python-hunting military veterans called the Swamp Apes, as a way to, as he puts it, "rehabilitate them to civilian life" by killing snakes in swamps. Rahill says it's therapeutic for the vets—"You can hear the chest hairs growing on those young fellas when they jump on a live python"—and you believe him one hundred percent. But anyway, no, it's not just Florida Man. The group includes Florida Women, such as realtor Donna Kalil who has hunted pythons since she was eight years old.
The problem is so flummoxing that the state has also brought in members of India's Irula community, world famous in pythoning circles— they learn to hunt pythons from age three—to teach their techniques to the locals. The state is so desperate to control the python population it will even train you to hunt them.
If you'd rather make a buck dodging them, you can try blackwater diving for golf balls in Florida, a big business for PG Professional Golf. Divers can collect literally thousands of balls a day. Nationwide nearly 100 million balls are recovered and refurbished each year, and PG resells its swamp balls "just about everywhere you can imagine."
Of course the pythons, which have next to zero natural predators, will never be eliminated from the Everglades. But as Kalil put it, "maybe we'll get some bunnies back."
She added, "as well as raccoons and opossums."