When a Florida water agency announced a plan to hire 25 people to catch Burmese pythons last week, I immediately thought of two of the wildest guys I’ve ever met.
Ruben Ramirez and George Brana basically applied for this job during Florida’s first great snake hunt, the Python Challenge, four years ago but didn’t get it. They thrashed through the swamp outside Everglades National Park to prove to the state wildlife agency that sponsored the hunt that their skills were worth paying for.
I ventured out with them on the final day of the hunt. By that time, they had already caught 18 pythons and bragged about it. “You’re looking at the winners right here. We’re kicking butt,” Brana said. They told me things that made my head spin. Other hunters carried machetes and guns, but Ramirez and Brana insisted on catching pythons by hand. The rules called on hunters to behead the giants, but Ramirez, a snake lover, said, “We don’t like to kill them,” as Brana nodded in agreement.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission handed the duo a prize for most snakes caught, but it didn’t hire them. A lack of money was at the top of its list of reasons.
In the four years since, Florida’s python problem has gotten worse. The giant snakes have turned up in Key Largo and on an island in Biscayne Bay, which means they’re swimming significant distances in salty water. Native animals continue to disappear at an alarming rate and pythons are still dueling alligators for supremacy atop the Everglades food chain.
The South Florida Water Management District said that unlike the fish and wildlife commission, it’s willing to pay hunters because enough is enough. “Anyone who has seen the now-famous python vs. alligator video can attest that the fight for survival of the Everglades is real,” said Dan O’Keefe, chairman of the district’s board. “This board is taking appropriate action to push back the infestation of these invaders. Floridians should have no sympathies for this notorious strangler, and this latest initiative should pave the way for further exotic elimination efforts.”
In other words, O’Keefe wants to light a match under Florida authorities to kill as many pythons as humanly possible. Here’s the agency’s deal: You have to be 18 years old, consent to be tracked by a global positioning system, not be convicted of a felony or wildlife offense in the past five years and pass a background check. The pay? Minimum wage, $8.10 per hour… to track pythons…through high grass and swamp…in withering heat…surrounded by alligators.
Killing pythons in a nation filled with hunters might seem like a cinch, but as hundreds of stalkers who participated in the state’s two hunts can attest, it’s not. Over two months, the hunts bagged a grand total of fewer than 215 snakes.
I don’t need a hunter to tell me how tough it is. A year before Ramirez and Brana participated in the challenge, I saw it for myself. I followed a team of U.S. Geological Survey scientists as they tracked a big snake in Everglades National Park.
Kristen Hart and her team had already caught and released the same snake. A tracking device had been surgically implanted in the beast. A beeping instrument had guided them through scrub brush, dried palm, mosquitoes and crumbling limestone to its location. And still they failed to spot it.
Six people crouched under the sun, hands shading their eyes and squinting. “Do you see her?” Hart asked.
The snake, it turned out, was coiled in grass under bushes and palms right in front of her. Pythons are excellent at camouflage. It didn’t matter that this snake, spiraled like a fire hose, was more than 16½ feet long, twice as long as former pro basketball player Shaquille O’Neal is tall. Without the tracking device, she would not have been found.
Female pythons grow larger than males, and at that size they can produce nearly 100 eggs. Usually they lay about 50. The Florida population is estimated at up to 100,000 snakes, and officials are doing the math. In 2012, a University of Florida biologist, Frank Mazzotti, who studies the animal said evicting it is all but impossible.
Although the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission wasn’t willing to pay Ramirez and Brana, and isn’t willing to hire hunters like the South Florida Water Management District says it will do, it did recently take an unusual step. It shelled out nearly $70,000 to bring a pair of snake hunters and translators from India to catch pythons for two months.
According to a Miami Herald report, they caught 14 snakes in only two weeks, just five fewer than Ramirez and Brana bagged in a month. Masi Sadaiyan and Vadivel Gopal, members of the Irula tribe of snake hunters, have spent nearly every day in the Everglades since their arrival in early January.
“Armed only with tire irons to punch through the dense Burma reed and sharp limestone rock,” the Miami Herald reported, “the pair are on the lookout for the sparkle of snakeskin in the brush. They’re also searching for what the snakes left behind: a ripple in the sand, a tunnel through grass or scat.”
Wildlife officials and academics hope a group of people monitoring the tribesmen will learn something and pass it on. Applicants for the water district jobs could probably use a few pointers. To apply, no experience is required.