Last month, snake hunters for the Florida Wildlife and Conservation Commission hit a major milestone: the 1,000 captured Burmese python, a 15-foot, 3-inch male snake.
According to the United States Association of Reptile Keepers, the snake population exploded in South Florida because of Hurricane Andrew. When the storm hit back in 1992, it destroyed zoos, pet stores, exotic animal warehouses and wildlife refuges, leaving the pythons to roam freely. In addition, some pet owners released some of these snakes into the wild.
“Thousands of exotics species escaped their caging and enclosures during the passing of the storm through south Dade County,” Candie Fuller, the inspector general for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, said during a phone interview. “During the time, many witnesses reported hundreds of snakes on the loose.”
In 2017, the U.S. Geological Survey reported “since the Burmese python takeover into the Everglades, the population of racoons, opossums, and rabbits dropped nearly by 99 percent.” The Python Elimination Program, run by the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board, started later that same year.
Snake hunter Brian Hargrove said he caught the milestone snake about 11:40 p.m. on Nov. 16. near the Turkey Point canal in Homestead. Hargrove, who has caught 115 snakes this past year, called the capture a “bittersweet thing” during an FWC Facebook Live broadcast.
“I love snakes actually,” said Hargrove. “But I also love the Everglades. I grew up here and it’s not the same. You don’t see the same fish. You don’t see any mammals in fact. All you really see are pythons.”
Under the program, snake hunters get paid the state minimum wage of $8.25 up to eight hours daily. Participants also get an additional on-the-spot payment of $50 for each python measuring up to 4 feet or more. For example, an eight-foot python would pay out $150. There is also a $200 payout for each python found guarding nest with eggs.
“The pythons are decimating the environment,” said hunter Donna Kalil. “I figured hey, if I could get a couple, it’d be great adventure, and I’d be able to help the environment.”
Estimates of how many total pythons now inhabit the Everglades range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands.
“We don’t hunt for sport,” said Nicholas Banjos. “We’re not hunting to kill. We hunt to remove. But having to kill has been a little rough or some of us. We’ve never really had to do anything before like this. So, it is satisfying, yet also a little heartbreaking”