Burmese python photo by R. Cammauf, courtesy the Everglades National Park on Flickr
It’s been 13 years since Samuel L. Jackson famously had enough of the snakes on his plane. If Hollywood decides it is time for a sequel, I suggest setting it in my home state of Florida, where many people have had it with invasive snakes in the Everglades.
As the South Florida Sun Sentinel recently reported, hunters have removed more than 2,500 Burmese pythons from the Everglades since 2017. The invasive species of snake has killed more than 95% of the native mammals in the area. The pythons are difficult to catch, especially because of their effective natural camouflage. In an effort to curb the problem, the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board has doubled the number of licensed hunters it will employ, from 25 to 50. More than 1,000 people applied for the job. The board will also increase the program’s budget substantially, to $750,000 for the year.
Even if you are not from Florida, it likely will not surprise you that the python-hunting program attracts some colorful characters. A group of veterans known as the Swamp Apes has even taken up the cause, in part to help participants deal with their post-traumatic stress. An encounter with a 16-foot-long snake does not sound especially therapeutic to me, although group members say it is an effective form of distraction. Regardless, the state’s effort to curb the python problem can use all the help it can get. Tom Rahill, the group’s founder, has caught more than 500 pythons in the past decade.
The board’s decision follows Gov. Ron DeSantis’ call for more hunters in August. The governor further directed the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to double the resources devoted to the problem in the upcoming year, and to hold a python eradication challenge annually rather than every three years. The state is also working to gain cooperation from the federal government and private landowners to expand the battlefield. State agencies have committed to fight the pythons in state parks, and Florida has secured federal permission to give hunters greater access to Big Cypress National Preserve. In addition, water management staff members are teaming up with researchers at the University of Florida to investigate scientific means of eliminating the pythons. Researchers have focused on using dogs, other snakes and snake hormones to locate the pythons in the wild. While officials are skeptical that they will be able to eradicate the pythons entirely, they have expressed optimism about getting the population under control.
It is said that, in Florida, all pet stores lead to the Everglades. From lionfish to crocodiles, many of the invasive species plaguing the Sunshine State likely started as pets. The Burmese python is no exception. Most observers believe the pythons descend from pets that were deliberately or accidentally released into the Everglades decades ago. The state banned the pythons back in 2010; several other species of large constrictors are also illegal to own. But environmentalists have pointed out that it is still legal for Floridians to buy many other nonnative snakes, as well as lizards. Wildlife commission officials have said they continue to analyze the wildlife trade to head off potential threats from future invasive species. In February, the commission banned ownership of three species of anaconda.
As for the pythons that are already in Florida, aggressive steps are necessary. Estimates for the number of snakes in the state range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. While the average python in South Florida is about 10 feet long, some are even more massive. Females can lay dozens of eggs each year. So it is heartening to see the governor and wildlife officials take concrete steps to curb the snakes’ spread before they wipe out Florida’s rabbits, opossums and other furry wildlife. The pythons have even been known to kill and eat full-size deer and small alligators.
No environmental management decision pleases everyone, of course. Ingrid Newkirk, the president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, did not outright condemn the expanded hunting efforts. However, in a statement, Newkirk called for the state to ensure that all killings take place as humanely as possible. (It is not clear what, specifically, PETA considers humane and inhumane in this context.) Other activists have expressed concerns about the potential for more off-road vehicle access as a side effect of expanded snake-hunting efforts. Matthew Schwartz, who is the executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association, cited Big Cypress – one of the strongholds of the Florida panther – as an area that could suffer from the effects of hunters’ all-terrain vehicles.
These complaints are a matter of priorities and perspective. While I don’t favor gratuitous torture of snakes, death by python is not exactly a “humane” death for the mammals that have been virtually wiped out of Everglades National Park. If the pythons turn Big Cypress into a nearly animal-free zone, there won’t be much on the menu for hungry panthers, nor much purpose in preserving that particular preserve. As Pedro Ramos, superintendent of Everglades National Park, told the Sun Sentinel, “We’re spending upwards of $20 billion to restore the Everglades. We’re not going to do this for a whole bunch of weeds and critters that don’t belong here in the first place.”
So kudos to the Swamp Apes, and everyone else stepping up to address Florida’s ongoing python problem. I wish them the best of luck.