Pythons are consuming alligators and all the things else in Florida. Snake hunters stand prepared to assist.

The first nabbed python Siewe measured more than 10 feet. “I caught it by myself, wearing flip-flops,” Siewe said, noting that she found it in the middle of a highway in Florida.

She made the snake uncomfortable by placing a pillowcase over its head, then put the snake in the trunk of her Camry.

The largest python Siewe caught was 17 feet, 3 inches, and weighed 110 pounds.

“I jumped her in a ditch on the side of the road, 17 feet long,” said Siewe. “She had the biggest snake head I’ve ever seen. That was a real battle of strength.”

Among those facing Siewe in this year’s Florida Python Challenge: fellow professional python hunter, and defending challenge champion, Dusty Crum. Crum, 42, of Florida, won the longest python in the competition’s professional category last year, catching a 16-foot python. In 2016, he was part of a three-man team that took top honors in the challenge, taking 33 pythons.

“A lot of it is luck, but it’s also about being in the right place at the right time,” Crum said. “It’s anybody’s game.”

Snake hunters use a variety of equipment to do the job, from snake hooks to special carrying bags to an array of lights that can see the reptiles in the dark of night.

To prepare for this year’s challenge, Crum is using his meticulous collection of snake catching technology.

“When it comes to the challenge, it’s guns blazing,” Crum said. “I’m trying to use all my equipment: small geo-trackers, four-wheelers. I have swamp buggies, monster trucks with big tires on them. We wear those with lights on and I’ll be able to get to places that the general public can’t get to.”

Dusty Crum has a snake in Florida in 2017.Courtesy of Lisette Morales McCabe

Python hunting, Crum and Siewe said, is not for the faint of heart. Although pythons are not poisonous, they are powerful – and have been known to bite.

“They have hundreds of teeth, and when they feed you it’s like needle pricks,” Crum said. “The worst thing that can happen is when the tooth breaks and gets stuck in you, and it becomes infected.”

Siewe said she has been bitten too many times to count. “I hit a 14-footer on my hand. I am bitten on my bottom, on my calf. Fortunately, I’m not stuck on my face.”

Like Crum, Siewe says she works to reuse parts of the pythons she catches. “I use the leather to make Apple watch bands,” she said.

Both Crum and Siewe say they are “in it to win it” for this year’s challenge.

Neither of them plan to get much sleep during the competition, as pythons are nocturnal, which means the best time for hunting is late at night.

Still, they said, the real goal of the challenge has less to do with any individual wins they might score, and much more to do with the main reason the two say they’re fighting — and hunting – for her.

“This is not a trophy hunt or a sport pursuit,” Crum explains. “This is environmental debt. He is hunting to save our environment. It’s a special feeling when it’s man against beast, fighting for the environment.”

No one in the United States has been killed by pythons, but they have plenty of pets, and wildlife officials worry that pythons will wipe out entire populations of Florida’s native species if not stopped. Among the mammals in the Everglades with pythons in decline: marsh rabbits, raccoons, foxes, deer and coots.

“The Burmese python is one of the largest snakes in the world, able to reach 20 feet in length, and because of our climate the pythons are able to thrive in Florida by preying on our wildlife,” said Kirkland. “In some regions of Florida, up to 95% of fur animal populations have disappeared.”

The pythons are even eating Florida alligators.

Python incentive and education specialist Robert Edman demonstrates how to catch a python during an event promoting the Florida Python Challenge on December 5, 2019.
Python incentive and education specialist Robert Edman demonstrates how to catch a python during an event promoting the Florida Python Challenge on December 5, 2019.Al Diaz / Miami Herald via Getty Images file

“Pythons are generalists,” said McKayla Spencer, Florida Interagency python management coordinator. “They will eat anything.”

Pythons made their first appearance in the Everglades in the 1970s, probably as a pet snake released into the wild, but the population didn’t explode until the 1990s.

That’s when Hurricane Andrew hit Florida, destroying, among other things, several python breeding facilities. Kirkland said there is no definitive proof that the destruction of breeding farms is responsible for the explosion in the Florida python population. “But it didn’t help,” he admitted.

There is no official estimate of how many pythons there are in Florida, due to their stealthy nature.

“They’re very hard to find,” Spencer said. “For every python we find, there are 99 more out there.”

More, Spencer said, pythons are showing up in people’s yards and boats, as the snakes swallow more and more in Florida territory.

That’s where human hunters come in.

“I’ve always had this obsessive interest in snakes and reptiles since I was little and my father taught me to catch fish,” said Siewe. “I thought, ‘Why isn’t this passion there [for] puppies or kittens or something normal?’ No – they’re snakes.”

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