Florida declares war on the Burmese python

Florida has opened a contest called the 2013 Python Challenge in an effort to reduce the population of Burmese pythons in the everglades. Photo: (AP Photo)

DOTHAN, AL, January 14, 2013 —Snake hunting season is now underway in Florida.

Faced with a burgeoning population of Burmese pythons, as many as 150,000 by some estimates, the state has started a contest called the 2013 Python Challenge. It offers a $1,500 prize for anyone who brings in the most dead pythons. Over 800 people have signed up to participate. 

PETA is against the contest, but state officials have established safety training for hunters that includes instructions on how to kill the snakes humanely. They recommend either shooting them in the head or, better yet, cutting the head off. I am sure that hunters will be considerate of the snakes’ feelings before dispatching them.

The python problem exists primarily in Florida’s famous everglades, a huge marshy portion of the state that is home to numerous species of wildlife. The non-native invasive snakes are depleting populations of indigenous wildlife, including some endangered species like wood rats and storks. They will eat amphibians, reptiles, large birds, and mammals ranging from rodents to deer.

Park rangers report that smaller mammals such as rabbits, foxes and opossum have all but disappeared from the area.

Alligators have always been at the top of the everglades food chain, but that position is under challenge from snakes that can grow to 17-feet long. The largest python found to date measured 17 ½ feet in length, weighed 165 pounds and was carrying nearly 90 eggs. Park rangers have found evidence of gators and pythons battling each other to the death. In one instance, a python partially swallowed an alligator that apparently had second thoughts about giving up and chewed his way out. The pictures are not for anyone with a weak stomach.

Living on the west coast of Florida for many years, not near the everglades, but home to a great many snakes people live in the state all their lives and never encounter a single snake, but I was greeted with an entire nest of them my first week there.

That started an 18-year-long war with black racers. They are non-poisonous but have a nasty bite and are not the least bit shy. We always had to be careful to keep screen doors closed or they would gladly come inside and make themselves at home.

As disturbing as it could be to face down a 3-foot black snake looking for rats to eat, the mind boggles at the idea of coming face-to-face with something 16-feet long that would regard me as its dinner.

As Indiana Jones said when he found the hidden temple, “Snakes? Why does it have to be snakes? I HATE snakes!”

One of my earliest encounters with snakes was just a few months after I arrived in Florida. One day I got a frantic call from my mother across town. She was shouting into the phone that a horrific looking snake was on her back patio and was trying to attack her right through the glass sliding door.

Ever ready to protect mom, I gathered up what tools I could and headed to her house.

Her neighbors were quite curious when I arrived brandishing a rake, a shovel, a broom, a Civil War sword and a small caliber pistol. Clanking and rattling I rushed to the back of the house, now attracting a crowd of onlookers anxious to see what I was going to shoot or stab. It was, after all, just your average quiet suburb and this kind of excitement was rare.

I found the fierce snake on the patio where it was indeed staring down my mom through the glass door. She was still frantic, but I was a bit embarrassed to discover the snake was only about six inches long. The poor thing died of fright before I could even do anything. To reassure my mother it was no longer a threat, I still shot it, stabbed it, cut off its head, and buried it to an appreciative audience of applauding neighbors who dubbed me “the snake man” for years after.

What I did not know at the time was that there must have been other snakes watching the scene, and that my picture ended up on little snake “wanted posters” posted all over town. I am certain, to this day, that there were also little snake signs planted everywhere that said “This way to Rick’s house.” At every house I lived in, I had encounters with snakes, none of them small. I am convinced they were all seeking retribution for my indiscretion at dispatching one of their relatives.

That is why I would never in a million years consider entering the 2013 Florida Python Challenge. I am positive that my misdeed, even though it was long ago, still lives in the collective snake memory. In fact, I would not be at all surprised to find out that the pythons arrived at the request of the snakes from my old neighborhood, but maybe that is just my own snake paranoia.

Second prize in the contest is $1,000 for the longest snake caught. Based on my own past experience with Florida snakes, I have to wonder if the pythons have a reward among themselves for the largest hunter swallowed. 

(Be sure to get The Backstory and more at Rick’s author blog www.ricktownley.com)

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Rick Townley

Rick Townley was a bookseller before switching to electronic publishing with The New York Times, Reuters, Grolier and others. He is the author of a humor book, For Boomers Only – Exploring Life in the New Millennium, a supernatural novel, Stepping Out of Time, and numerous short stories. In addition to contributing to the Washington Times Communities, Rick is working on a fiction series called Stigma and resides in southern Alabama with his 7-year-old granddaughter, Chloe.


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