Lance Richardson (The Guardian) writes about the tens of thousands of pythons in the Florida wild, attacking animals and damaging ecosystems. He explains how “the quest to stop them has become a collective crusade.” Here are excerpts:
On a Thursday afternoon in St Petersburg, Florida, Beth Koehler crouches over a cairn terrier named Ginger, trimming intently as fur collects around her feet. On Koehler’s arm is a scratch – red, jagged and freshly acquired, though not in the way one might expect of a dog groomer.
“There was no way I could pin the head,” Koehler says, referring to the snake that was partly responsible. She had grabbed hold however she could, which made it “pissed”: “It decided to coil up and just throw itself at me.” Startled, Koehler had fallen backwards, cutting herself on a vine – an injury far preferable to the bite of a Burmese python. “I have never been bit,” she proudly adds. “Peggy’s been bit once, but really, we’re very careful.”
Three days a week, Koehler runs Hair of the Dog with her partner of 31 years, Peggy van Gorder. The other four days the couple are usually out chasing pythons as members of Patric: the Python Action Team – Removing Invasive Constrictors, which is managed by the Florida fish and wildlife conservation commission (FWC).
Koehler and Van Gorder’s love affair with Burmese pythons began in 2016, when the FWC held its second python challenge. (The first was held in 2013; there have been none since.) A month-long public hunt held on a vast expanse of state forests and other government-owned land north of Everglades national park, the challenge was designed to cull numbers while also raising public awareness about a growing ecological problem. The couple registered and were issued a permit to hunt in designated areas of south Florida. Then they attended a live-capture tutorial, also offered by the FWC. “They bring one in a bag and they drop it on the ground, and they say: ‘Catch it!’” says Van Gorder, adding that this is where they learned the safest way to grab a snake is by its head.
After 80 hours of trudging through cypress forests and freshwater marshland, Koehler and Van Gorder did not catch a single snake, but fellow participants removed 106 pythons. Those who had caught the most and also the longest pythons shared in over $16,000 of prizes.
“We usually achieve our goals,” Koehler says, still disappointed by their efforts in the challenge. Determined, they acquired another permit (no longer required for 22 FWC-managed areas as of 2017, when the commission declared open season on pythons) and kept looking for another two months, until they came across an eight-footer. “My heart stopped,” Van Gorder recalls, though now the size seems, to both of them, almost quaint.
Burmese pythons have no natural predators here. They do, however, have an uncanny ability to swallow things significantly larger than their own heads. Able to grow to more than 20ft in length, these stealthy invaders ambush their prey, squeeze until the prey stops breathing and then split their jaw apart to take the prey whole. They can inflict a nasty wound on humans – when Van Gorder was bitten, it took five months for one of the broken teeth to work its way out – but the chances of anything more serious happening are slim (though not impossible). Masters of camouflage, they can slide by an eagle-eyed biologist in just a few inches of water, and they can cover huge distances. One was recently discovered coiled up on a floating crab pot more than 15 miles out to sea.
It’s estimated that there are tens of thousands of pythons now living in the Florida wild. A 2012 study in the Everglades suggested that a disturbing number of mammals have been swallowed by the invasive species: a spike in python sightings since 2000 coincided with a more than 90% reduction in raccoons, opossums and rabbits. But it’s not just the smaller, soft animals who have been attacked. In December 2016, a YouTube video showed a Burmese python in Big Cypress national preserve, next to the Everglades, strangling an alligator. [. . .]
If left unchecked, the impact of such gorging will be silence. Native mammals are already being overwhelmed, either eaten or (like the Florida panther, which hunts deer) outcompeted for food. Pythons have been found to feed on at least 43 species of bird, too, including the magnificent frigatebird, which is an alarming achievement. (“It soars!” Bartoszek says.) What will remain – what already remains, in some areas – is a landscape empty of virtually every animal except fish, rats, a few amphibians and more snakes. [. . .]