April 21st, 2009
09:22 PM ET

I wrestled with pythons

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/US/03/30/python.patrol/art.bigsnake.cnn.jpg caption="Members of the Python Patrol show off a giant snake that stretched more than 20 feet."]
John Zarrella
CNN Correspondent

You may find this hard to believe but it’s true. I’ve got a friend who actually goes out to the Everglades and catches pythons for fun. Turns out, it’s not that difficult, particularly in the winter months when they come out to bask in the sun.

As strange as it may sound, pythons, those big old snakes that lay in wait and then bite and wrap themselves around and squeeze their prey to kill it, have become a real concern in South Florida. They’ve been found under houses, in backyards, in chicken coops. I’m not talking here about a little garden type snake either. These snakes are eight to 12 feet long. Sometimes even larger.

And they’re not just getting fat on rodents. They’ve eaten pets. Wildlife biologists say that in the stomach of one python they found a five-foot alligator. In the stomach of another they found a full grown deer.

Pythons have very quickly moved to the top of the animal food chain here. The Florida Alligator is the only threat. And even gators may not be a match for the larger snakes. One famous picture taken inside Everglades National Park shows the aftermath of a battle between a python and an alligator. Both are dead. The gator’s legs and tail are sticking out from the belly of the python.

Twenty years ago, there wasn’t a single python spotted in the Everglades. Now, biologists estimate there are at least 30,000. That’s right, that’s not a misprint. Last year, more than three hundred were caught and destroyed.

This mess got started, experts say, when pet owners woke up one morning, looked at their pythons and went ‘Oh My Gosh,’ realizing the creatures had grown too big to handle safely. Thinking they were doing the humane thing, they dumped the pythons in the Everglades rather than kill them.

It turned out South Florida’s Everglades are a perfect environment for pythons. They are breeding and flourishing. And they are now expanding outward from the Everglades.

A few have even been caught in the upper Florida Keys. One was found in a very interesting way. Scientists had placed tiny transmitters on an endangered species called a “Wood Rat.” When they went to check on the rat they found a python. The transmitter signal was coming from inside the python’s stomach. When they opened up the python they found the rat with the transmitter collar and a second wood rat too.

So how are they getting to the Florida Keys? Scientists say pythons can travel up to a mile and a half a day and some of them may be swimming - they are very good swimmers - from the southern tip of Florida across Florida Bay into the upper Keys. The shortest distance is about six miles.

Because they have no real natural predators and because within the first two years of their lives they grow to eight feet long, the only way to stop their spread is to catch them and kill them.

To do that, the Nature Conservancy ran classes to train wildlife officers, police and park rangers on how to catch them. The snakes were brought in and the training handled by the Miami Dade County Anti-Venom Unit. These are the guys who respond to calls of snakes in backyards and such. These are the guys who caught the python in the chicken coop.

I attended one of their classes on Big Pine Key, about thirty miles from Key West. There were about ten of us in the class. After a lecture, we all went outside and formed a circle. Jeff Fobb from the Anti-Venom Unit demonstrated the snake catching techniques.

When it was our turn, a snake was placed in the center of the circle, about an eight footer. When Jeff asked who wants to go first, I looked at the guy next to me and he looked back. I wasn’t about to go first.

When I did go, after watching a couple others go before me, I was pretty confident. I put on thick gloves that come up to your elbows. I got behind the snake, pulled him by his tail a few times to tire him out. Then, I reached down and grabbed him right behind the head. If you miss and grab him too low, he can turn and bite. They’re non-venomous but Fobb said they can still bite through the gloves and leave a mark. I caught two others during the class. One was twelve feet long. He coiled around my arm and it took two of us to get him off.

Officials with the Nature Conservancy say they are hoping to ring the Everglades with people trained to catch these pythons. It may be the only way to keep them in check.

Filed under: John Zarrella
soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. Bianca

    Is there any other option besides killing them? Like moving them elsewhere maybe.

    April 21, 2009 at 10:51 pm |
  2. Sandra Robertson, GA

    Goodness gracious 30,000! I had no idea there were so many pythons in Florida and breeding as we speak.

    John, I'm so glad that snake did not squeeze you to death so you could report this story. You are a brave man.

    April 21, 2009 at 9:35 pm |