Florida hunts for creatures that keep very low profile
Published: January 24, 2013 12:18PM
Updated: January 24, 2013 12:16PM
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A Burmese python is displayed at the kick-off ceremonies in Davie, Fla., Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013 for the 2013 "Python Challenge" organized by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Nearly 800 people have signed up to hunt Burmese pythons on public lands in Florida. Experts say the invasive species is decimating native wildlife in the Florida Everglades. For the first time, the public is joining licensed hunters in the search for the snakes. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)

HOMESTEAD, Fla. • For as long as anyone can remember, hunters here have wielded machetes, knives, rifles and crossbows as they swept past thickets of mosquitoes and saw grass in pursuit of alligators, feral hogs, bobcats and vermin of all sizes.

But on the outskirts of the Everglades this month, a different kind of hunt is taking place, and among those on the trail are three men with little macho swagger and zero hunting finery. They drive up gravel roads alongside the brush in a red “man-van” (a well-lived-in Toyota Sienna) and a blue Prius (“You can’t beat the mileage,” says one).

And when they get lucky, they clamber down from their vehicles and snare enormous Burmese pythons with their bare hands, shrugging off the inevitable bites.

Two of the hunters are brothers, reared in the swamps of central Florida with eight other siblings. The third is a Utah native, now a Miami high school teacher, who met one of the brothers in the apartment building they share. They quickly discovered they have much in common — they are Mormons, for one thing, and not afraid of snakes, for another.

Theirs was truly a chance encounter, considering that pythons far outnumber snake-savvy Mormons in South Florida.

“We don’t hunt on the Sabbath,” declared Blake Russ, 24, a Florida International University student, as he peered out the open door of the man-van.

But on this day, the brothers are in it to win it. They have joined Florida’s “Python Challenge 2013,” the first-ever open-invitation contest organized by the state’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

So frustrated are wildlife officials with the prolific Burmese pythons that on Jan. 12 they began a one-month python hunt in South Florida, opening it up to just about anybody over the age of 18. The hunt is taking place on state land, not federal parkland, which is off-limits.

The only requirement is that contestants must take a training course — online. A prize of $1,000 will be awarded to the hunter who catches the longest snake and $1,500 to the one who “harvests” the most snakes. About 1,300 people have signed up.

The pythons, considered invasive and uninvited, arrived here as pets. After some escaped or were let loose by fed-up owners, they slithered toward marshy land, mostly in and around the Everglades. There, they snack regularly on native wading birds, gators, deer, bobcat, opossums, raccoons and rabbits. They breed easily, laying eight to 100 eggs, depending on the size of the female.

Killing the snake is a requirement of the “Python Challenge,” and for this the website suggests a firearm or a captive bolt (the slaughterhouse stunning tool used to chilling effect in the film “No Country for Old Men”).

Chopping off the head is permissible, the website explains, but difficult, because the brain lives on (for a while). For decapitation, machetes are the state-recommended weapon.

“Regardless of the technique you choose, make sure your technique results in immediate loss of consciousness and destruction of the Burmese python’s brain,” the website states.

The task is daunting. Estimates of how many Burmese pythons live in the wild here range from 5,000 to more than 100,000.

“Do we really know?” asked Skip Snow, a wildlife biologist at Everglades National Park. “No. No, we don’t.”

The snakes are everywhere and nowhere. Catching them is easy. The pythons — which can stretch to 20 feet and more — are lazy. They dislike moving. They rarely travel. Instead, they wait out their prey and ambush it, sinking their teeth in to hold it in place while they wrap them up tight, suffocate them and swallow them whole, little by little.

It is finding them that will drain hunters of all patience and fortitude, until the clocks ticks down and it is time for a beer — or, for the three hunters in their man-van, a roadside fruit shake.

Because the snakes blend in with the yellowish, brownish brush here, they are almost as hard to find as a Glenn Beck fan on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

“It’s like looking for a piece of camouflage,” said Devin Belliston, 26, the science teacher in the group.

Seeing just one “Burm” is enough to excite a hunter for days.

“It’s like seeing Bigfoot,” said Bryan Russ, 35, Blake Russ’ older brother, who once unleashed 30 garter snakes inside an Idaho college dorm. (He got kicked out of school, which he called a “great life lesson.”)

Belliston and Blake Russ make up part of a fivesome who call themselves the Florida Python Hunters. Founded by Ruben Ramirez, who has been catching snakes for 27 years, the five men are licensed to hunt pythons.

They have an impressive success rate at spotting snakes, catching them with their hands and turning them over to state wildlife officials. Last year, Ramirez and George Brana nabbed an imposing 16-foot, 8-inch python. Blake Russ and Belliston, who started python hunting in May, have caught 15 pythons since then.

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“You grab them, and let them strike at you and strike at you until they wear themselves out,” said Blake Russ, who leaned out of the man-van as it rolled slowly near an abandoned mango orchard and a canal. His eyes scanned the edge of the grass. Nothing.

Once Blake rode a scooter to a hunt, his flip-flops planted firmly on the floorboard. He spotted a python, hopped off, wrangled it into a pillow case, hopped back on and sped away.

Studying the python lifestyle is critical to success. Hunters must know that the best time to find one is the morning after the temperature drops into the 60s or below. The snakes surface to warm up in the sun. They stay close to water, so canals and levies are a good bet. They like rock piles.

Most savvy hunters stick to gravel paths or roads that abut grassy areas with water nearby.

At night, especially in summer, the hunters “road cruise.” Pythons come out then, sometimes onto the asphalt, because it is cooler at night. Sound does not bother them.

When caught, “they squirt out a mixture of feces and urine,” Bryan Russ said. “It smells like musk, like wet dog. Ruben calls it, ‘The smell of success.’”

As of Tuesday, 27 pythons were caught in the competition’s first week. Ramirez and his team have caught eight.

The men scoff at those machete-toting novices from out of state who have shown up in their python-hunting finery.

“This guy had brand new clothes, beautiful new boots,” Ramirez said, of a fellow he had spotted nearby. “He was standing there on the water’s edge. I was just waiting for a gator to take him and do a gator death roll.”

Their prediction: After a couple of days of tedium, “these guys, they’ll all be like, ‘I’m going to South Beach,’” Bryan Russ said.

But the Florida Python Hunters persist.

Spying a black clump on a patch of grass, Blake leaped from the man-van and scooped it up. The Everglades racer whipped around and bit him several times. “It’s like a pinch,” he said. Blood bubbled up.

Not quite a python, but for these hobby herpetologists, any snake is better than no snake.

“People should really know that this is what it’s like,” he said, referring to the success rate, not the blood.

By day’s end, the team’s python count was zero. Nothing but optimism prevailed.

“We’re going out road cruising tonight,” Blake Russ said. “Do you want to come?”