This Burmese python got caught but plenty of others are evading the state’s python hunting competitions. Credit: Andy Wraithmell via Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
My kids frequently drag me to the theaters to see the latest superhero movie. As a result, I have discovered a fondness for what the comic book people call “origin stories.”
You know, like how an illegal alien using a phony name became Superman. Or how Batman is just a rich orphan with anger issues who never got past his goth phase.
Imagine, then, how delighted I was to talk to the guy who found the very first Burmese python in the Everglades way back in 1979. Retired park ranger Jim Massey still vividly recalls spotting that first snake on the Tamiami Trail. He remembers that road-killed reptile for one very good reason.
He was on a first date.
Despite strong objections from the young lady he’d taken out that night, Massey told me, he insisted on dragging the 11-foot-9 carcass back to his vehicle to haul back home. As a result, he said, “we didn’t go out again.”
Massey still has the snake’s skin and sent me a few photos of it. When he picked it up, he had no idea that this would be the first of thousands of pythons to invade the Glades, wrecking the ecosystem. Nor could he know that, someday, the state would sponsor an annual python round-up. The next one starts Friday.
“I would have never suspected what happened in 1979 would end with python rodeos and such,” said Massey, now in his 70s. “I did know that even back then, finding invasive species like this and many others were going to lead to problems. I just didn’t realize the magnitude.”
It’s been nearly 10 years since the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission held its first python round-up in 2013. The event drew more than 1,500 amateur hunters eager for instant fame, plus enough newsfolk to staff a half-dozen O.J. Simpson trials.
The hoopla made it seem like a real-life version of “Whacking Day” on “The Simpsons,” when all of Springfield turns out to clobber as many snakes as possible until Barry White intervenes.
That first year, the hunters bagged 68 snakes, their zeal flagging amid numerous cases of heat stroke and dehydration.
That’s 68 out of an estimated 10,000 to 100,000 pythons slithering through the vast expanse of the River of Grass. That’s a margin that only sounds good compared to your odds of winning the next Powerball jackpot.
Yet despite that inauspicious beginning, the Python Challenge has turned into an annual sporting event not unlike a NASCAR race, minus the roaring engines, carbon monoxide fumes, and left turns. Politicians pose for the cameras, corporate sponsors put up big-money prizes, and everyone acts as if they’re making major inroads in eliminating the python population.
But they aren’t.
‘Not likely to remove large numbers’
Hunting pythons is hard work. Turns out they don’t respond to Barry White songs at all. They’re actually Olympic-level champions at the hide part of hide-and-seek.
According to a 2013 story in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, during that first roundup, one of the sharpest scientists I’ve ever interviewed, Frank Mazzotti, took three of the captured male pythons and attached tracking devices. Then he let them loose to see where they’d go.
Hunters searching diligently for big snakes walked right by them, unaware.
That was one of the things scientists learned from that hunt. They also learned about where the snakes live, what they eat, and so forth.
“It’s been an unprecedented scientific effort,” Mazzotti told me back then.
The next round-up was in 2016, and the hunters brought in 106 snakes. That may sound impressive until you consider that a single clutch of eggs from one female python would be enough to replace what had been killed.
“We knew then and know now that these events are not likely to remove large numbers of pythons,” Nick Wiley, then the commission’s executive director, said prior to the second hunt.
A gap of nearly four years followed. When I asked Wiley, now chief operating officer for Ducks Unlimited, why the commission stopped holding the contests, he said the reason was simple. The agency decided it was smarter to contract with professional trappers to go out and hunt snakes all year long.
“We learned from the first few python challenge competitions that experienced trappers were having success locating and catching pythons, so we focused on standing up and supporting that approach,” Wiley told me this week.
But then, in late 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis held a press conference to announce a new competition to be held in January 2020 called “the Python Bowl.”
Making snakes political
The name-change tied the snake-hunt in with another, slightly larger sporting event: the Super Bowl, held that year in Miami. To underline the link, DeSantis displayed a football covered in python skin instead of pigskin.
“The 2020 Python Bowl is sure to be a great success, and I look forward to the positive effects it will have on preserving and protecting the Everglades ecosystem,” he said then.
But the 2020 competition turned out to be a backward step. Hunters snagged only 80 snakes. Predicting the contest would be “a great success” turned out to be as accurate as predicting the NFL would allow the teams to use that python-skin football.
Despite that missed prediction, DeSantis has held press conferences last year and this year to announce each of the next roundups. These events, a break from his droning speeches about such obscure topics as “woke” businesses, have become a feel-good political event and a way to make it seem as if he cares about Florida’s environment even as he gives developers whatever they want.
Over time, DeSantis has succeeded in linking his political brand to the rough-and-ready snake-whackers. It’s as if hanging out with Superman makes people think he’s got powers as well.
The association has reached the point that one recent news report referred to this year’s event as “Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ 2022 Python Challenge” complete with a trademark symbol.
But how effective have these annual hunts been? Last year’s brought 600 people from 25 states to slog through our swampy wilderness seeking snakes. Over 10 days, they captured 223 python, which is … still not a lot.
“If you’re going to control the population of an invasive species, the mortality rate must exceed the birth rate,” said Don Schmitz, a retired Florida biologist who used to head the National Invasive Species Council. He’s also editor of a book about invasive species in Florida with the marvelous title of “Strangers in Paradise.”
Florida’s python contests aren’t coming close to knocking out the number of snakes that hatch each year. They’re killing so few snakes, Schmitz told me, “they’re not making a bit of difference.”
To see what’s really going on, take a look at Florida’s very first invasive species.
Not enough pork chops
When Hernando de Soto landed on the Gulf coast in 1539, he brought along some 300 hogs to feed his troops. Nothing like a slab of bacon to make a man willing to march into a steamy hellhole!
The expedition was a disaster, and not just because de Soto never found the gold he thought was scattered around like breadcrumbs on a bird trail. The hogs got loose and became Florida’s original invasive critters.
The hogs turned feral and spread across not just Florida but the entire South. They wreak havoc with their tusks, ripping up the ground as if they were running a crazy plow route. Landowners hate them and so do park managers.
The only humans who love them: Hog hunters. Florida’s wild hogs have become the basis for a whole industry. There are multiple facilities set up for people willing to pay for a chance at hunting one down.
I talked to a proprietor of one: Ron Ritter of ILiveWild.com, who offers hog hunts on nearly 100 acres in the Dade City area. He figures he draws 100 to 200 customers a year who want a shot at the descendants of de Soto’s runaways.
Ritter told me he keeps the hogs coming back with feeders full of corn.
“That keeps them off of other people’s property,” he said. “Except for when it’s acorn time. You can’t keep them away from the acorns.”
Ritter said he’s been running his hog hunts for a decade now. He didn’t know how many other farms there are like his around the state, but let’s say there are 10. And let’s say those 10 have done as much business as he has. That means they’ve each eliminated, at most, 2,000 in a decade. When you multiply that by 10 farms, that’s 200,000 dead hogs.
That’s a gracious plenty of pork chops, but it’s not neeeeearly enough. The estimated feral hog population across the South is now 6 million.
The fish that roared
Other invasives eventually followed the hogs. Greenhouse frogs and Cuban anoles arrived aboard ships in the late 1800s. Fire ants did the same in the 1930s.
All of these species liked our state so much, they never left. By 2012, Florida had 137 invasive species — more invasive species than any other state. Ten years later, that number is probably much higher. (If you see one, please report it via the “I’ve Got 1” website.)
One of the scariest is the lionfish, first spotted off Dania Beach in 1985. These natives of the Indian and Pacific Oceans appeared here because, apparently, some aquarium owner decided to dump his or her tank in the wild.
The lionfish remind me of pythons because they gobble up all the native reef fish. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary notes that “lionfish have been known to swallow whole prey twice their length.”
Yet, as with the python and the feral hogs, we’ve turned the pursuit of lionfish into a sport. There are lionfish tournaments in the Keys and the Panhandle with big cash prizes. Meanwhile, chefs stand ready to cook your catch.
The biggest tournament is the Emerald Coast Open in Destin, aka “The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village.” The tournament’s organizers boasted that in 2021, “with 145 participants, the lionfish population took a hit.”
The contestants hauled in 13,835 fish. Bear in mind that one female lionfish can release 25,000 eggs every few days. I think the use of the word “hit” here may be the second biggest exaggeration in state history. (No. 1 is DeSantis claiming Florida is chockfull of freedom even as he and the Legislature clamp down on anyone who disagrees.)
“But surely,” you say, “these tournaments are helpful because people are eating the lionfish.”
Ah, so it would seem. But one expert on invasive species, Daniel Simberloff, warns that we’re wrong to think this is going to lead to a long-lasting victory. In a 2014 piece he co-wrote with three other scientists, Simberloff warned that these “eat ’em to beat ’em” schemes never work.
The scientists pointed out that “often mortality from harvest is simply what wildlife biologists call ‘compensatory’ — it removes individuals that would have died anyway by old age or other means.”
A bigger problem is that “creation of a market for an invasive species provides an incentive to maintain the species in order to sustain the market, or even to spread the invader in order to improve profits.” God forbid it “becomes an integral part of regional cuisine,” because “it may become a revered cultural icon.”
Then it will be on the menu forever.
Putting them to sleep
I’m not trying to rain on anyone’s python-catching parade here.
Sometimes these contests yield fascinating human stories. One of last year’s python hunters was a deaf science teacher from St. Augustine who just wanted a snakeskin to show his students. Brandon Call grabbed the $1,500 award for the longest snake with a 15-foot-9 specimen, and, yes, he got a skin too.
I just think we should all be clear about what’s really going on. These sporting events may be fun, lucrative, and even educational, raising awareness of the problem. But they’re not the answer to eradicating what’s steadily changing the nature of our state.
As Schmitz pointed out, to succeed the competitors would have to kill an awful lot more of these animals than they do now — more than, as he puts it, “the sick, the old, and the stupid.”
I have to admit, though, that the thought of the wholesale slaughter required to turn the tide on these intruders makes me feel a tad squeamish. Maybe there’s a more humane way to deal with this.
How about when we capture pythons from now on, we ship them all en masse to Tallahassee? Because the governor wants to be associated with snake-killing, we’ll address the box in care of the Governor’s Mansion.
Then, in groups of 100 or so at a time, the governor can humanely put them all down by talking them to death. Believe it or not, I think that may be his superpower.
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