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To Catch A Burmese Python: A Fine Art In Florida

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To Catch A Burmese Python: A Fine Art In Florida

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To Catch A Burmese Python: A Fine Art In Florida

To Catch A Burmese Python: A Fine Art In Florida

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/102562896/102577400" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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At a training session, Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission officer Jill Iszak learns the challenges of capturing a Burmese python. Greg Allen/NPR hide caption

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Greg Allen/NPR

At a training session, Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission officer Jill Iszak learns the challenges of capturing a Burmese python.

Greg Allen/NPR

Wildlife officials say this 80-pound Burmese python captured in South Florida was most likely a released pet. Greg Allen/NPR hide caption

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Greg Allen/NPR

Wildlife officials say this 80-pound Burmese python captured in South Florida was most likely a released pet.

Greg Allen/NPR

Knowing how to catch pythons and other large exotic snakes is a fine art that's in increasing demand in South Florida.

On a recent day on Big Pine Key, Ron Rozar of the U.S. Geological Survey and Jeff Fobb of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue instruct a dozen state and federal wildlife officials in how to catch a python.

The wildlife officials, men and women, gather in a big circle. In the middle, Rozar dumps an 8-foot-long python, and he delivers some advice on how to catch it.

"Remember as you're approaching it, they can turn around real quick and strike at some distance," Rozar says. "So, it's always a good idea to approach from behind the animal."

Jill Izsak, with Florida's Fish and Wildlife Commission, dons heavy gloves and warily approaches the snake. She's clearly not thrilled to be going head to head with a python.

"This is not fun," Izsak says. But after a few minutes of feints and retreats, Izsak grabs the snake by the head and midsection and lifts him up triumphantly.

South Florida has a problem with a long list of invasive animals and plants: iguanas, lionfish, Gambian pouch rats, Monk parakeets. But at the top of the list — and the food chain — is the Burmese python.

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A Threat To Native Wildlife

Burmese pythons have become commonplace in many parts of South Florida. They were first seen in Everglades National Park in the 1990s, and since then they've become a threat to native wildlife.

Rangers and tourists in Everglades National Park have watched epic struggles between pythons and alligators in the park.

Art Roybal of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says a few years after they were first sighted, Burmese pythons became firmly established there.

"The first breeding population, an actual nest of eggs with a female wrapped around those eggs, was found in 2006," Roybal says. "It was a matter of males finding females and vice versa, and now they're breeding out in Everglades National Park."

Last year, biologists removed 300 Burmese pythons from the park. Their concern now is that pythons born in the wild are spreading from the park to other areas, such as the Florida Keys.

Alison Higgins of the Nature Conservancy says the first Burmese python was found in 2007 on Key Largo, the island closest to the mainland. She says some people thought they were pets, and others thought they were wild.

"It wasn't until six more showed up within two months of each other that we realized, 'Oh yeah, this probably isn't pets,' " Higgins says.

The Python Patrol

Higgins has taken the lead in an effort called the Python Patrol to protect the Keys — and the endangered species that live there — from invading pythons. Higgins has enlisted mail carriers, utility company employees and now the public, asking them to call a special hotline when they spot a large snake.

To stop the threat of Burmese pythons and other exotic species, two bills are currently being considered in Congress. One would require the government to evaluate all species proposed for importation and put the burden on the importer to show they aren't harmful. Another singles out pythons and puts an immediate halt to their import and interstate trade.

"The whole thing [that] these are escaped or released pets is just ridiculous," says Andrew Wyatt, the president of the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers, which opposes both proposed laws.

It's not pets, Wyatt says, but the wild python population, now firmly established in the Everglades, that's the problem. The proposed legislation does nothing about that population, instead targeting what he calls the $1 billion-a-year reptile and amphibian industry.

Wildlife groups and government agencies hope an active Python Patrol will contain the population in the Everglades, and prevent the snakes from spreading south through the Keys and north through Florida.

Meanwhile, wildlife officials are now beginning to focus on another large invasive reptile that's been found breeding in Florida. It's the Nile monitor — a lizard that's a fast runner, a voracious predator, and one that can grow up to 7 feet in length.