It's Open Season On Florida's Pythons

A Burmese python abandoned by its owner crosses a road in Florida. i i

A Burmese python abandoned by its owner crosses a road in Florida. Melissa Farlow/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Melissa Farlow/Getty Images
A Burmese python abandoned by its owner crosses a road in Florida.

A Burmese python abandoned by its owner crosses a road in Florida.

Melissa Farlow/Getty Images

Jeff Fobb has an unusual job description. He's an experienced python catcher.

In his job with the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, rarely a week goes by without him being called on to capture a python or other nonnative snake spotted slithering through a suburban backyard.

On a recent call, Fobb found a 10-foot Burmese python that had crawled into a cage with two domestic ducks. Fobb says the python ate the ducks and got stuck in the cage.

That was an easy job.

Python Breeding Ground

Fobb sees all kinds of exotic snakes in his job, but the one he sees the most is the Burmese python. There are a lot of them in South Florida.

The snakes, which can grow to 12 feet or more, have established a breeding population in the Everglades and appear to be spreading out from there.

The death of a toddler in Florida last month, strangled by an escaped pet python, spurred a number of new initiatives. The federal government is considering a ban on python imports; Florida is considering a ban on sales. And the state has begun issuing python hunting permits to experienced snake handlers.

Fobb volunteered for the new state program for fun and because he's fascinated by snakes. He goes out about once a week, patrolling sections of the Everglades on foot — covering eight to 10 miles in a typical evening.

So far, he has been one of the most successful python hunters. On one trip, he caught three Burmese python hatchlings, each about 2 feet long. On another expedition, he caught a juvenile python: 5 feet long and not yet full-grown.

On The Trail With Fobb

On this evening, he was out on the trail once again, accompanied by two friends and a reporter, traipsing through an area southeast of Everglades National Park.

Fortunately, the trails are well-established. Many are roads created when engineers dug the series of drainage canals that crisscross the area.

As he walks, the 43-year-old Fobb is always looking down."Usually you can find them crossing the trail or the levee," he says.

It's late afternoon, but already the mosquitoes are thick. The members of this hunting group are all wearing a thick layer of mosquito repellent, but that hardly seems to matter. Large grasshoppers called "lubbers," some over 6 inches long, jump out of their way.

Fobb says he often finds pythons warming themselves on the open trail in the late afternoon and early evening. There may be Burmese pythons in the surrounding brush, he says, but spotting them can be nearly impossible. The snakes have excellent camouflage — what's called "cryptic coloration."

"Even a big snake can hide in something like this," he says, pointing to the brush alongside the trail. "If you pass by too quickly, you'd never know he was there."

From Pets To Predators

The beginnings of Florida's python problem are murky. Fobb and many other experts date it back to 1992, when Hurricane Andrew roared through South Florida. Fobb believes that amid the devastation, many snakes kept as pets got free.

A few years later, people began seeing Burmese pythons in Everglades National Park, and by 2006, it was clear that the snakes had established a breeding population. Scientists found their first female python with a nest of eggs.

Federal and state wildlife managers grew concerned that the aggressive Asian snake might threaten native species of reptiles and mammals. A few years ago, a Burmese python that made its way to the Florida Keys was captured after it ate two Key Largo wood rats — fewer than 200 of which are known to be alive in the wild.

That showed Burmese pythons could travel; wildlife managers have begun to wonder how far they might spread. A map prepared by the U.S. Geological Survey a few years ago showed the theoretical range of Burmese pythons as global warming takes hold, and it's alarming. On the map, the python's potential habitat covers nearly one-third of the country, extending up the East Coast as far as Washington, D.C., and on the West Coast up to San Francisco.

As other researchers pointed out, that map didn't take into account terrain, development and a host of other factors that would inhibit the pythons' spread.

But what really drew the attention of wildlife managers and the public was the tragic death in July of a 2-year-old girl, killed by an 8 1/2-foot python that escaped from its cage in the middle of the night.

A Soft Spot For Pythons

Back in the Everglades, Fobb and his team slog through mud and periphyton — the thick mat of algae that covers much of the Everglades. If you're looking for pythons, Fobb says, you have to go where the water is, because the pythons' prey have to go and get water. But, he notes, it's the rainy season in the Everglades.

"This is a hard time of year to look, because there's pretty much water everywhere," he says.

A little later, the sun has gone down and the hunting party is walking with flashlights. Fobb looks for any movement; he listens for rustling in the brush alongside the trail.

After four hours of trekking, sweating and swatting mosquitoes through the Everglades, it starts to become clear why Fobb spends so much time out here looking for pythons. He has a soft spot for Burmese pythons, and he admits it.

"You know, they're not here because of anything they did," he says. "They were transported here by people, for pets. And for one reason or the other, they made their way to the Everglades."

Their crime? Like many people, animals and plant species, Burmese pythons came to Florida — and they like it here.

At Last, Snakes

Fobb and his friends find two small ringneck snakes, a couple of garters, a banded watersnake and a DeKay's snake. They also find toads, frogs and alligators, but no Burmese pythons.

Fobb is a little disappointed.

"We did see a lot of natives, which is a good thing. The native populations are OK, and that's a positive thing," he says.

Catching a python would have been nice. But for this reporter, at least, the day wasn't a total bust.

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