At the annual Florida Python Challenge, both professionals and amateurs can hunt invasive Burmese pythons and compete for cash prizes.
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The Florida Python Challenge is an annual statewide competition that starts on Friday. Hundreds of professional and amateur snake hunters will come to South Florida to hunt the Burmese python, which wildlife officials say is the state’s most dangerous invasive species.
Amy Siewe is one of the people getting ready for the 10-day hunt. Siewe may look small because she is 5’4″ tall and weighs 120 pounds. But Siewe is a strong hunter when it comes to Florida’s Burmese pythons.
Siewe, who is 45 years old, said, “I don’t look like I could catch a 17-foot snake.” “But I can.”
Siewe works for the state of Florida as a paid contractor. She calls herself a “python huntress” and looks for snakes all year long. The Florida Python Challenge lets people who have never hunted before hunt with experts like Siewe and compete for cash prizes. The challenge this year runs from August 5 to August 14. Its goal is to catch snakes and bring attention to the damage they do to the environment.
Michael Kirkland, a senior invasive animal biologist for the South Florida Water Management District and the person in charge of Florida’s Python Elimination Program, said that the number of pythons in South Florida is an emergency for the native wildlife there. “Right now, human detection is the most useful tool we have.
Kirkland said that the state has hired professional contractors like Siewe to get rid of 10,000 pythons since 2017. The state hopes to catch a lot more fish with the help of newbies during the challenge.
“We need all the help and knowledge we can get when it comes to pythons,” he said.
Participants must pay a $25 registration fee and take an online course where they have to show, among other things, that they can tell the difference between a Burmese python and a native Florida snake species.
There will be prizes of up to $2,500 for things like catching the most pythons and catching the longest pythons.
The challenge is very tough for the professional hunters who take part. All of them have done it before when it comes to catching the big snakes. Siewe was a real estate agent in Indiana before she moved to Florida. She earns $13 an hour for the time she spends hunting pythons all year, plus $50 for the first 4 feet of any python she catches and $25 for each foot after that.
The first python Siewe caught was over 10 feet long. Siewe said, “I caught it by myself, and I was wearing flip-flops. I found it in the middle of a Florida highway.”
She put a pillowcase over the snake’s head to throw it off, and then she put the snake in the trunk of her Camry.
Siewe has caught pythons as long as 17 feet and 3 inches and as heavy as 110 pounds.
“I jumped on all 17 feet of her in a ditch on the side of the road,” Siewe said. “Her snake head was the biggest I’d ever seen. That was a real fight to the death.”
Dusty Crum, a professional python hunter who won the challenge last year, will be competing against Siewe in this year’s Florida Python Challenge. Crum, who is from Florida, caught the longest python in the professional category of the competition last year. It was 16 feet long. In 2016, he was part of a three-person team that caught 33 pythons and won the challenge.
Crum said, “A lot of it is luck, but being in the right place at the right time is also important.” “Anyone could win.”
Snake hunters use many different tools to do their jobs, such as snake hooks, special bags for carrying snakes, and different kinds of lights that can help them find snakes at night.
Crum is using his carefully chosen collection of snake-catching tools to get ready for this year’s challenge.
Crum said, “When it comes to the challenge, we go all out.” “I’m trying to use everything I have: four-wheelers, little geo-trackers, etc. I have swamp buggies, which are monster trucks with big tyres. If we put lights on those, I’ll be able to get to places that regular people can’t.”
Crum and Siewe said that hunting for pythons is not for the weak of heart. Even though pythons don’t have poison, they are strong and have been known to bite.
Crum said, “They have hundreds of teeth, and when they bite, it feels like needle pricks.” “The worst thing that can happen is for a piece of a tooth to break off and get stuck in your mouth, causing an infection.”
Siewe said she can’t remember how many times she’s been bitten. “One that was 14 feet long bit my hand. I’ve been bitten on my buttocks and on my legs. I haven’t been bitten on the face, thank goodness.
Siewe says, like Crum, that she tries to find new ways to use parts of the pythons she catches. “I make Apple watch bands out of the leather,” she said.
Crum and Siewe have both said that they want to win this year’s challenge.
Since pythons are nocturnal, which means they hunt best at night, neither plans to get much sleep during the competition.
Still, they said that the real goal of the challenge has less to do with any individual wins they might get and much more to do with the bigger cause they both say they are fighting and hunting for.
Crum says, “This is neither a trophy hunt nor a sport hunt.” “This is a hunt for wildlife. We hunt to protect the environment. It’s a special feeling to fight for the environment as man against animal.”
No people in the U.S. have been killed by pythons, but they have killed a lot of pets. Wildlife officials are worried that pythons will wipe out whole populations of native species in Florida if they aren’t stopped. In the Everglades, pythons are killing almost all of the marsh rabbits, raccoons, foxes, deer, and bobcats.
Kirkland said, “The Burmese python is one of the biggest snakes in the world. It can grow up to 20 feet long, and because of our climate, the pythons can thrive in Florida by eating our wildlife.” “Up to 95% of the fur-bearing animal populations in some parts of Florida have died out.”
Even Florida alligators are being eaten by the pythons.
“The pythons are generalists,” said McKayla Spencer, who is in charge of managing pythons for all of Florida’s government agencies. “They eat everything.”
Pythons first showed up in the Everglades in the 1970s, probably because someone let out a pet snake into the wild. However, the population didn’t really grow until the 1990s.
That’s when Hurricane Andrew hit Florida and destroyed several places where pythons were being raised, among other things. Kirkland said that there is no proof that the destruction of breeding farms is the reason why the number of pythons in Florida has grown so much. “But it wasn’t helpful,” he said.
Because they are so sneaky, no one knows for sure how many pythons there are in Florida.
Spencer said, “They are very hard to find.” “There are 99 more pythons for every one we find.”
Spencer said that pythons are showing up more and more in people’s yards and boats as the snakes eat up more and more of Florida.
This is where people who hunt people come in.
“Ever since my dad taught me how to catch fish when I was little, I’ve been obsessed with snakes and other reptiles,” Siewe said. “I thought, ‘Why isn’t this love for puppies or kittens or something normal?’ It’s snakes, not rats.”