EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK, Fla. -- On a lonely road stretching for miles through this vast reptile-infested wilderness, a silver Toyota Matrix screeches to a halt next to a wide pond surrounded by tall brown grass. Two men in their 20s, Josh Holbrook and Jason Thullbery, kick open their doors and spill onto the pavement. Holbrook, the driver, forgets to shift the transmission into park and lunges back through the window to stop the car from rolling into the water. From the backseat, Thullbery's wife Hannah points to the far end of the murky pond, where a 12-foot green and brown strip of flesh suns itself on the bank.
"Python!" she squeals. "Across the water!"
Holbrook squints at the reptile while scanning the marshland for a passage to the other side. It's at least one hundred yards away.
"I think we got one," he says.
The Florida Everglades has a severe invasive species problem, and the Burmese python, a snake that can stretch to 23 feet and weigh 200 pounds, is one of the park's biggest headaches. The python, which is unnatural to the region, began showing up in the state's marshes and glades in the early 1990s and its hungry offspring have depleted the region's wildlife population. It is estimated that there are as many as 100,000 pythons slithering in the wild, and there aren't nearly enough snake hunters on the ground to make meaningful progress.
This year, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission launched The Python Challenge, a competition that brings Burmese python hunting to the masses. From Jan. 12 through Feb. 10 it is open season on the species, luring more than 1,500 people to hunt snakes in exchange for thousands of dollars in cash prizes.
During the Python Challenge, anyone can become a legal python hunter by spending $25 on entry fees and passing an online test. But three weeks into the competition, only 50 pythons have been bagged. In this long war between predator and prey, the hunted have the upper hand.
Holbrook, a graduate student at Florida Atlantic University and author of a field guide on South Florida snakes, has spent years trudging through the state's glades and forests. He and Thullbery aren't officially participating in the Python Challenge, but he has a special research permit that grants him access to the Everglades to collect pythons. Since 2008, Holbrook has caught more than 50 alone, which he delivers to state authorities.
Now, as he races along the dark pond, he's hoping to make one more addition.
There are many theories as to what brought the troublesome pythons into the state. Some blame Hurricane Andrew, which freed dozens of snakes from their owner's enclosures when it tore through South Florida in 1992. Some also blame irresponsible pet owners who bought a cute baby python only to discover that, as most living creatures do, they grow. Fed up, the owners let them slither into the Everglades. Some pet dealers may even intentionally release them into the wild to create a breeding cash crop that they can come and collect later.
Lawmakers have taken steps to stem the problem--Florida banned the sale of Burmese pythons in 2008 and the federal government stopped all imports into the country in 2012--but efforts were too little, too late.
Pythons are survivors--they can live up to 25 years in fresh or salt water, go months without eating, and females can lay up to 100 eggs at a time. Living near the top of the food chain, their numbers have swelled into the thousands in just a few years, putting the ecosystem's natural balance at risk.
They're also elusive, and even if you spot one, catching it is another matter entirely.
Chopping off the python's head can lead to a bloodied severed head bearing needle-sharp teeth chomping at your legs. A python brain can remain active for up to an hour after decapitation. Florida officials recommend killing the snake by firing a pressurized bolt into its brain or shooting it in the head with a gun.
Catching the python by hand without a weapon offers a trio of hunters three unappealing choices: Be the sucker who takes on the head and gets a bite on the arm; the sucker who grabs the midsection and ends up with a snake wrapped around your neck; or the sucker in the back who will almost always be covered in urine and feces -- a process known politely as "musking" a predator.
A solo hunter can nab the snake by hand, but the process requires a rope-a-dope game of grabbing the snake by the back of its tail and swinging it around. When the snake rears its head to strike, the hunter drops the tail to dodge. The process is repeated until the snake becomes too exhausted to retaliate. When that finally happens, stuff the snake in a bag, drive it to the nearest drop-off station, and take a shower.
* * *
They call themselves "herpers."
With more than 40 snake species native in Florida, the state is home to a robust underworld of reptile enthusiasts who devote their weekends and disposable income looking for snakes. Holbrook is the co-founder and vice president of the South Florida Herpetological Society, a group of about 50 local snake lovers who meet monthly at a local exotic pet shop and go on field trips around the state.
Like any niche community, the herpers have their own parlance for the sport of snake catching. The word "herp," for example, can be used several ways. It's a noun ("That place was crawling with herps") or a verb ("Wanna go herpin' tonight?") The Everglades National Park, a popular place for spotting snakes, is almost always called the "ENT" and Holbrook's small sedan is called the "HRV"-- the "Herpetological Research Vehicle." The Burmese pythons are known simply as "Burms."
I meet Holbrook at his house in Lake Worth, where he lives with his wife, two dogs and a small zoo of reptiles. Caged between his guitars and a piano in the family "Herp Room," Holbrook owns no less than seven turtles, one Florida Pine Snake, a Southern Hog Nose Snake and two Boa Constrictors. He has two new snakes living under quarantine in his bedroom closet.
"That's all I've got for wild animals here," Holbrook says, looking around the room. "I think."
Holbrook is preparing for the first Herpetological Society meeting of the year, and tonight he's responsible for providing the raffle prizes. One lucky herper will win a pair of fire belly toads, which Holbrook picks up from his next-door neighbor, a reptile keeper from the Palm Beach Zoo.
Holbrook tosses the toads in a bag and drives down the street to "Wild Cargo Pets." Inside, a volunteer sets up a row of chairs and a projector surrounded by dozens of tanks filled with turtles, snakes, tarantulas and lizards. There's even a Burm coiled in the corner.
Before the meeting, a customer named Brian Jones walks in with a Florida Kingsnake wrapped around his hand and approaches Aaron Joyce, the store owner. "Hey man, can you sex my snake?" Jones asks Joyce. Assuming this does not mean what I thought it meant, I invite myself to follow Joyce and Jones toward his office. Joyce inserts a small metal probe into a slit near the end of the snake and diagnoses it to be male. Snakes lack external sexual organs, Joyce says, so finding the gender isn't as easy as peeking at their underbellies.
It's time for the meeting to begin. Speaking over the sound of a squawking bird, chirping crickets and bubbling aquariums, the club officers proceed through a roster of official business. They announce this year's upcoming "Burm Bash" and crack snide jokes about those "crazy rednecks running around with guns, knives, swords and bats" who signed up for the Python Challenge.
During the meeting, I reunite with Joyce near the back, who is helping a customer with a bag of frozen dead rats.
Joyce tells me he welcomes the Python Challenge. He's frustrated, however, that when it comes to invasive species, lawmakers and the media focus almost exclusively on snakes. Feral cats are bigger threats to wildlife than snakes, he insists, but no one talks about them. (Somehow the movie Kittens on a Plane never made it past pre-production.) Wild pigs are a nuisance too, but there's no Creation story about how Satan took on the form of Babe and tempted Eve with a taste of his Forbidden Bacon.
Making it worse, the restrictions placed on snake ownership cost his small business thousands of dollars in revenue. To him, snake ownership should be regulated, not banned. It is a right. "If they can take away your right to own a snake," Joyce says, "they can take your Bible and your guns next."
* * *
Meeting concluded, the group decides to take the after-party at club member Fred Grunwald's house.
Grunwald is one of the oldest herpers in the group, and he has the collection to prove it. His property is teeming with wildlife--instead of cars in his garage, he has a 16-foot Tiger Boa and countless other snakes. Those seeking a Bud Light in the cooler in the driveway will be dismayed to find a giant salamander who has been living in there contentedly for 25 years. In the backyard, tortoises roam the grass next to caged enclosures filled with crocodiles and hissing alligators. Get too close, and the oldest crocodile makes it a habit of snapping at the chain link fence that separates the beast from her potential dinner.
At the Grunwald home, it is not uncommon on cold days for the family to bring some of the wildlife indoors. The smaller crocodiles, for instance, very much enjoy splashing around in the family bathtub. Fred's 16-year-old granddaughter, Brooke, spent her childhood sharing bathrooms with crocodiles, a practice that left her wondering as a child why the other girls in town were apprehensive about coming to her slumber parties. Speaking of sleepovers, Brooke tells me that on one particularly cold night years ago, one of their Caiman crocs found its way into Fred's bed, where they "cuddled" comfortably through the night.
After a thorough tour of the grounds, Fred bids us adieu from his snake sanctuary. Before leaving, I ask how long he's kept giant reptiles for a living.
"For a living?" he asks. "This is just my hobby."
This man, who has slept with crocodiles, breeds giant alligators and keeps rare exotic pets in his garage, is no biologist or zoo keeper.
"I work at a grocery store."
* * *
The next morning Holbrook, Thullbery and Hannah hit the road for the day-long python hunt in the Everglades. The herpers scan the waterway as they drive, searching for signs life. A fleck of light reflecting from the sun; a sparkle in the water; a serpentine shape in the road ahead. They drive on, eyes peeled toward the rising sun.
That's when Hannah spotted the giant snake-looking creature on the side of the pond.
After he lept out of the car, Holbrook is blazing the trail through the grass with Thullbery trailing close behind. Halfway toward the bank, Thullbery missteps on the limestone and sinks his leg into the mud, but pulls himself out and presses on. Hannah is long hidden behind the grass by now, and shouts directions over the pond.
"Is it still there?" Holbrook shouts over the wall of grass toward Hannah, the lookout.
"Yes! Keep going around! You're almost there!" she shouts back.
With a new burst of hope, we push our way through.
"No! It's going in the water!" Hannah screams.
We reach an opening just as the last piece of flesh slithers into the pond. The next thing we see make our hearts sink.
That glistening line of dotted green that we had seen from far across the water was no python at all, but the tail of an enormous alligator whose upper body had been hidden beneath the water. The gator swims nearby as though only to taunt.
We retreat back to the Herpetological Research Vehicle, empty handed and our shoes soaked in mud.
In the end, no pythons were to be found that day. Even with experts like Holbrook on the hunt, most of the 99,000 Burms still slithering their way through the glades can rest easy. For now.