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Steve Featherstone in Oxford American on Florida's Python Challenge






16 things I underlined in the piece in the current issue about the Everglades snake hunt (that also provided a Floridian cover story) last year:

1. Fobb coaxed the python back into the sack and tied the drawstring. He never got a chance to address the second thing that separates humans from other animals, aside from our enormous brains. But if I had to venture a guess, I'd say that we're the only animal exempt from being classified as invasive.

2. According to a recent study published in the journal Zootaxa, 137 exotic species of frogs, toads, skinks, salamanders, newts, chameleons, crocodiles, monitors, snakes, turtles, iguanas, and geckos -- collectively known as herpetofauna -- run loose in Florida, more than any other place in the world.

3. "It's luck, and it's just looking everywhere, all the time," Blake said. He swung an invisible machete. "The only stupid thing to do is get out and bushwhack."

4. It's no coincidence that most pythons killed or captured in Florida are found alongside roads and highways. That's where human and python behaviors intersect.

5. "They're not used to getting eaten, either," she said. "Them and gators -- that's really the top of the food chain now. So unless you're a giant gator, I think the pythons are like, 'Whatever.'"

6. Adult Burmese pythons don't have any natural enemies in Florida, and in some ways they have more in common with oranges than with alligators, the only other animals out here who match them in size and power. Both oranges and pythons originated in the tropics of Asia and were later introduced to Florida's subtropical environment, where they now proliferate.

7. "The subspecies that got imported to the U.S. primarily came from Myanmar, and is primarily of that southern race," Jim said, raising his voice to be heard above an F-16 streaking toward Homestead Air Force Base. "We got the Confederates instead of the Yankees. Right now we're trying to figure out if you ship a bunch of Confederates up north, do they die of cold?"

8. Michelle and Jim work out of the Daniel Beard Center located in Everglades National Park, a low concrete building painted flamingo pink and aquamarine. The center is a monument to Florida's peculiar history of invasions of one form or another. Built in 1964 on a reclaimed tomato farm in the heart of the Everglades, its retro color scheme disguises its original function as a missile base designed to intercept nukes launched from Cuba.

9. "We do not have any proven tools for the control or eradication of invasive reptiles on the landscape level, we just don't."

10. Running my fingers over its scales, I marveled at the python's simplicity. There is nothing superfluous about a large constrictor. It has no need for limbs, fins, wings, horns, fur, venom, an enormous brain, or any of the other fussy adaptations other creatures developed to catch food, reproduce, and avoid being eaten. It's essentially a feeding tube endowed with an appetite as voracious as it is indiscriminate.

11. They are exquisite eating machines, capable of increasing the size of their hearts by forty percent to digest animals with a body mass almost equal to their own. No matter how feisty it may be, a six-foot gator is just another item on the python's menu.

12 ... one pregnant python could still replenish all the snakes killed in the contest.

13. Eradicating pythons from Florida is practically impossible. They can only be controlled, like firearms. In 2010, the FWC banned sales of Burmese pythons and required pet owners to register their snakes, making Florida the only state where it's easier to buy a Colt Python revolver than an actual python.

14. "There could be ten pythons right there and we could never hardly know it," Jim said. He walked down the road, waving his flashlight over the dark thicket of cocoplum and poisonwood trees. "I mean, look at this! There could be five million of them out here. It's like looking for sharks on Miami Beach."

15. I gripped the python hard behind its knobby jawbones. Its wedge-shaped head was the size of my hand, and its body was as big around as a two-liter soda bottle. To support its weight I adopted the pose of a scarecrow, arms outstretched. The python wasn't limp. It had the latent energy of a coiled spring. I could feel its powerful muscles rippling against the back of my neck, tensing and relaxing. The only part of it that moved was the tip of its tail, which curled around my ankle in a gesture that seemed more reflexive than predatory.

"It's beautiful," I said.

16. I'd never thought of them as Florida pythons, but Devin was right. The hatchling lying on the road next to my car was as authentically Burmese as I was Irish. It was born in the Everglades. It had as much claim to Florida as the snowbirds and tourists, the sugar cane and oranges -- invasives, all -- that have fueled the state's economy and contributed to the permanent destruction of more than half the Everglades. The python wouldn't be considered such a big problem if it brought something to the table instead of eating everything on it.

[Last modified: Wednesday, March 12, 2014 11:30am]


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