The crowd gathered on the grass around the man with the bag. In the bag was a 13-foot Burmese python. This was last month, a hot, sunny Saturday morning, in Davie at a University of Florida research center, the official start of the state-sanctioned snake hunt in the Everglades called the Python Challenge.
Gawkers, contestants and cameras waited for the tutorial by Jeff Fobb, a snake expert with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue. He let the python out of the bag but held on to her tail. He pointed out what she wasn't doing. She wasn't trying to attack him. What she was doing was trying to get away. She slithered around the ground. People gasped and took pictures. He quickly grabbed her behind the head.
Remember when trying to catch pythons, he told everybody, we have a couple of things they don't.
A TV reporter asked him if it wasn't a little unrealistic to think regular citizens and inexpert thrill-seekers would be able to do out in the wild what he just did on the grass. Fobb started to talk. A loud plane flew low overhead on the way to Fort Lauderdale. Nobody could hear what he was saying.
It probably wouldn't have mattered anyway.
THE PROBLEM WITH THE PYTHONS is they're not supposed to be here.
The Sunshine State's lot of giant Asian constrictors started as pets that either were released or escaped. That was in the southern end of Everglades National Park. The first one was found in 1979. It was removed. The next one wasn't found until 1995. Since 2000, though, the population has grown dramatically. The exact number is unknown. It's almost certainly in the tens of thousands. It could be in the hundreds of thousands. They're capable of killing and eating most mammals and birds they encounter throughout South Florida — and they have, annihilating in the Everglades once-abundant populations of opossums, bobcats, rabbits and raccoons. One was found last year digesting a 76-pound deer. They can grow to more than 20 feet, and live more than 25 years, and reproduce prodigiously. They're moving north.
Scientists have described the situation with the words "unprecedented" and "takeover."
THE STATE HAS LET PEOPLE HUNT FOR PYTHONS BEFORE, first people with a special permit, then anybody with a hunting license, but the Python Challenge is something new. It's open to anybody. Contestants need no experience hunting pythons. They don't need experience hunting anything. They don't even need a hunting license. All they need is to pay $25 and do nominal online training. The directive: Catch a snake, kill it, bring it to any of a few dropoff locations from Naples to Miami. The prize for the biggest snake is $1,000. The prize for the most is $1,500. The contest started Jan. 12 and ends Feb. 10.
The number of registrants that morning in Davie was 749 and growing. People had come from all over Florida, more than 30 states and Canada — engineers, nurses, inventory supervisors, writers of code for iPhone apps — and they had pistols, rifles, shotguns, knives, machetes, spears, rakes and drills. The Associated Press called it a mob. Reality TV film crews spied a ready-made casting call — rubber waders and neck tattoos, tall boots and short shorts, airboats sporting stars and bars.
"They are clearly eager to help us better understand and solve this problem," said Kenneth Wright, chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Something like that.
ONE OF THEM WAS JUSTIN MATTHEWS. He wore a straw hat and a 9-inch knife on his belt. The roofer's passion is animals. He runs a wildlife rescue nonprofit. At home in Ellenton in Manatee County, he has a great horned owl named Cosmo, a hawk named Gus, a tortoise named Tank, two boa constrictors and a 12-foot python named Axl Rose.
Matthews, 50, was dismissive of some of his fellow contestants, calling them "exterminator wanna-bes," "safari wanna-bes" and "all kind of wanna-bes."
"I don't want to sound like I'm bragging," he added, "but I can find things no one else can."
He pledged to "hand catch" a python and then "kill its brain with my knife."
All the hunters had their reasons for entering the Python Challenge. Matthews didn't like the idea of killing snakes, but he would kill a python in the Everglades, he said, because he believed this was the same thing as saving native wildlife.
But that wasn't his only reason.
WILL THIS WORK? People like Matthews traipsing through the Everglades trying to find pythons? I called J.D. Willson. He co-wrote the book Invasive Pythons in the United States.
"What does 'work' really mean?" he said. "Every snake that's gone is good. But it's definitely not going to solve the problem."
Every year, he said, trappers remove a few hundred snakes from the Everglades. That's good for research purposes. But it's not enough to make any kind of significant dent in the population.
So how many snakes would the Python Challenge need to kill to make a difference?
JUSTIN MATTHEWS IS JUST ONE MAN. But he wasted no time. The contest started that first Saturday at 1. He was out there even a little before that. Joining him were his brother, Eric Matthews, a mechanic, and his brother-in-law, Roy Suggs, who owns a small excavating company. They were extra sets of eyes. Neither one really wanted to go grab a python. That would be Justin's job.
They stopped their tan Tahoe at the northern end of the Francis S. Taylor Wildlife Management Area. The midday sun burned as Matthews walked into the sawgrass prairie with a wooden stick he called his lucky poker. He jabbed it into thickets of palmettos. He stuck his hand in the water in the canal, estimating it was 75, 80 degrees — perfect for pythons.
He poked under a tuft of grass and jerked it up.
"I thought I heard hissing," he said.
Matthews grew up catching snakes in rural east Manatee. In 2008, he caught a python, a 13-footer, not far from the parking lot of a Bradenton Walmart. In the summer of 2009, he nabbed another one, also 13 feet, after a lengthy, bloody struggle in a drainage pipe near a Sweetbay and a preschool. TV cameras captured the drama. A toddler in Sumter County had just been killed by a pet python, and people around the state were freaked about the spread of the snakes. Turned out, though, this particular python actually belonged to Matthews, and he eventually admitted the whole thing was staged. He got two years of probation for misusing 911.
He calls it a "mistake" and "dead wrong." The Python Challenge, he thought, was a chance to catch another one, for real.
"Even though I pulled a fake, I'm not a fake," he insisted, "and I'm going to prove it out here."
The Everglades is a difficult place to search for redemption. It's a difficult place to search for a lot of things. The series of subtropical wetlands covers roughly the bottom third of the Florida peninsula. The area is roughly 60 miles wide and 100 miles long. Researchers say the pythons are just about everywhere. The trouble with just about everywhere is it's the same thing as just about anywhere.
SIZE ISN'T THE ONLY ISSUE IN THE EVERGLADES. Later that afternoon, at the southern end of the same wildlife management area, down by Tamiami Trail, Matthews climbed over a berm and was all but swallowed by more tall, sharp grasses. He saw an opossum hole. He saw an armadillo hole. He saw a black racer. A hawk circled above. But no pythons. Matthews was barely off the dirt path, close enough to talk to his brother and brother-in-law without shouting, but the ground was an impenetrably marshy, soupy muck.
"It's like quicksand in here," he said.
At least 90 percent of python habitat in the Everglades, according to Mike Dorcas, a biologist at Davidson College and an expert on pythons, is largely inaccessible — for people. For pythons? They love it. They love the sawgrass. They love the mangroves. They love the cypress swamps. The Everglades is a better place for snakes from Asia than it is for people from anywhere.
The three members of Team Matthews needed a break from looking for snakes they couldn't see. They drove to the Miccosukee tribe's stucco casino and walked inside. The huge room was frigid cold and smelled like smoke. Rows of fixed-face gamblers sat and touched screens and pushed buttons of games with names like Wild Flowers and Yummy Cherries. Matthews' brother and brother-in-law played a $20 bill and lost.
THE NEXT DAY, after Matthews and his mates had gone back to Manatee County to try to make some money, I drove the dirt Loop Road through Big Cypress National Preserve. It's one of the state's great drives. Puts you in your place. You're on the food chain and not necessarily at the top. It's where I ran into camo-clad half brothers Chris Padgett and Matt Manus from Sebring. In the cooler in the back of their pickup, a dead python was coiled up next to some Coke cans.
"She came up wanting to fight," Padgett said.
"I shot her in the head," Manus said.
They arrived at the dropoff location on a dusty boat ramp with their 7-footer as somebody else was unloading one that measured 9.
Somebody's always got a bigger snake.
THREE THINGS I LEARNED that afternoon at the dropoff location:
1. French reporters make pythons rhyme with titans.
2. Dead snakes still squirm.
3. The blood that seeps from the holes in their heads looks like raspberry jam.
KNOW HOW MANY SNAKES hundreds of hunters caught in the first three days of the Python Challenge?
Know how many snakes an average python in the Everglades gives birth to at least every other year?
NOT QUITE A WEEK LATER, on a Thursday morning, Matthews' brother-in-law backed his RV into a spot at Midway Campground on Tamiami Trail in Big Cypress. They were back, undeterred, ready to resume the hunt.
Matthews walked away from the back of the RV and within 10 feet was in thick, hip-high brush. Mosquitoes buzzed in his ears. He stopped when he spied a muddy swipe on the ground. "That would take a big python to have done that," he said. "Bigger than mine." He followed it. It went this way, that way, wrapped around a cypress tree. He kept following it until it … just ended.
He walked back onto the paved path around the campground, past an RV from Texas, past an RV from Iowa, past an RV from New Hampshire, the sound of bird chirps mixing with generator whirs.
He got to a tent and met a talkative man named Ron Powell, a retired Hillsborough County firefighter who now lives in Bradenton, a self-described "adrenaline junkie" looking for something to do, and who caught and killed one of the first 11 pythons. Wasn't even looking, Powell said. Just saw a tail on the side of a trail and pulled.
Matthews said bye and walked toward the Tamiami Trail's warm asphalt. The key to finding pythons, he thought, was to try not to look.
He saw a turtle in the canal.
He saw another black racer.
He saw so many alligators.
He saw …
"What is that up there?" he said.
Piece of cardboard.
THEY CAN SMELL YOU COMING. They can feel you coming. They're not easily found because they don't want to be found.
WHAT'S DISAPPOINTING TO REALIZE ABOUT HUNTING FOR PYTHONS is that the most effective way to do it is to drive, and drive, and keep driving. So unsexy, so unfun. So much time, so much gas.
The people who win the money are going to lose money doing it. The Python Challenge makes the Miccosukee casino odds look good.
LATER THAT NIGHT, BACK AT THE CAMPGROUND, I asked Matthews why he felt so comfortable with animals. Why did he like them so much? He told a story about his granddad. His granddad once shot a bear near Plant City. He watched the bear sink slowly into a sitting position and whimper while it held its wound. His granddad vowed never to shoot an animal again.
Animals, Matthews said, are just like us.
"They don't want to die. They want to live."
THE PYTHON CHALLENGE WAS A WEEK OLD. The total tally for the now more than 1,000 hunters was 21 snakes. Three a day. That pace would add up to less than 100 for the month.
All those pairs of thumbs.
All those big brains.
You know what a mob in the Everglades looks like? Nothing. The Everglades makes mobs disappear.
SATURDAY MORNING. It had rained overnight, and the weather was warm and getting warmer — conditions that pointed to pythons on the move. Optimism surged. Outside the RV, Matthews got his camera, clipped on his knife and a machete, too, and wrapped a long rope around his torso — to help drag a snake carcass back to camp. The plan was to walk 8 miles south of the Tamiami Trail. He got his brother to drop him off.
"See you in four or five hours," he said.
"Good luck," his brother said.
At the start of the trail were the splayed feathers of some big dead water bird. On top of a fat wood post was a red-headed vulture drying its wings.
Matthews started in on the trail.
Have you ever heard mud? You have if you've walked on a trail in the Everglades the night after a rain. The boot-sucking slop was the color of mocha and the consistency of pudding.
But then the mud disappeared. The trail did too. It turned into a swamp. The ankle-high water became shin-high water became knee-high water. We had walked a few hundred yards. We could still hear the speeding traffic on Tamiami Trail.
Matthews stared at the water. He looked around for alligators.
He held his walkie-talkie to his mouth.
"Hey, Eric," he said. "You there?"
MATTHEWS, DEFLATED, TRUDGED BACK TO THE ROAD and started walking back to the campground, 1 mile, 2 miles, listening to the squeegee sounds of his sopping boots.
That's when he saw it.
An egret, white feathers, long, yellow beak, round, frightened eyes — it flapped its wings frantically but went nowhere.
Matthews quickly knelt next to the bird.
"He's too weak to fly," he said. "He's emaciated. He's starving."
With his rough, big-knuckled hands, Matthews cradled the egret. It stopped struggling. "Animals know when you're trying to help them," he said.
He walked another mile, nestling the bird to his ribs, and back to the campground, where he showed the bird to the volunteer park ranger, who called the National Park Service station up the road. They said they could help.
The ranger gave Matthews and the egret a ride in his truck to the station. On the way, they chatted.
"You seen any pythons?" Matthews asked.
"Not one," the ranger said.
Michael Kruse can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8751. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkruse.