EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK
The python hunter pumped the gas, as if driving faster might make a snake materialize from the dark.
In the distance, lightning unzipped the black sky, exposing choppy prairies beside the winding road.
"Maybe it'll chase some snakes our way," Greg Graziani said.
It was after midnight. His family — wife, a girl and a boy, the dog — were draped across the seats of his Ford F-250 pickup like comforters, eyes closed.
Earlier the wife had said: "I'm tired of going and not catching one."
Graziani was frustrated too. The state has given him and 14 other snake breeders and handlers a license to hunt Burmese pythons. Since that time, most of his buddies had caught pythons. One snatched up four in a single night.
This was Graziani's fifth trip and in all that time, he'd caught exactly one.
He'd spotted the snake near an old hunting shack in the Everglades. As a pack of media watched, he grabbed its tail. His buddy grabbed its head and, well, all you saw in the Time magazine photo was the bill of Graziani's cap.
"There's someone up ahead." He hit the brakes.
Snake hunters. They crouched on the side of the road with flashlights.
"Seen any Burms?" Graziani asked.
One of the men nodded over to his pickup. In the bed was a bloody 6-foot Burmese python. The man had crushed its skull with a bat. It still squirmed.
Graziani cringed. There's no sport in that, he thought. Still, he looked at it enviously.
Some would say Greg Graziani is part of the problem. He's a python breeder who, over the years, sold thousands of snakes to live out their lives in suburban aquariums. But some pets were abandoned, some slithered loose during Hurricane Andrew, and now the Everglades has a snake problem. The numbers are a mystery. At first, experts estimated 5,000. Then 30,000. Now 150,000. No one knows. The snakes snack on native wildlife and tangle with gators. Not much stands in their way.
Now Graziani is determined to be part of the solution.
So with his kids and wife and dog in tow, he heads to the Everglades almost once a week in search of the biggest snake on U.S. soil.
Who better to hunt down these snakes than the man who made so many?
Graziani, 40, has been catching snakes since he was 7. He used to collect Florida native snakes in Pembroke Pines where he grew up and sell them to pet stores for pocket money.
Then he got into breeding the large constrictors, the Burmese, the Reticulated, the African rocks. He sold hundreds.
When those waned in popularity, he turned to the smaller, more easy-going ball pythons. He found that if he bred ball pythons with different genetic color mutations to each other, he got more and more unusual-looking snakes.
"We change the color," he said. "It's almost like a party."
On his 14-acre farm with horses and chickens in a tiny town called Venus, west of Lake Okeechobee, Graziani maintains an air-conditioned warehouse with an elaborate snake operation.
Circling the room in form-fitting Wranglers, he pulled out container after container of his designer originals. He has about 700 snakes, many of them for sale at $150 to $10,000.
One ball python had peachy orange and yellow highlights splashed over a black and dark brown pattern. Another, a chestnut and black pattern alternating with pure white. Then a pale yellow one with a coffee brown and dark black jungle pattern. Pewter and white. Black and white. Pure white with blue eyes. Pure black with black eyes.
In 2005, Graziani sold his Mona Lisa of snakes, the Bumblebee, a pale salmon and black snake. He got $50,000 for two of them and quit his job as a deputy sheriff.
In the center of his warehouse, large blue bins held his newest experiment, albino alligators worth as much as $45,000.
But snakes are his passion. He admires their power, their prowess as a predator, their bizarreness. "How many other animals out there can survive like that with no limbs?"
His kids have grown up handling the snakes. Lexi, his 10-year-old, held ball python hatchlings when she was a baby. Lane, his 8-year-old, was first bitten by a snake at 18 months.
The python hunter loves the rush of a snake hunt. He yearns to catch his own big snake in the Everglades. He's teaching his son to hunt Burmese pythons. But Graziani hates the part that comes after the catch. The state requires python hunters to kill the snakes before they leave state land.
"I don't particularly want to be killing them," Graziani said.
• • •
Driving along the two-lane road inside Everglades National Park, Graziani and his wife, Jacki, complained about the other snake hunter bashing the snake over the head with the bat.
"My son could have caught that snake without getting bit and you know what?" Graziani ranted, nodding to the back seat and his sleeping son, "Maybe he would have gotten bit, but that's the adrenaline of catching a snake. That guy's obviously afraid of large pythons."
Graziani wished he could have put the snake out of its misery. But he wasn't supposed to be hunting in Everglades National Park.
It was federal land. Graziani had applied for a permit to hunt pythons on federal land. But so far he'd only received permission from the state to look for pythons on state land, and they'd found nothing there so far this evening.
He wasn't sure what he'd do if he found a python inside Everglades National Park, where wildlife experts said the bulk of the pythons lived.
Graziani knew the snakes weren't supposed to be in the Everglades, but he felt protective of them all the same. His thoughts: They don't mess with people unless they're being messed with.
"One of the other problems I have is claiming the animals are a public safety issue," he said.
As he spoke, the pickup's headlights illuminated a long, straight white strip, covering all of one lane and part of another. It looked like a python.
"HOLD ON," he yelled.
• • •
He jerked the steering wheel and slammed on the brakes. The truck lurched wildly, its occupants — sleeping children, dog, wife — piling up on one end of the truck and then crashing forward.
Graziani put the truck in park, opened the door and jumped out — all in one movement. He rounded the back of the truck and rushed to the road.
The massive python had launched into a slither and was escaping into the woods. Graziani grabbed its tail just in time, prompting the snake to rear back, its mouth open. It turned toward his wife, who was trying to get the videocamera going.
"I can't get this on night mode," Jacki yelled.
The python angled its head back toward Graziani again and lunged, its mouth wide and hissing. Graziani jumped back. The snake lunged, hissed, missed and recoiled. Once. Twice. Three. Four more times.
"Lane, Lane, wake up, it's a big Burm," Jacki yelled at her son.
Now Graziani had the snake by the neck with both hands. Both the man and the snake shook with the force of the battle.
"This is a wild Burm," yelled Graziani, gleefully. "Where's Lane, is he seeing this?"
Just then, a pungent yellow liquid poured from the snake all over Graziani's arms and jeans. The python wrapped its tail around Graziani's arm tightly, crushing his wrist backward.
"Jack, can you get the tail? Graziani grunted to his wife. "He's about to break my hand."
By now Lexi was on the road and Lane was in the bed of the pickup. Jackie handed the camera to Lexi and unraveled the snake from her husband's arm.
They sat there a moment, panting, the snake still struggling.
Graziani's mind reeled. If he took the snake, he risked not getting his permit and he faced a fine for taking the snake from federal land.
But he couldn't let it go. It was huge. Part of him wanted to stick it in his cooler and take it home. He hated the thought of killing it.
"This is going to be awful to turn this loose," he said, still fighting the snake. "This makes absolutely no sense."
Then he made a decision.
"Clear out the big box," he said.
• • •
Back in the pickup, Graziani drove for a while, reveling.
"That's the largest snake I've ever caught," he said. "That was so exciting."
His daughter, Lexi, was quietly playing a cake-baking computer game on a laptop in the backseat.
"Daddy," she asked, sweetly, "what are we going to do with the snake?"
He didn't know.
Even as he talked, though, he realized he'd rather face a fine or the loss of his python hunting license than release the snake back into the wild.
It was now 1:59 a.m. Graziani called the state wildlife dispatch, who gave him the number for a federal park dispatcher. He called that number.
"This is Greg Graziani and I'm one of the python hunters out hunting tonight and I have a dilemma," he said. "I'm in the national park with a 15-foot python and legally I don't think I can take it from the park. But I have a real problem watching it crawl off back into the Everglades. Is there a supervisor I can talk to?"
As he talked, he pulled up to the empty guard gate near the park entrance and stopped.
"I don't want to create any problems for the park service," he continued, "but this is a very large python and I'd hate to see it crawl back into the wild."
There was a pause and then Graziani said, "yes sir," and he turned the truck around.
• • •
Graziani backed his truck up to a squat concrete block building deep inside the Everglades.
Everyone jumped out and Graziani walked up to a screened porch. Inside, he found a cooler. He opened it up and found the dead snake with the crushed skull that he'd seen earlier in the night. It still squirmed.
The other snake hunters had dropped it off for an Everglades National Park wildlife biologist. Graziani would do the same, no questions asked.
He headed back to the truck and opened the lid of his cooler. The snake sat there curled and motionless, its skin an iridescent green in the pale light.
Graziani pulled it out of the cooler onto the grass. It weighed about 80 pounds. It still tried to bite him.
"Look at the muscles in that mouth," he said.
Jacki pulled the coiling snake away from his arm and stretched it out. Then Lane and Lexi held its tail and Graziani pulled the snake taut. They marked him off there on the sidewalk with sticks and took a tape measure to it.
About 14 feet long.
"Lexi, go lay down beside it real quick," Jacki said. "See how tall you are compared to its tail."
Lexi stretched out, arms above her head, while Lane held its tail and Graziani held its head.
The camera flashed.
Again and again.
"Pull his tail, Lane," Jacki said. "Pull that out, Lexi. Grab it like you're not afraid of it, Lexi.
"Okay, say cheese!"
The next day, Graziani found out his snaking hunting license from the federal government was in the mail. A week later, his 8-year-old son caught a 9-foot Burmese by himself near Everglades National Park. The snake was not on state or federal land. So Graziani got to keep it. He's still not sure what he's going to do with it.
Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at [email protected] or 727-893-8640.