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Search goes on for Burmese python in Snell Isle

ST. PETERSBURG — Brian Pavlina shuffled through thick grass along the edge of the Renaissance Vinoy Golf Club. As he stepped onto a stand of ash-gray mangroves, the branches cracked under his weight. Pavlina paused and looked but saw nothing.

Nearby he stumbled onto a culvert and quickly dropped to one knee, sticking his head inside the white plastic pipe. Again, nothing.

What Pavlina is looking for is on the minds of many folks, including hundreds of Snell Isle residents. But it's hard to find.

It's quiet. It knows how to hide. And it's a light brown that blends in with the trees. On the other hand, it's 10 feet long.

• • •

The Burmese python was seen on Memorial Day by two people fishing in a bayou near the golf course.

Since then, Pavlina and his friend Damen Hurd have volunteered more than 40 hours to search for the constrictor.

"Just imagine you're going out looking for a treasure," said Pavlina, 37, a conservation land manager in Sarasota. "This just happens to be a living, large snake."

He and Hurd are wildlife rescuers who hope to relocate the snake to a safer place.

"This python is most likely still in this area, but it's a very thick area and difficult to get through the terrain," said Hurd, 30, a wildlife educator in Bradenton.

It's arduous work that requires a lot of skill, some luck and an utter lack of fear.

• • •

On the local list of bizarre creatures, the Burmese python has a prominent position. The nonnative constrictors are not venomous but grow on average to be 6 to 9 feet. They feed on small animals and birds.

An established population exists in the Everglades, where large hunts are organized to capture the snakes. The semiaquatic snakes breed in the spring, and females carry an average of 35 eggs at a time, according to the National Zoo.

Burmese pythons also are scattered elsewhere in the state where pet owners release them if they get too difficult to handle. It's now illegal to buy them as a pet in Florida.

The Snell Isle python likely is a former pet that doesn't behave as a wild snake should, Hurd said.

The last unconfirmed sighting was shortly after Memorial Day, Hurd said. Two golfers saw the snake near the 12th hole.

He and Pavlina have not found tracks or shedded skin but think the snake is still here.

They hope another golfer sees it.

• • •

Across a creek and past some bushes near the golf course sit dozens of homes on Snell Isle. The neighborhood association has warned residents to watch out and keep track of their pets.

Lena Rogachevsky said the big snake has brought bizarre fame to her neighborhood.

"I think it's sort of funny," she said, adding she would probably run if she saw the python.

Marc Sunnucks said he is cautious but unafraid.

"I'm not that scared of snakes, but I still don't think I'd mess with a 10-foot python," he said.

Pavlina and Hurd do not want homeowners to fear. They're evangelists as well as rescuers, spreading word that the python is not a villain.

"To the person who is unfamiliar with them and doesn't know how to handle them, they are dangerous," said Pavlina, who was once bitten by a python on the inner thigh. "But they are not monsters."

• • •

Dusk was falling and again there was no sign of the snake. Perhaps it slithered away from the mangroves or into the sewer system during heavy rains in early June, Hurd said.

"I think we'll eventually capture it," he said. "It's just a matter of time."

Hurd's search is driven by compassion for a creature that terrifies many people.

He slung his gray backpack, filled with snake tongs and supplies, across his shoulders. He planned to fetch his kayak, paddle into the murky bayou and search some more.

Zachary T. Sampson can be reached at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Twitter: @zacksampson.

Search goes on for Burmese python in Snell Isle 07/05/13 [Last modified: Friday, July 5, 2013 9:50pm]
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