ON A LEVEE IN THE EVERGLADES — Beth Koehler stood on the Jeep’s console, her boots braced against the two front seats, half her body thrust through the sunroof. As the Jeep crept along a narrow gravel road atop a levee 60 miles west of Miami, Koehler’s eyes swept the landscape. Lights atop the car turned the darkness ahead as bright as day.
She had been at this for more than two hours Monday, and now it was nearly midnight. The humid night air was filled with a subdued chorus of hoots and ribbets.
Suddenly Koehler, 60, shouted, “Go forward!” Behind the wheel, Peggy Van Gorder, 53, co-owner with Koehler of the Hair of the Dog dog-grooming salon in St. Petersburg, hit the gas. The Jeep jumped toward a dark figure sliding across the road.
When they got closer, though, the women could see it was just a three-foot Florida cottonmouth, its head lifted like a submarine’s periscope. They watched the venomous snake scoot to the other side of the levee and slide down into a canal, then the Jeep moved on.
Koehler and Van Gorder were hunting for snakes, but they were seeking the non-native kind — Burmese pythons. The bigger, the better.
Earlier this month, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the state was going to double down on its efforts to eradicate the pythons, but he was short on specifics. State officials say they’re still working those out.
For now, though, the most cost-effective method for catching pythons is to do what Koehler and Van Gorder have beendoing: Drive around all night looking for them.
Avid bass anglers, the pair got hooked on python-hunting when, on a lark, they competed as amateurs in the state's 2016 python roundup. They didn't win any prizes, but they found they liked the work enough to get licensed as professionals. Two years into this side-gig, they figure they have found about 70 pythons, the longest about 12 feet. Their state paycheck last month, Van Gorder said, basically amounted to minimum wage.
But they said they’re not doing it for the money — $8.25 an hour plus a $50-per-snake bonus, another $25 per foot beyond 4 feet. They’re doing it to try to make a difference for Florida’s environment.
“I grew up down here,” Koehler, a Pembroke Pines native, said from her lookout perch. “I’ve seen the changes that have taken place.”
She pointed out that the pythons — powerful constrictors that squeeze the life out of their prey — have eaten plenty of birds and deer, and nearly all the foxes, raccoons, squirrels and other small mammals that once made the Everglades region special. “And now," she said, "all you’re going to see are rats, gators and pythons. … That’s why they have to be taken out.”
Besides, Van Gorder said, they relish the adrenaline rush of wrestling with a big, hissing snake, even though she once got bitten by a python and the snake's tooth remained lodged in her finger for months.
“We want to get our adventure in now,” she said cheerfully. “I can sit on a cruise ship when I’m an old lady.”
Experts have estimated there are 10,000 to 100,000 pythons infesting Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve and the thousands of acres of marshy public land surrounding them. Koehler and Van Gorder are two of the 41 licensed snake hunters — 28 male, 13 female — whom the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has dispatched to thin this reptile army. The pair received some acclaim earlier this summer for catching the program’s 500th python.
The wildlife agency is spending $581,000 a year battling pythons. It has done background checks on its hunters, spent hours training them and handed them global positioning units so they can record where, when and under what conditions they catch each snake.
The two women don’t call what they’re doing “hunting.” They call it “surveying.” They're searching for a snake that's incredibly hard to find despite their numbers. Pythons are ambush hunters, highly skilled at holding still and hiding until their prey is near enough to grab.
Generally if the women's survey leads to a python, they catch it but don’t kill it. They put it in a white cotton bag, stuff it into a padlocked box with airholes and take it to the state’s laboratory in Davie. There the lab staff kills it with a bolt to the brain, then takes measurements and performs a necropsy that includes an examination of what it's been eating.
Meanwhile the South Florida Water Management District has taken a different approach to solving the snake problem. The water agency, with a python-fighting budget of $225,000 a year, has hired 26 contractors, trained them on how to handle pythons and sent them out to find and kill them.
As Van Gorder sees it, the district simply “hired hunters and told them to go kill snakes. We’ll see which approach is better.”
Koehler kept the Jeep inching forward at about 6 mph. They spotted the occasional owl, several enormous rats and more than a few toothy alligators, but so far no pythons.
As a cloud passed over the gibbous moon Monday night, Van Gorder noticed a pair of headlights facing them in the distance. She knew who they likely belonged to: a wild man.
Dustin “Wildman” Crum is the most famous python hunter employed by the water management district. A Venice orchid dealer, he stars in the Discovery Channel show Guardians of the Glades.
On the show, the thick-bearded Crum runs through the swamp barefoot, with little apparent regard for the gators, feral hogs and venomous native snakes that also occupy this soggy terrain. He once caught a python that measured 16-feet, 11-inches long.
Koehler and Van Gorder knew Crum was working the same levee. They even timed their search so they wouldn’t run up behind him. They said they like Crum personally, but once clashed with his camera crew.
They believe what’s depicted on his TV show is, as Van Gorder said, “absolutely everything you shouldn’t do to catch a python.” She and Koehler blame the show for inspiring a rash of would-be poachers to show up in rural areas of South Florida looking to blow the head off any big snake, regardless of whether they are trained and licensed to do it.
“Everybody wants to be a snake hunter now,” Crum conceded in a phone interview.
Crum, 39, says he started hunting pythons back in 2012 by riding a bike around the levees at night, grabbing any snakes he saw, then getting a few hours of restless sleep in a tent during the heat of the day. Back then, he said, nobody seemed to take the python threat seriously, but he could foresee what kind of damage they could do.
Now Crum spends his daylight hours snoozing in an air-conditioned camper next to a roadside attraction called the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters in Ochopee. The Skunk Ape, a smelly cousin of Bigfoot that allegedly roams the Everglades wilderness, exists primarily on souvenir T-shirts, bumper stickers and several selfie-ready statues out front. Inside, there’s a glass case containing Goldie, a 24-foot python — a reticulated one, not a Burmese. Although the Skunk Ape campground is popular with many members of the snake-seeker brigade, Koehler and Van Gorder prefer to park their camper at a different campground, where they stay with their little Papillon dogs, Kate and Esabelle.
On Monday night, the drivers of the two trucks paced their vehicles so that they would intersect at a spot in the road wide enough for them to pass. Crum, without his camera crew, was perched in a camp chair in the back of his truck as Koehler and Van Gorder pulled alongside.
“Any luck?” Van Gorder called out.
“No,” Crum replied, sounding bored. “We must have already caught ‘em all.”
The following night, Crum posted a video to Facebook showing him wrangling a 12-footer into a bag. “Wooo!” he said when he was done. “That’ll get your blood pumping!”
Forty years have passed since the first Burmese python turned up in the Everglades.
In October 1979, the owner of an airboat tour operation called Everglades Safari notified park rangers that he had found a python on U.S. 41 that measured 11-foot-9. Someone had run over and killed it, he said. Park biologists jotted the information down on a notecard but that was all they did.
In 1992, when Hurricane Andrew blasted through South Florida, it blew apart a reptile breeding facility near the park, releasing an unknown number of captive snakes. Other exotic animal facilities were damaged as well, setting free hundreds of monkeys and other creatures. The owners scurried around trying to recapture what they could, but experts say at least some of the pythons got away.
Still, no one was worried yet even as pythons grew in popularity among reptile aficianodos. Federal records show that between 1999 and 2006, importers brought more than 99,000 Burmese pythons into the U.S. No one knows how many were later set free in the Everglades.
A National Park Service biologist named Ray “Skip” Snow began sounding the alarm about the invading snakes in the late 1990s, but no one took his warnings seriously because he had no proof that pythons were mating in the wild. Then, in 2003, he finally found hatchlings, incontrovertible evidence of breeding — only to be told by the people in charge that it was now too late to stop the pythons from spreading across the park.
In 2005, Snow and a park helicopter pilot named Michael Baron stumbled on a gruesome scene: A python had tried to swallow an alligator, and in the struggle both the animals wound up dead. A photo of the grisly aftermath went viral, and suddenly pythons became the poster child for invasive species in Florida, which has more non-native animals and plants than any other state.
Yet officials were reluctant to take steps to halt imports of more pythons, a move that the pet industry strongly opposed. In 2010, during a congressional subcommittee hearing on possibly banning python imports, the state Wildlife Commission’s top invasive species expert, Scott Hardin, said Florida was on top of the python problem. Instead of an immediate ban, he urged “flexible legal and operational solutions.”
“He certainly made it sound like the state could deal with it” with no help from the federal government, said invasive species expert Daniel Simberloff, a University of Tennessee-Knoxville environmental science professor who also testified at that hearing. No legislation passed. Instead, then-President Barack Obama issued an executive decision banning further Burmese python imports, although domestic breeding is still allowed.
Larry Perez, a former Everglades National Park ranger who wrote a book called Snake in the Grass: An Everglades Invasion, said Hardin always reminded him of a police officer telling everyone, “Move along, nothing to see here.”
Two years later, Hardin — credited with creating the state's first python-hunting program — retired from the wildlife agency. He immediately got hired as a consultant for the pet industry. An industry website noted that Hardin owns a ball python named Ricky.
“His change of careers speaks volumes,” Perez said.
Hardin, in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, said the government moved slowly in confronting the python invasion because "it was not a problem for which we had a lot of experience." He defended his job switch by saying that "I saw no conflict between the Wildlife Commission's position and that of the pet industry, which was to encourage responsible pet ownership."
From kudzu vines swallowing barns across the South to feral camels gobbling up native plants across Australia, invasive species are a problem the world over. But the python invasion, and the way they have eaten everything in their path, tops all other cases, according to Simberloff.
The pythons have expanded their range to the north, west and even south to the Keys. When a cold snap in January 2010 killed hundreds of them, a study later found that the survivors had adapted to the change in temperature, so future generations of pythons would be less likely to die from a blast of cold air.
The only case that’s comparable to the pythons, Simberloff said, involves the brown tree snakes that invaded Guam, wiping out the island’s songbirds. Federal officials have been attempting to combat these invaders by air-dropping dead rats attached to little parachutes. The rats are stuffed with the pain reliever acetaminophen, which kills the snakes.
Florida has not yet become that desperate, but it too has tried innovative techniques for tracking down pythons. Snake-sniffing dogs found their quarry but had a hard time handling the heat. Traps didn’t catch the elusive reptiles. A pair of python rodeos, while attracting hundreds of wannabe snake wranglers, resulted in such a small number of captures that they could be replaced with a couple of females laying a single clutch of eggs.
Scientists have tried attaching transmitters to captured female pythons and releasing them, then tracking them to a group of males ready to mate. But that’s expensive and time-consuming.
State officials have high hopes for altering the snakes’ DNA to make them sterile, or adapting the snake’s own pheromones — the scent that enables one python to find another for mating — as a method of detecting them. But so far those are goals, not a tactics. Thus the only practical way to get the pythons is to send hunters like Koehler, Van Gorder and Crum out to the levees, armed with sheath knives, sharp eyes and nerves of steel.
“Boots on the ground is still the best way to catch them,” the barefoot Crum said.
During Monday’s python search near Big Cypress National Preserve, Van Gorder kept going by munching on a bag of mixed nuts and playing Taylor Swift songs. Occasionally she found a wide spot and pulled over so she could stand up and Koehler could sit down. Then they’d get back in position and start rolling again.
This is their routine: If Koehler spots a python, she shouts that word. Even before Van Gorder hits the brake she’s moving, sliding down from the sunroof and scooting out the passenger door to run toward the snake. Koehler is slender, with glasses, yet more than once she’s made a flying, face-first leap at a python to pin it down before it could slide away.
If Koehler has pinned the snake’s head, then Van Gorder, who is the stronger of the two, will grab its flailing body.
“It’s important not to let them coil up around your hands, because they will try to pop them off,” Van Gorder said. “They’re one giant tube of muscle.” But sometimes, she said, “I like to let it coil around my leg so I can walk it back up the levee.”
The way they nabbed the 500th snake — a female nearly 10 feet long — was by grabbing it and then just lying on top of it for a half-hour or so.
“We tuckered it out,” Koehler said.
On Monday night, they talked about some of the other things they've spotted during python surveys, like meteor showers. Once, they said, they encountered a panther, the sight so stunning they couldn’t react before it was gone.
However, they could do without the bugs – mosquitoes galore, moths attracted by the lights, beetles that fly into Koehler’s hair. Despite the hunters’ fearlessness when tackling pythons, on one night they found a praying mantis in the Jeep and both bailed out.
Monday night’s search continued until 3 a.m., when they gave up on finding any pythons. Before heading back to camp, though, they showed off the Jeep’s hidden passenger: A live 8-foot python they’d captured the night before. They had been keeping it in a cotton bag inside a locked box, stuck behind the back seat.
On Tuesday night they went back out surveying again. This time, all they caught was a 2-foot python, a little hatchling that Koehler grabbed one-handed. Three nights of effort, 24 hours of relentless searching, had yielded just two pythons, one a juvenile.
The fight that hatchling put up, Van Gorder said, would seem like nothing on Thursday, when they got back to their dog-grooming business and encountered “the first Shih Tzu …with a bad attitude.”
Senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Contact Craig Pittman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @craigtimes.