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Catch a Florida python, win a T-shirt

The state has announced the Python Pickup Program, which rewards  participants with T-shirts and other prizes if they find and kill a Burmese python in the wild. The pythons are an invasive species that have wiped out large numbers of small animals in the Everglades.
The state has announced the Python Pickup Program, which rewards participants with T-shirts and other prizes if they find and kill a Burmese python in the wild. The pythons are an invasive species that have wiped out large numbers of small animals in the Everglades.
Published Apr. 25, 2017

They tried hiring professionals. They tried training people to compete in a big roundup. They even brought in tribesmen from India.

Now Florida wildlife officials who want to rid the state of invasive snakes are trying something even more offbeat: prizes for anyone in the public who picks up a python.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission announced Monday that it's launching a "Python Pickup Program," in which anybody who captures a python in the wild can simply submit a photo of the snake he or she caught in order to win.

Each amateur snake-snatcher gets a "Python Pickup" T-shirt and is entered into a drawing for prizes that include "snake hooks, custom engraved Yeti tumblers, Plano sportsman's trunks, GoPro cameras and Badlands backpacks," according to a news release from the agency.

Next month's prizes include a $100 gas card.

Unlike with its "Python Challenge" roundups held in 2013 and 2016, the wildlife commission isn't requiring participants to get any training on how to catch a python.

"We will be offering free training opportunities and encouraging people to get training," executive director Nick Wiley said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. "Moreover, we have a lot of experience through our past two Python Challenges demonstrating that people can capture pythons in a safe manner."

Professional python wranglers couldn't quite believe the news. Ruben "Snake Dundee" Ramirez of Miami said he needed to see the official news release from the wildlife agency so he could see if it was real.

He contended it would be smarter for anyone who spots a python to call the wildlife agency's hotline, 1-888-Ive-Got1 (1-888-483-4681), and let a professional catch it.

"I'm pretty shocked they would do something like this," agreed Bill Booth, a Bradenton-based python hunter who was featured in a National Geographic show called Pythonathon.

Booth offered some advice for eager amateurs ready to go out in the woods and pounce on a python for a T-shirt and a gas card. For one thing, good luck even finding one. Most of the time they're nearly impossible to spot.

Pythons are ambush hunters, highly skilled at hiding, making them a challenge for a layman to find. More than 1,000 hunters took part in the first Python Challenge, and they caught a grand total of 68 snakes.

Booth's second piece of advice: Don't go in thinking they're easy to capture.

"I wouldn't recommend just going in and grabbing one," he said. "A 14- to 15-foot snake can make quick work out of you."

Although pythons are not venomous snakes, they do bite. Booth, who has been bitten several times over the years, predicted at least some of the amateurs will wind up with big tooth marks.

"You're going to get bitten, no question about it," he said. "You just hope it's just a warning bite. If they want to hold on to you, they're not going to let go. Their teeth face backward, and if they don't want to let go, they won't."

He offered one other piece of advice: Try to keep the snake on dry ground. It won't be as much of a fight. But if it's in a swamp, let it alone. Otherwise, you're liable to wind up "with a 14- to 15-foot snake wrapped around you that doesn't want to be caught."

The rules of the Python Pickup Program call for humanely killing the snake. Then it's as simple as snapping a photo that shows "the snake has been humanely euthanized and can be identified as a Burmese python" as well as "a GPS unit that clearly shows the date and location of capture." Email the photo to Pythons@MyFWC.com with the subject line "Python Pickup Program," and include your name, address, phone number, the date of capture and, of course, your T-shirt size.

On the last Friday of each month, wildlife officials will draw two or three raffle tickets for the monthly prizes, and will notify the winners. Next spring, they will choose a grand prize winner who gets a lifetime hunting permit.

Thousands of pythons have been slithering through the Everglades, wiping out entire populations of small mammals such as foxes, raccoons and rabbits. If caught and relocated, they find their way back, one traveling to Everglades National Park from 22 miles away.

They are not afraid of swimming through saltwater, either. Python eggs have been found in the Florida Keys.

Nothing Florida has done to fight back has put much of a dent in the population, estimated to be somewhere between 15,000 and 150,000.

The two roundups together brought in fewer than 200 of the snakes. In January, the agency hired two members of the snake-hunting Irula tribe in India, who caught 33 pythons over a two-month period. Meanwhile, wildlife officials recently hired 22 professional snake catchers to beat the bushes for the Burmese pests.

The one thing the state cannot do is ask people to eat them, the way it does another invasive species, the lionfish. The pythons are often too full of mercury to be safely consumed by humans. The pythons, of course, face no such warning about consuming people.

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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