By JIM ABRAMS
Most of us have heard the horror stories of abandoned pets, but what if that pet went rogue? Picture a seemingly docile animal that the owner can no longer care for being abandoned in a remote area, a situation that angers most of us.
Frightened and suddenly forced to fend for itself, it begins its search for food. Following a nightmarish script that could have been inked by Stephen King, it begins to grow. Its appetite blossoms and expands as it begins to dominate its surroundings.
As luck would have it, it finds a similarly discarded creature of its own kind and offspring result. Never having been held by a human, these are born to the hunt. Reaching nearly 200 pounds, they need to feed. They move silently through the countryside in search of their next hapless victim.
Their attack is a sudden ambush as they use their great strength to suffocate and choke the life from their prey and, with a grotesque gift from Mother Nature, its jaw unhinges to allow it to swallow its victim whole. In my mother’s words, this gives me the “heebie-jeebies.” But this isn’t a King novel; this story is real.
Burmese pythons that were sold as exotic pets have found their way into the wilds of south Florida. Once calling a glass terrarium home, these snakes either escaped, grew until they were too much to care for or the owner developed a reptilian set of morals and just kicked them out to live off the land, a land they found most welcoming.
The Burmese python is now found across more than 1,000 square miles of southern Florida, including Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve and Collier-Seminole State Forest. This isn’t just a couple of snakes; estimates indicate they number into the tens-of-thousands.
While they do compete with native wildlife for food, their primary food is that native wildlife. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, severe declines in native species have occurred in the remote southernmost regions of the Everglades. Large constrictor snakes haven’t existed in North America for millions of years and their impact on native species is staggering. According to the National Wildlife Federation, “These non-native invaders put over 40 percent of threatened or endangered species at risk.”
An eerie and unnatural silence now envelopes portions of the Everglades where the busy raucousness of wildlife’s daily life was once the norm.
A study conducted in 2012 indicates that since 1997, raccoon populations dropped 99.3 percent, opossums dropped 98.9 percent and bobcats dropped 87.5 percent. Marsh rabbits, cottontail rabbits and foxes effectively disappeared. Larger Burmese pythons have been found with entire deer inside their bodies.
How big can a Florida Burmese python get? Two-feet long upon hatching, they grow quickly to 10 feet, then their growth slows considerably. That growth slows but doesn’t stop. Snakes over 20 feet in length and with weights of 200 pounds have been found.
As a constrictor, the Burmese python uses its strength to wrap and squeeze the life out of its prey, then swallows the animal. Human fatalities from non-venomous snakes are very rare, likely averaging one or two per year worldwide. Constrictor-snake fatalities in the U.S. have been from captive snakes and due to careless handling or confinement.
I doubt those statistics take into account those that die of exhaustion while running away from such a sizeable slithering serpent sliding silently their way. While there has never been a human death in Florida attributed to a Burmese python, the risk can’t be ruled out.
The situation is similar to that experienced with alligators; attacks are improbable but possible anywhere that the animals are active. The snakes are most likely found near water including canals, ponds and lakes, especially remote areas and those with heavy vegetation surrounding the edges.
As if Mr. King is considering a sequel, a recent discovery of five African rock pythons has added to scientists’ worries. You see, Burmese pythons are a relatively gentle sort, not known for aggression toward humans. Unfortunately, rock pythons aren’t so warmhearted. They’ve also been known to interbreed with Burmese pythons and the phenomena “hybrid vigor” becomes a concern, possibly unleashing volatile recessive genes of aggression.
Experts say “…that the simplest and most sure-fire way to reduce the risk of human fatalities is to avoid interacting with a large constrictor.” With that said, Florida is looking for 50 folks willing to do a little snake interaction.
The South Florida Water Management District is taking aggressive action to protect the Everglades and eliminate invasive pythons from its public lands. While eliminating the animal is unlikely, number control is the now the hopeful outcome.
Started in March 2017, the Python Elimination Program pays a few hardy, swamp-stomping hunters to euthanize these snakes, an animal that has become an apex predator. The program provides access on designated lands in Miami-Dade, Broward, Collier, Hendry and Palm Beach counties.
Since the program’s inception, 15,693 feet and 29,527 pounds of Burmese python have been removed from the targeted area. That equates to one long, scaly rope extending from the top of the Grand Canyon down to the bottom, doubling back up to the top and then dropping more than halfway down again.
What does a python hunter get paid? You’ll earn minimum wage for up to 10 hours daily and your movement will be tracked via GPS to verify you’re snake hunting. An incentive payment of $50 for each python measuring up to 4 feet plus an extra $25 for each foot measured above 4 feet will be tacked onto the wage.
If you find one guarding a nest with eggs, another $200 will head your way. Sounds like as much fun as shaving the ear-hair on a live grizzly. What could possibly go wrong?
For those of you already packing, apply at https://www.sfwmd.gov/our-work/python-program. If you aren’t one of the lucky ones to be chosen for the job, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission gives you the OK to hunt them on private lands at any time with landowner permission as well as on 22 wildlife management areas, no permit required. Visit the commission at https://myfwc.com
While you’re down there, you may want to swing by the pizza parlors in Naples. They’re offering “Everglades Pizza,” which features bites of Burmese python, a little alligator and boned frog legs. Would that match best with a white or a red?
“Every great story seems to begin with a snake.” “” Nicolas Cage
• Mount Blanchard Gun Club is holding a fundraiser raffle for several great prizes. Tickets are available from club officers or at TNT Firearms, 1301 Lima Ave. The drawing will be held Dec. 15.
• Jon Nelson reports that the UCOA celebration of national hunting and fishing day was a great success with 67 participants. Door prizes, free lunch, fishing derby and shooting events were all well attended. The event has over a 25-year history at the club and is celebrated annually on the third Saturday in September. The UCOA is located at 6943 Marion Township 243.
• Today: Elkhorn Lake Hunt Club family field day, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., Elkhorn Lake Hunt Club, 4146 Klopfenstein Road, Bucyrus. This rain or shine event is free. Parents or guardians are required to attend. Details: www.elkhornlakehuntclub.com
• Today: Ohio’s deer archery season opens. The season will run through February 2020. More information about deer archery season can be found at http://wildlife.ohiodnr.gov/hunting-trapping-and-shooting-sports/hunting-trapping-regulations/season-dates-and-bag-limits
• Oct. 3-4: Trap and skeet, open to the public, 5 p.m., UCOA, 6943 Marion Township 243.
• Oct. 19: Hunter safety training, UCOA, 6943 Marion Township 243. Registration information is available at http://wildlife.ohiodnr.gov
Abrams is a retired wildlife officer supervisor for the state Division of Wildlife in Findlay. He can be reached at P.O. Box 413, Mount Blanchard, OH 45867-0413 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org