The army aggregate on the grass about the man with the bag. In the bag was a 13-foot Burmese python. This was aftermost month, a hot, brilliant Saturday morning, in Davie at a University of Florida analysis center, the official alpha of the state-sanctioned snake coursing in the Everglades alleged the Python Challenge.
Gawkers, contestants and cameras waited for the tutorial by Jeff Fobb, a snake able with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue. He let the python out of the bag but captivated on to her tail. He acicular out what she wasn’t doing. She wasn’t aggravating to advance him. What she was accomplishing was aggravating to get away. She slithered about the ground. Bodies gasped and took pictures. He bound affective her abaft the head.
Remember aback aggravating to bolt pythons, he told everybody, we accept a brace of things they don’t.
A TV anchorman asked him if it wasn’t a little unrealistic to anticipate approved citizens and inexpert thrill-seekers would be able to do out in the agrarian what he aloof did on the grass. Fobb started to talk. A loud alike flew low aerial on the way to Fort Lauderdale. Nobody could apprehend what he was saying.
It apparently wouldn’t accept mattered anyway.
THE PROBLEM WITH THE PYTHONS is they’re not declared to be here.
The Sunshine State’s lot of behemothic Asian constrictors started as pets that either were appear or escaped. That was in the southern end of Everglades National Park. The aboriginal one was begin in 1979. It was removed. The abutting one wasn’t begin until 1995. Since 2000, though, the citizenry has developed dramatically. The exact cardinal is unknown. It’s about absolutely in the tens of thousands. It could be in the hundreds of thousands. They’re able of killing and bistro best mammals and birds they appointment throughout South Florida — and they have, annihilating in the Everglades once-abundant populations of opossums, bobcats, rabbits and raccoons. One was begin aftermost year digesting a 76-pound deer. They can abound to added than 20 feet, and alive added than 25 years, and carbon prodigiously. They’re affective north.
Scientists accept declared the bearings with the words “unprecedented” and “takeover.”
THE STATE HAS LET PEOPLE HUNT FOR PYTHONS BEFORE, aboriginal bodies with a appropriate permit, afresh anybody with a hunting license, but the Python Challenge is article new. It’s accessible to anybody. Contestants charge no acquaintance hunting pythons. They don’t charge acquaintance hunting anything. They don’t alike charge a hunting license. All they charge is to pay $25 and do nominal online training. The directive: Bolt a snake, annihilate it, accompany it to any of a few dropoff locations from Naples to Miami. The award-winning for the bigger snake is $1,000. The award-winning for the best is $1,500. The challenge started Jan. 12 and ends Feb. 10.
The cardinal of registrants that morning in Davie was 749 and growing. Bodies had appear from all over Florida, added than 30 states and Canada — engineers, nurses, account supervisors, writers of cipher for iPhone apps — and they had pistols, rifles, shotguns, knives, machetes, spears, rakes and drills. The Associated Press alleged it a mob. Reality TV blur crews spied a banal casting alarm — elastic cossack and abutting tattoos, alpine boots and abbreviate shorts, airboats antic stars and bars.
“They are acutely acquisitive to advice us bigger accept and breach this problem,” said Kenneth Wright, administrator of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Something like that.
ONE OF THEM WAS JUSTIN MATTHEWS. He wore a harbinger hat and a 9-inch knife on his belt. The roofer’s affection is animals. He runs a wildlife accomplishment nonprofit. At home in Ellenton in Manatee County, he has a abundant horned owl alleged Cosmo, a militarist alleged Gus, a tortoise alleged Tank, two boa constrictors and a 12-foot python alleged Axl Rose.
Matthews, 50, was dismissive of some of his adolescent contestants, calling them “exterminator wanna-bes,” “safari wanna-bes” and “all affectionate of wanna-bes.”
“I don’t appetite to complete like I’m bragging,” he added, “but I can acquisition things no one abroad can.”
He apprenticed to “hand catch” a python and afresh “kill its academician with my knife.”
All the hunters had their affidavit for entering the Python Challenge. Matthews didn’t like the abstraction of killing snakes, but he would annihilate a python in the Everglades, he said, because he believed this was the aforementioned affair as extenuative built-in wildlife.
But that wasn’t his alone reason.
WILL THIS WORK? Bodies like Matthews traipsing through the Everglades aggravating to acquisition pythons? I alleged J.D. Willson. He co-wrote the book Invasive Pythons in the United States.
“What does ‘work’ absolutely mean?” he said. “Every snake that’s gone is good. But it’s absolutely not activity to breach the problem.”
Every year, he said, trappers abolish a few hundred snakes from the Everglades. That’s acceptable for analysis purposes. But it’s not abundant to accomplish any affectionate of cogent cavity in the population.
So how abounding snakes would the Python Challenge charge to annihilate to accomplish a difference?
JUSTIN MATTHEWS IS JUST ONE MAN. But he ashen no time. The challenge started that aboriginal Saturday at 1. He was out there alike a little afore that. Joining him were his brother, Eric Matthews, a mechanic, and his brother-in-law, Roy Suggs, who owns a baby excavating company. They were added sets of eyes. Neither one absolutely capital to go grab a python. That would be Justin’s job.
They chock-full their tan Tahoe at the arctic end of the Francis S. Taylor Wildlife Administration Area. The midday sun austere as Matthews absolved into the sawgrass prairie with a board stick he alleged his advantageous poker. He jabbed it into thickets of palmettos. He ashore his duke in the baptize in the canal, ciphering it was 75, 80 degrees — absolute for pythons.
He poked beneath a bunch of grass and jerked it up.
“I anticipation I heard hissing,” he said.
Matthews grew up communicable snakes in rural east Manatee. In 2008, he bent a python, a 13-footer, not far from the parking lot of a Bradenton Walmart. In the summer of 2009, he nabbed addition one, additionally 13 feet, afterwards a lengthy, blood-soaked attempt in a arising aqueduct abreast a Sweetbay and a preschool. TV cameras captured the drama. A toddler in Sumter County had aloof been asleep by a pet python, and bodies about the accompaniment were cool about the advance of the snakes. Angry out, though, this accurate python absolutely belonged to Matthews, and he eventually accepted the accomplished affair was staged. He got two years of acquittal for misusing 911.
He calls it a “mistake” and “dead wrong.” The Python Challenge, he thought, was a adventitious to bolt addition one, for real.
“Even admitting I pulled a fake, I’m not a fake,” he insisted, “and I’m activity to prove it out here.”
The Everglades is a difficult abode to chase for redemption. It’s a difficult abode to chase for a lot of things. The alternation of subtropical wetlands covers almost the basal third of the Florida peninsula. The breadth is almost 60 afar advanced and 100 afar long. Researchers say the pythons are aloof about everywhere. The agitation with aloof about everywhere is it’s the aforementioned affair as aloof about anywhere.
SIZE ISN’T THE ONLY ISSUE IN THE EVERGLADES. Later that afternoon, at the southern end of the aforementioned wildlife administration area, bottomward by Tamiami Trail, Matthews climbed over a bend and was all but swallowed by added tall, aciculate grasses. He saw an opossum hole. He saw an armadillo hole. He saw a atramentous racer. A militarist circled above. But no pythons. Matthews was almost off the clay path, abutting abundant to allocution to his brother and brother-in-law afterwards shouting, but the arena was an impenetrably marshy, blurred muck.
“It’s like quicksand in here,” he said.
At atomic 90 percent of python abode in the Everglades, according to Mike Dorcas, a biologist at Davidson College and an able on pythons, is abundantly aloof — for people. For pythons? They adulation it. They adulation the sawgrass. They adulation the mangroves. They adulation the cypress swamps. The Everglades is a bigger abode for snakes from Asia than it is for bodies from anywhere.
The three associates of Team Matthews bare a breach from attractive for snakes they couldn’t see. They collection to the Miccosukee tribe’s adhesive bank and absolved inside. The huge allowance was frigid algid and smelled like smoke. Rows of fixed-face gamblers sat and affected screens and pushed buttons of amateur with names like Agrarian Flowers and Yummy Cherries. Matthews’ brother and brother-in-law played a $20 bill and lost.
THE NEXT DAY, afterwards Matthews and his mates had gone aback to Manatee County to try to accomplish some money, I collection the clay Loop Alley through Big Cypress National Preserve. It’s one of the state’s abundant drives. Puts you in your place. You’re on the aliment alternation and not necessarily at the top. It’s area I ran into camo-clad bisected brothers Chris Padgett and Matt Manus from Sebring. In the acknowledgment in the aback of their pickup, a asleep python was coiled up abutting to some Coke cans.
“She came up absent to fight,” Padgett said.
“I attempt her in the head,” Manus said.
They accustomed at the dropoff area on a arenaceous baiter access with their 7-footer as somebody abroad was auction one that abstinent 9.
Somebody’s consistently got a bigger snake.
THREE THINGS I LEARNED that afternoon at the dropoff location:
1. French reporters accomplish pythons beat with titans.
2. Asleep snakes still squirm.
3. The claret that seeps from the holes in their active looks like raspberry jam.
KNOW HOW MANY SNAKES hundreds of hunters bent in the aboriginal three canicule of the Python Challenge?
Know how abounding snakes an boilerplate python in the Everglades gives bearing to at atomic every added year?
NOT QUITE A WEEK LATER, on a Thursday morning, Matthews’ brother-in-law backed his RV into a atom at Midway Bivouac on Tamiami Aisle in Big Cypress. They were back, undeterred, accessible to resume the hunt.
Matthews absolved abroad from the aback of the RV and aural 10 anxiety was in thick, hip-high brush. Mosquitoes bashed in his ears. He chock-full aback he spied a addled bash on the ground. “That would booty a big python to accept done that,” he said. “Bigger than mine.” He followed it. It went this way, that way, captivated about a cypress tree. He kept afterward it until it … aloof ended.
He absolved aback assimilate the paved aisle about the campground, accomplished an RV from Texas, accomplished an RV from Iowa, accomplished an RV from New Hampshire, the complete of bird chirps bond with architect whirs.
He got to a covering and met a articulate man alleged Ron Powell, a retired Hillsborough County firefighter who now lives in Bradenton, a self-described “adrenaline junkie” attractive for article to do, and who bent and asleep one of the aboriginal 11 pythons. Wasn’t alike looking, Powell said. Aloof saw a appendage on the ancillary of a aisle and pulled.
Matthews said bye and absolved against the Tamiami Trail’s balmy asphalt. The key to award pythons, he thought, was to try not to look.
He saw a turtle in the canal.
He saw addition atramentous racer.
He saw so abounding alligators.
He saw …
“What is that up there?” he said.
Piece of cardboard.
THEY CAN SMELL YOU COMING. They can feel you coming. They’re not calmly begin because they don’t appetite to be found.
WHAT’S DISAPPOINTING TO REALIZE ABOUT HUNTING FOR PYTHONS is that the best able way to do it is to drive, and drive, and accumulate driving. So unsexy, so unfun. So abundant time, so abundant gas.
The bodies who win the money are activity to lose money accomplishing it. The Python Challenge makes the Miccosukee bank allowance attending good.
LATER THAT NIGHT, BACK AT THE CAMPGROUND, I asked Matthews why he acquainted so adequate with animals. Why did he like them so much? He told a adventure about his granddad. His granddad already attempt a buck abreast Plant City. He watched the buck bore boring into a sitting position and bleat while it captivated its wound. His granddad vowed never to shoot an beastly again.
Animals, Matthews said, are aloof like us.
“They don’t appetite to die. They appetite to live.”
THE PYTHON CHALLENGE WAS A WEEK OLD. The absolute account for the now added than 1,000 hunters was 21 snakes. Three a day. That clip would add up to beneath than 100 for the month.
All those pairs of thumbs.
All those big brains.
You apperceive what a mob in the Everglades looks like? Nothing. The Everglades makes mobs disappear.
SATURDAY MORNING. It had rained overnight, and the acclimate was balmy and accepting warmer — altitude that acicular to pythons on the move. Optimism surged. Outside the RV, Matthews got his camera, abrupt on his knife and a machete, too, and captivated a continued braiding about his anatomy — to advice annoyance a snake body aback to camp. The plan was to airing 8 afar south of the Tamiami Trail. He got his brother to bead him off.
“See you in four or bristles hours,” he said.
“Good luck,” his brother said.
At the alpha of the aisle were the splayed accoutrement of some big asleep baptize bird. On top of a fat copse column was a red-headed vulture dehydration its wings.
Matthews started in on the trail.
Have you anytime heard mud? You accept if you’ve absolved on a aisle in the Everglades the night afterwards a rain. The boot-sucking dash was the blush of mocha and the bendability of pudding.
But afresh the mud disappeared. The aisle did too. It angry into a swamp. The ankle-high baptize became shin-high baptize became knee-high water. We had absolved a few hundred yards. We could still apprehend the dispatch cartage on Tamiami Trail.
Matthews stared at the water. He looked about for alligators.
He captivated his walkie-talkie to his mouth.
“Hey, Eric,” he said. “You there?”
MATTHEWS, DEFLATED, TRUDGED BACK TO THE ROAD and started walking aback to the campground, 1 mile, 2 miles, alert to the duster sounds of his clammy boots.
That’s aback he saw it.
An egret, white feathers, long, chicken beak, round, abashed eyes — it flapped its wings aimlessly but went nowhere.
Matthews bound knelt abutting to the bird.
“He’s too anemic to fly,” he said. “He’s emaciated. He’s starving.”
With his rough, big-knuckled hands, Matthews cradled the egret. It chock-full struggling. “Animals apperceive aback you’re aggravating to advice them,” he said.
He absolved addition mile, adolescent the bird to his ribs, and aback to the campground, area he showed the bird to the advance esplanade ranger, who alleged the National Esplanade Service base up the road. They said they could help.
The forester gave Matthews and the egret a ride in his barter to the station. On the way, they chatted.
“You apparent any pythons?” Matthews asked.
“Not one,” the forester said.
Michael Kruse can be accomplished at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8751. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkruse.
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