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Big Cypress learns about python presence

FWC staff member Michelle Bassis attempts to get a python out of the snake bag for a demonstration during the python patrol training in Big Cypress. (Beverly Bidney)

BIG CYPRESS — Burmese pythons have been the scourge of the Everglades for more than 20 years and have now made their way onto the Big Cypress Reservation. The Seminole Tribe’s Environmental Resource Management Department (ERMD) and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) teamed up on Feb. 1 in Big Cypress to train the tribal community about the invasive species. The training, held at the community center in the Boys & Girls Club building, included information about how to find the elusive creatures and humanely kill them.

Burmese pythons are good swimmers and can remain underwater for up to 30 minutes. “Canals are like a roadway for pythons,” said Mandy D’Andrea, ERMD biological technician. “With the influx of more pythons, we have a real need to do this training.”

Burmese pythons are native to Southeast Asia, but they thrive in the Everglades ecosystem, which is similar to their native habitat. According to FWC, the snakes are one of the largest species in the world. They grow to an average length of 6 to 9 feet and have been found as long as 18 feet. Despite their size, the snakes are hard to find.

“You could be right next to one and not see it,” D’Andrea said. “They are everywhere; in pastures, canals, the community. We found some very close to here.”

When ERMD kills a Burmese python they cut it open to count the eggs and see what is in the stomach. D’Andrea has found empty nests while conducting home site surveys. Female Burmese pythons can lay from 40 to 100 eggs in a clutch. There are no natural predators for adult snakes in the Everglades, but smaller young snakes are eaten by birds, alligators and other predators. By the time the snake is four-feet long, it perceives those predators as prey.

Burmese pythons hunt at night when the days are too hot. In colder weather, they can be found basking in the sun on canal banks. They are known to have eaten mammals as large as a white tailed deer.

“They will eat anything that comes in front of them,” said Sarah Funck, FWC biologist. “The Everglades is their buffet, but they can survive up to a year without eating.” The pythons feast on native species in the Everglades, many of which are already threatened and endangered. FWC does necropsies on captured snakes and knows what they consume.

Funck said the snakes are an established population and cannot be eradicated, but FWC can try to control them by conducting training sessions and holding an annual Burmese python hunt. Since 2000, FWC has removed more than 17,000 Burmese pythons from South Florida, but they don’t know how many more are in the ecosystem.

FWC believes it has detected less than 5% of the probable population. The snake’s black, tan and brown coloring makes them difficult to find in the environment, but Taylor Apter, FWC biologist, described what differentiates the Burmese pythons from other snakes. The distinctive pattern on the body is like a puzzle, Apter said, with random shapes that make up the non-uniform pattern. Each puzzle piece has a brown center, black edge and tan surrounding area. The head features an arrowhead pattern with a dark wedge that goes behind the eyes. The best places to find pythons are on levees near canal banks, in vegetation between the canal and the road and on road shoulders. Part of the snake skin will shine in the sunlight, which is a good way to find a hidden snake in the brush.

“Only a small piece of the snake will be visible,” Apter said. “Look for small shiny coils, they are difficult to find.” Apter advised prospective Burmese python hunters never to go alone. “It’s safer to have someone with you if you get constricted,” Apter said. “Your partner can unwrap the snake from you.”

Apter demonstrated on a toy snake how to pin a Burmese python with a snake hook and explained that it is best to use the straight side to incapacitate the animal and use the hook to pull the snake out of its hiding place.

“Catching a snake is about technique, not strength,” Apter said. “Always pull the snake onto open land. You don’t have to be strong but you have to know where to hold the hook. Hold it behind the jawbone, you can feel the bone in your hand.”

As hardy reptiles, Burmese pythons can be difficult to kill. FWC recommends treating the animals as humanely as possible when attempting to kill them. FWC’s suggestion is to first render it unconscious by using an air gun or hitting it with an object between the eye and the jawbone. FWC also suggests destroying the snake’s brain by inserting a small rod or spike into the cranial cavity and moving it around the brain.

The Miccosukee Tribe uses trained detection dogs to find Burmese pythons. Dog handler Marcel Bozas demonstrated how his dog Shatow, a red Labrador retriever, can find a hidden ball scented like a python in dense brush.

“The dog is not hunting snakes; he is trained to play,” Bozas said. “We have a 30% higher catch rate using the dog and even more during nesting season.” “I think there is a potential on the reservation for someone to dedicate a dog to this,” D’Andrea said. “The Miccosukee Tribe is most successful with the dogs.” After the indoor training and the dog demonstration, the group of budding snake hunters went outside to implement what they learned on real Burmese pythons. FWC staff biologists demonstrated how to pin a live python and helped volunteers try it themselves.

“It was weird and I was nervous,” said Mahala Billie, who pinned a snake for the first time. “When I got a hand on him, he moved. You could feel it in your hand, he was tensing up. It was crazy; even when I handed him back I felt everything he did.” “It was big and strong and I couldn’t hold him tightly,” said Richard Hendricks, special events coordinator in the President’s office. “It was an adrenaline rush.”

Environmental Health animal control and wildlife officer Albert Rivera is no stranger to pythons.

“He gave me a workout,” Rivera said. “I’ve handled pythons before but this one was very feisty.”

The Miccosukee Tribe’s dog handler Marcel Bozas holds Shatow as he explains to the crowd at the python training Feb. 1 how the dog is trained to find pythons and their nests. (Beverly Bidney)
Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at