The Misunderstood Python Hunters Saving the Everglades
Pythons are devouring native animal life in the unique ecosystem of South Florida. To help solve the problem, Florida Fish and Wildlife officials have turned to amateur and professional hunters to round up the reptiles in a wild competition called the Python Bowl.
Night had fallen over the Everglades, but Donna Kalil kept driving. She leaned out the window of her Ford Expedition as it followed the rutted levee road and peered across the saw grass as far as the stark glare of her floodlights would reach. Kalil was determined to catch a Burmese python.
It was Saturday, January 11, the second night of Florida’s Python Bowl, a ten-day state-sponsored hunting competition designed to raise awareness of the invasive species eating its way through the Everglades’ fragile ecosystem. The first Python Challenge, as the event used to be called, was held in 2013, and it brought in just 68 snakes. This year’s contest will ultimately net a total of 80. So far, Kalil, 57, a python elimination specialist for the South Florida Water Management District, had only caught one. Her pride as a professional python hunter was on the line.
Kalil scanned the grass more desperately, begging the darkness to give up the telltale shimmer of scales. She took her foot off the brake, and the truck sped up. She listened for the spotters who stood on the python perch, a platform atop Kalil’s SUV equipped with floodlights and padded handrails that hunters can hold on to as they search for hints of their prey. All she heard from above was weary silence. The chirp and click of the glades’ night chorus rose up to fill the void.
It was after 7 P.M. and time to head in. Kalil turned around and started for the main road. But a minute away from their exit, her daughter, Deanna, 29, called out from the roof. She wasn’t sure—you can never be sure in python hunting, until the snake is in your grasp—but she thought she saw something move in the water. Kalil stopped the truck, and they shined high-powered flashlights over a canal. The beams skimmed, murky and yellow, over the black water, before lighting on a familiar glimmer.
The sparkling tan and brown puzzle-piece pattern curved and dipped out of the light. Before any of the hunters could speak, Kevin Pavlidis, 23, a part-time alligator wrestler and python hunter who is a family friend of the Kalils, dove into the water with a splash. His cowboy hat floated on the surface in his wake. Kalil’s flashlight beam darted back and forth over the water to find him, and a moment later, Pavlidis emerged from the depths with a gasp, raising the captured snake over his head like a trophy. He laughed. But the celebration was short-lived.
Transporting pythons live without a permit is illegal in Florida, but as a python elimination specialist, Kalil can bring snakes in live because she works for the state. Since both amateur hunters and professionals like herself compete in the Python Bowl, the event rules state that captured pythons must be killed humanely before they’re brought into game checkpoints. According to Kalil, the most humane way to kill a python is with a shot to the brain or blunt-force trauma to the head.
With the triumph of the moment waning, Pavlidis handed the python over to Kalil. She grasped the snake behind its head, and it squirmed, twitching back and forth. Fort Lauderdale’s lights glowed on the horizon. Frogs croaked in the grass, and tiny flecks of stars hovered in the vast dome of the Everglades sky.
Kalil removed her glove and stroked the snake’s head with her bare finger. Its scales were smooth and cool. Burmese pythons are beautiful creatures. Kalil has always loved them and snakes in general. She even has a pet ball python named Benny that she found abandoned in the glades.
Stopping the Burmese pythons and their takeover of the Everglades is an ecological trolley problem: To save the Everglades and all of the animals in it, could Kalil kill the invasive snakes she loved? At the end of the day, she would take out her .22 pistol from its holster and do what she had to do.
It was Wednesday, January 15, and Daniel Moniz, 26, was sweating. He had been biking a levee near the Tamiami Trail on the Miccosukee Indian Reservation with his sister since 9 A.M. So far they had ridden 18 miles, but they hadn’t seen a single gleam of scales in the grass. With 13 miles left to go and the sun blazing down, Moniz and his sister slowed to a crawl. He had to remind himself what he was doing this for.
Moniz, with his curly, light-brown hair gathered into a ponytail and his red-tinged beard framing an affable smile, doesn’t look like a seasoned hunter, but he’s a former winner of the Python Challenge. He won the event in 2016 by capturing 13 snakes and taking the prize for the longest, a massive 13.7-foot catch. (The largest Burmese python ever captured in the Everglades, however, was more than 18 feet long and weighed 98 pounds.)
This time there was more at stake than just bragging rights. Back home in Lebanon, Ohio, he ran a cleaning service with his wife. Their baby was less than a year old. He risked the expensive trip for a chance at reprising his former glory, trying to defray the costs with crowdfunding, but his GoFundMe fell short of its goal by more than $1,000. Not one to turn back from a challenge, Moniz flew to Florida anyway. Now he had to recoup his losses by catching pythons.
The sparkling tan and brown puzzle-piece pattern curved and dipped out of the light. Before any of the hunters could speak, Kevin Pavlidis, 23, dove into the water with a splash.
In the Python Challenge, the state’s professional python elimination specialists competed alongside other entrants for a chance at the purse. The Python Bowl now breaks participants into two categories: one for professional hunters from the South Florida Water Management District program and Florida Fish and Wildlife, and a separate category for more than 500 “rookies” like Moniz, explained Randy Smith, a spokesman for the water management district. There are prizes for both groups.
Both pro and rookie participants are competing for one of two ATVs up for grabs, as well as $2,000 cash for the longest and heaviest snakes. Regardless of who wins, the state pays bounties to pros for every captured snake: $50 for the first four feet of snake, and then $25 for every additional foot. Many hunters sell the python hides, while others eat their catch after testing it for mercury. Moniz, who wasn’t eligible for the per-foot bounty, was banking on prize money.
With the heat wavering like a mirage over the levee, Moniz’s mind was becoming hazy. He didn’t see the python sunning in the grass. He might have missed it if his sister hadn’t shouted, grabbed him, and pointed. The snake stretched toward the shade where the grass met the tree line. It was four, maybe five feet long. The arrow-shaped head and the sparkling pattern of its hide identified it as a Burmese python.
Moniz jumped off his bicycle, and as he crept toward the snake, his sister pulled out her phone to record. Moniz snuck up on the snake from behind. Then, when he was within striking distance, he lunged, snatched the python behind the head, and lifted it into the air. The snake writhed, but Moniz kept his grasp.
Beyond the confines of the Python Bowl, anyone can catch a Burmese python in South Florida, no hunting license, special permits, or training required. “If it’s on public land, you would have to follow the regulations for that particular land,” said Carli Segelson, a spokesperson for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). “So if it’s during a time when you know guns aren’t allowed, you wouldn’t be able to use a gun. And if it’s on private land, then you would need the landowner’s permission.”
But how do you actually catch a python? Moniz focuses on speed and finesse. Kalil has a similarly restrained style, but not every hunter is so subtle. Kalil has found more than one python shot and left with a bullet wound.
“For me, looking for snakes is a lifestyle,” said Moniz. “That’s what I do all the time, no matter where I am. That’s just what I do. So I know how to look for snakes. I know how to spot snakes. And I think that gives me an advantage, because I know what I’m looking for. Whereas most people who come out here have no idea.”
“Possibly the defining feature of a python is how secretive and cryptic they are,” explained Robert Reed, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) invasive species science branch. “If you have a python in eight inches of water, three feet in front of you, you may not detect that snake, and we’ve done a lot of research suggesting that, even when there are pythons available for detection near someone, your chances of finding that individual may be less than 1 percent.”
Moniz’s tactics sometimes give him an advantage over the pros, he said. “They drive this road once,” he said, referring to the levee. “Like, that’s about all they’ll do a day, and a couple of them might drive it twice. But I’m out here, I’m biking 70-plus miles a day.” Riding a bicycle brings Moniz closer to the ground. He said he covers a greater distance and sees things in the grass that others might miss from a moving vehicle. “The whole time, I’m going faster on my bike than they’re going in their trucks. So I’m passing them all day long as they’re just driving at three or four miles per hour.”
After four days, the event’s 561 entrants had brought in fewer than 30 total snakes. Moniz had caught two, the same number as Kalil and her team. “From what I hear, the most that any pro has is four,” Moniz added, his nonchalant tone nonetheless betraying a tinge of pride and a competitive nature.
With such narrow margins, Moniz still had hopes that he could win again. “I could be right up there with the pros,” he said.
If pythons are the snake that ate the Everglades, the apocryphal legend of their takeover begins with an appropriately cinematic opening scene. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew plowed into the state, killing 65 people and leveling thousands of homes, as well as—so the story goes—a Burmese python breeding facility.
The reality of their introduction to the area may be less exciting. “The scientific thinking, I believe, is that they were probably animals that were discarded by pet owners deep down into the Everglades,” said Steve Johnson, an associate professor of wildlife ecology and conservation at the University of Florida.
The population of Burmese pythons in the Everglades is impossible to measure with much accuracy. Since the first reported sighting of one in the wild in Florida in 1979, their numbers have exploded. Estimates from the USGS indicate there could be tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of them in South Florida. Regardless of their actual population size, their impact is clear: pythons have decimated biodiversity in the area. The hungry snakes will consume almost any animal in their path. They seize their prey using sharp, rear-facing fangs that are long enough to pierce a hunter’s arm. Then the snake coils around its victim, constricting the animal until it’s dead. Some hunters, to protect their lower legs from bites, wear camouflage-patterned snake gaiters, light armor that’s similar to shin guards worn by soccer players. But most go without, preferring intuition and quick reflexes over adding another layer of clothing to sweat through in the muggy glades.
To stem the tide of invasive species from the exotic-pet trade, the FWC holds amnesty days that allow pet owners to surrender animals to the agency without penalty. Although most pets that get released into the glades don’t survive, some outlier species like the Burmese python become established in their new ecosystems.
In this case, “established” sounds like an understatement. Pythons have taken over. Everything else has become prey. Since 2003, rabbit populations have disappeared from USGS study areas. Foxes, raccoons, possums, bobcats, and other species are all but gone. Pythons devoured the mammals and have moved on to birds, other reptiles, and possibly fish. The snakes can bring down animals as large as deer—which can either struggle and tear themselves away or become dinner—and even alligators.
Scientists have long suspected that pythons were consuming whole populations of small mammals in the Everglades and have made efforts at estimating the impacts. But exact population counts are impossible in such a vast wilderness. In a 2015 study led by Robert McCleery at the University of Florida, researchers translocated marsh rabbits into an area of the Everglades inhabited by a large number of pythons. At first the rabbits survived. Then temperatures began to rise, and with the warming weather, pythons slithered out of hiding and began to feast. In one year, they had eaten 77 percent of the rabbits.
Pythons may have even usurped alligators as the Everglades’ primary apex predator, a shift that could cause a trophic cascade. “I found alligators in them,” said Kalil. “If they eat up all the birds that are here during the year, they’ll just wait for the migratory birds to come in.”
Before long they spotted a dark place in the grass—possibly a burrow. It was scooped out of the embankment, where the short, weedy grass met a head-high wall of reeds. Was a python hiding inside?
One widely known example of a trophic cascade is the case of gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park. The animals had been eradicated from the area in the 1920s. Over the next 70 years, the elk population boomed, devouring brush and trees, which caused erosion and many plant species in the area to die off, which in turn affected small herbivores. The ripple effects reached every part of the Yellowstone ecosystem. The precipitous decline in Everglades biodiversity mirrors the events in Yellowstone, but unlike its Wyoming counterpart, which began to flourish again after the reintroduction of gray wolves in 1995, the python takeover has no end in sight.
“Even now we don’t know how these changes in the mammal communities will translate into changes in the Everglades ecosystems over the coming years,” said Reed.
Without human intervention, these losses could be irreversible. Hunts are the best solution at the moment, although the numbers of snakes killed represent just a tiny fraction of the pythons in the Everglades.
But Smith of Florida Fish and Wildlife said kill numbers aren’t the point. “The key is really to get the word out as to the devastation that the python has caused in the Everglades,” he said. That’s why the state rebranded the event to coincide with the Super Bowl, which was played in Miami this year. The FWC and the Super Bowl Host Committee made python-skin footballs for VIP Super Bowl guests and upped the competitive ante because they knew the Python Bowl would get people to talk: Look at those wacky Floridians at it again.
“It has a lot to do with public engagement, public awareness,” Smith explained. For locals, that means encouraging public participation in Everglades wildlife conservation, not just spectatorship. For visitors, it means treating the Everglades with respect. They’re not a swamp. They’re thriving ecosystems that need to be saved. With all the public attention, the FWC figured, maybe onlookers would see past the purposeful antics to the real problem at hand: whole species of animals are vanishing, and the Everglades may never be the same.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), on the other hand, disagreed with Florida’s tactics, and it called on the Miami Super Bowl Host Committee and the FWC to cancel the 2020 Python Bowl, saying the competition glorified slaughter and that the souvenir python-skin footballs “trivialize the animals’ deaths.”
Rodney Barreto, chair of the host committee, found PETA’s protests strange, considering the animal-rights organization agrees that invasive species should be removed from the Everglades.
“We have great respect for these animals,” Barreto said in a letter to committee members, “but they must be removed to give native animals a chance at survival.”
Kalil, her daughter, and Pavlidis passed the next four days without finding another python, but they kept trying. On Wednesday afternoon, they set out into the glades about 35 miles northwest of Miami Beach.
The temperature hovered around 80 degrees, which can feel unforgiving in this northeastern corner of the Everglades, where there’s little tree cover. Sunny conditions would typically be prime for pythons, coaxing them out of hiding and sending cold-blooded snakes to bask on the levee roads, where they would be easy prey.
Past the canal pump station by Everglades Holiday Park, Kalil took a turn, driving by junglelike stands of palms and ferns, deep foliage hiding myriad secrets. With her spotters in place, she drove onto the levee’s dirt road, an elevated path of rutted sand surrounded by saw grass plains as seemingly infinite as the ocean. It was easier to breathe out here. The air, pure and sweet as if filtered, felt soft in her lungs. Of course, Kalil was there to save the glades from the pythons’ insatiable hunger. But the search, immersion amid nature’s wonders for hours on end, was a prize in itself.
Before long they spotted a dark place in the grass—possibly a burrow. It was scooped out of the embankment, where the short, weedy grass met a head-high wall of reeds. Was a python hiding inside? Kalil parked and climbed down to find out.
Kalil could feel her luck rising with the afternoon heat. In her python-hide-embellished hat, she ducked through saw grass that rose up to her chin, parting thick tufts of stalks as Pavlidis followed. They reached the mouth of the burrow and hunched to look inside. Past the mouth of the hole, the sandy dirt gave way to shadows.
“I’m not reaching in there,” Kalil said. As if that was his cue, Pavlidis shrugged, got down on his knees, and shimmied into the hole. He groaned in disgust.
“Did you find something?” Deanna called.
“Yeah, ticks!” Pavlidis raised his arm to display the blood-sucking dots, and she cringed.
After poking around in the grass, searching fruitlessly, Deanna and Pavlidis climbed back onto the python perch, and Kalil got into the driver’s seat and started the vehicle again. Pavlidis scanned the landscape. Blond stubble speckled his cheeks under the shadow of his cowboy hat. “I was always playing with reptiles,” he said. “As I got older, the reptiles got larger and more dangerous.”
From his vantage, Pavlidis scanned for breaks in the vegetation pattern. “You’re very rarely going to see the whole snake,” he said. “Most the time, you just see a piece of it sticking out of the bushes, and that’s enough to key you in to go down and grab it.”
Day after day, Moniz went out to the glades to hunt, only to return without a catch. By Sunday, January 19, the last day of the competition, his expectations had dimmed. Consistently hot temperatures had caused the pythons to remain in the shade. In 2016, the nights had been colder, the days warmer. The difference in temperature had brought the snakes out to bask on the levees. Moniz was now sure he wouldn’t catch enough pythons to win the numbers game.
That morning he parked at the end of the levee closest to the road. A cool mist had settled. Ghostly cypress trees hovered beyond the earthbound clouds. The humidity was palpable against Moniz’s skin. He could catch another python. He knew he could. To claim victory for the longest or the heaviest python, he only needed to catch one—a big one.
Miles away, in an area where she hadn’t hunted before, Kalil and her brother, Dave Mucci, who was competing as an amateur, sped along the levee. Her crew had caught four pythons so far. Rumor had it that the most any other crew had caught was six. With her luck the way it was—more than half of her competition hunts had been unsuccessful—she assumed the day would be just as unproductive. But no day on the glades felt like a waste, especially when she was with family.
The siblings made a rushed course over the levee, wanting to move on to more tried hunting grounds. Kalil wasn’t expecting their haphazard scanning to bear fruit, but suddenly, Mucci pointed to a snake as they drove past it. Kalil put the truck in reverse. She saw it, too, out in the open, glistening against the sand.
Kalil and Mucci parked and scrambled to get out. Mucci lunged, but his shadow fell over the roadside, alerting the snake to danger before he could make the catch. The python bolted into the saw grass. Mucci and Kalil both gave chase. Mud squelched under their feet, and the saw grass blades flicked and cut at their faces. Mucci grabbed the snake around the belly. Kalil gripped its head. The muscular python contorted in their grasp as they wrestled it up to the road.
Before bagging the snake, they measured her: 11 feet, long enough to win a prize, especially for a rookie.
“You should take her,” Kalil said to her brother. They had both touched the snake at the same time. They had brought her in together. Another catch on her tally might have put Kalil in the running to win the Python Bowl, but winning wouldn’t save the Everglades. So why not share?
“There’s only going to be one winner,” Kalil said. “But if you’re in it to have fun, then you’re a winner. And I feel like I’m already winning. I’m having a great time.”
The precipitous decline in Everglades biodiversity mirrors the events in Yellowstone, but unlike its Wyoming counterpart, which began to flourish again after the reintroduction of gray wolves in 1995, the python takeover has no end in sight.
The next day at the weigh-in, back at the FWC headquarters, that python won for the heaviest snake caught by a rookie, netting Mucci $2,000, plus $750 for bringing in the second-longest snake of the amateur catches. The longest, heaviest snake caught by a pro was 12 feet in length and weighed 62 pounds.
The winning pro caught eight pythons during the contest, and the champion rookie bagged six. Neither of Moniz’s pythons landed him a place in the winners’ circle.
Most python hunters in the Everglades are misunderstood, said Pavlidis, who is acutely aware of the fact that outsiders only see the clichés spread by reality TV shows like Python Hunters and Guardians of the Glades. On these programs, hunters become stock characters, and some are depicted as wild rednecks on glory-seeking adventures rather than the conflicted conservationists many of them really are.
“A lot of people in the reptile community think that [python hunters] are people that hate snakes, and they’re just out there trying to kill them,” he said. “And it’s like, no, that’s not all we are. I’ve always loved them—they’re beautiful. Nobody’s happy that we have to euthanize them.”
“Every single snake we remove is one less snake eating our native wildlife,” he continued. “We’re all environmentalists. We’re all conservationists. And we all like snakes. But we understand the bigger issue at hand. Conservation is not all rainbows and butterflies. There’s a lot of tough decisions that have to be made. You have to keep your eyes on the bigger picture.”