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Python hunter Bill Booth wears an 11-foot python around his neck in the Florida Everglades.

Bill Booth wears a dead Burmese python he caught in Florida as part of the monthlong Python Challenge.

Photograph by Wilfredo Lee, AP

Bryan Christy

for National Geographic News

Published January 22, 2013

Editor's note: Bryan Christy is a contributing writer for National Geographic and author of The Lizard King: The True Crimes and Passions of the World's Greatest Reptile Smugglers.

The kickoff event for Python Challenge 2013, Florida's monthlong snake-killing tournament, was catered. "We've got snakehead fish tacos," chef David Pantone tells me, pinching his fingers into the okay sign chefs use to signal perfection.

"It's an amazing, smooth white fish. It's my new favorite fish in the world," Pantone says of the invasive species native to China. Pantone, who is dean of Lincoln Culinary Institute of West Palm Beach, Florida, stands behind a foldout table set up beside the Python Challenge 2013 registration desk. He wears a white chef's hat and coat, as do his assistants working a makeshift kitchen behind him.

"We've got caiman, which is like a big alligator. We turned it into a white bean chili. We harvested its tenderloins in the best parts of its tail," he says, moving his hands along an imaginary reptile's flank. He also has green iguana that he turned into an old-fashioned, Italian-style stew.

Pantone says all of the animals on his menu came from Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC), whose idea it was to launch Python Challenge 2013, which awards $1,500 dollars to the person who brings in the most dead Burmese pythons by February 10, with another $1,000 for the biggest python.

It's useful to turn wildlife problems into something else, such as a meal. After decades of importing hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asian pythons—Burmese and others—to supply the American pet trade, Florida discovered its Jurassic Park reptile wholesale industry had a flaw: Snakes get out.

So do iguanas, macaws, lionfish, monkeys, and myriad other exotic species that Florida's wildlife dealers import or breed, Americans keep as pets, and Florida now hosts as established species.

Rules of the Game

It's also helpful in an event as violent and ill thought out as this one to distract the public from a key detail: Python Challenge contestants are forbidden to bring any snakes they find in alive.

Instead they're advised to brain the pythons with a captive bolt gun (the weapon used by the villain in No Country for Old Men), chop their heads off, or shoot them. No experience is required. Training can be done online by reviewing slides showing pictures of pythons and other non-native snakes along with pictures of Florida snakes. Kill these, don't kill those.

I took the training course and finished in under two minutes. There was no test at the end. I was surprised that even though I've caught snakes my whole life and have held many Burmese pythons, when shown side by side they look very much like Florida's native snakes, including red rat snakes, water snakes, and the eastern diamondback rattlesnake.

Python Challenge 2013 is high tech, with a website and a smartphone app called IveGot1. Awards will be made February 16 at Zoo Miami.

For decades Florida created tourist traps around its reptiles, named sports teams for them, and profited from trade in them as pets. Florida is home to the eastern indigo snake, a python-size animal whose gentleness made it so highly desired as a pet that it is now threatened and federally protected. The secretive—and protected—gopher tortoise also calls Florida home.

The state has long celebrated its reptiles, but now it has loosed an activity that tells a new generation of children that the only good snake is a dead one.

I registered as a python hunter but I did not really intend to hunt pythons. I wanted to see my first wildlife rumble, a fight between snake haters and animal rights activists, something along the lines of those protesters who dress up as wolves or polar bears, or who splash fake blood onto Canadian politicians to protest clubbing seal babies.

Instead I discovered something resembling a scene in the film Jaws—not the one where the town hires a seasoned shark expert to go out and kill the great white, but the ridiculous scene where every idiot with a pitchfork and an inner tube is paddling out to get a piece of shark meat.

I met contestants who had never seen a Burmese python before, who had never handled a snake. I overheard one man telling some greenhorns from Maine that his technique is to swing a snake by the tail and slam its head into a tree. "It stuns 'em," he said.

Friendless Snakes

No one protested the launch. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sent a letter to the FWCC opposing decapitation, arguing that even though the technique is deemed conditionally acceptable by the American Veterinary Medical Association, it "cannot be performed in a humane manner in the field [italics theirs]."

The Nature Conservancy showed up, but they're a partner in the Python Challenge, a contrast to their own python control program, and provided the training materials.

In the grass outside the registration building, Miami-Dade Fire Department snake expert Jeff Fobb, a volunteer with The Nature Conservancy, demonstrated the proper way to capture a python. This isn't the method they're telling you to use, he said of the FWCC, making his exhibition superfluous even as cameras from major news networks filmed him in action.

Fobb prefers pythons be brought in alive for experts to dispatch, but the FWCC insists upon its brutal methods and even sent me an email on day two of the event reemphasizing that no snakes be brought in alive.

We euthanize unwanted dogs and cats, and we put people in prison for cruelty to them. But we vilify these escaped pythons, and we pretend cruelty is the price we pay to protect an ecosystem.

A Burmese python reportedly ate an endangered Key Largo woodrat a few years ago, and certainly the snakes must eat something—but there is significant debate about whether Burmese pythons warrant the witch hunt they've inspired.

No one believes Burmese pythons in Florida can be eradicated. The pythons are here to stay. They are part of Florida now. How we treat these animals at our periphery says a lot about how we will treat life more dear to us.

And exotic is relative. According to the American Bird Conservancy, pet and feral housecats kill hundreds of millions of birds and more than a billion rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, and other small mammals each year. But Florida does not have a website with an X in the middle of a Siamese cat's head, as it does for the Burmese python, showing where to hit it with a hammer.

"They're the poster child for invasive species," Frank Mazzotti, professor of wildlife ecology for the University of Florida (Go Gators!) and the lead scientist for the Python Challenge, says of Burmese pythons.

"If this were a piranha derby, we'd get this attention," he says, taking in the massed TV cameras, but not if it were, say, the Cuban tree frog, which he notes has a greater environmental impact. "It sounds cynical," he says, "but it's true."

As of this morning over 1,100 people have registered for Python Challenge 2013, and have located and killed 27 Burmese pythons.  It is a poor return on an investment in amateurs.

23 comments
Andrew Thuita
Andrew Thuita

Florida offered $1,500 and 1,000 awards to catch a pythons in Florida python challenge, what a joke!

Kentucky  offered $10,000  awards in a simlar effort to erradicate Asian carp polluting its rivers!  Which State is is more serous?

Kim Beebe
Kim Beebe

I don't believe any non-native snake should be in the pet trade....exotics are a huge problem...so are feral cats...I say, get rid of the snakes, cats, and all the other invasives, including plants.

Korey Boyd
Korey Boyd

I grew up in Arkansas, but lived in Tampa for 3 years while in the air force. ive always been a snake lover and spent all the warm season catching snakes. once i moved to Florida I immediately fell in love with its rich and diverse environment, that includes the people and culture as well as the animals. I'm not here to argue whether or not the invasive species is a problem, whether its humane to kill, or capture these and other species. I'm here to do my part to help the animals and get them off the chopping block. I'm not one to talk about a problem, so I'm hoping that through this i can find others like myself to help me this summer. I'll be spending my summer in FL capturing pythons and removing them from urban areas in an attempt to save as many of these and other animals that i can. I'll be filming every catch, and also conducting my own personal study of this subject matter. I don't mind working alone but would love to have some help, not only for obvious safety reasons, but to meet other like minded individuals such as myself, and most of all to help the animals. I wont be able to cover a very large region, but i plan on getting together with local fire departments for help when needed. I'll eventually be turning this into a documentary to further educate people and shed some light on this growing problem. Anybody that would be willing to help whether it be through catching, filming, or making a donation to this cause please email me @ Kboyd49@gmail . I'm sure I'll be catching a lot of flak in my efforts but I don't care, my focus is for the animals. This will all be strictly volunteer, I'll be needing lots of help so please any way you can think of would be nice. maybe we'll  grab NatGeo's attention or other organizations. 

Disclaimer: I am NOT a professional, nor have i been formally trained, certified, or  licensed in anyway. I am self taught, and self educated and nothing more than an animal lover and enthusiast. All donations and proceeds will go towards, sheltering, food, removal expenses, and related costs. I am not doing this to make any money and will be funding everything myself as best as i can. I will also be taking care of all legal aspects involved in case their are any issues there as well. Hope to have a lot of fun with this since it is what i love to do and i hope that you all enjoy as well. Thank you and God Bless.

Michael MacBride
Michael MacBride

First, logic tells us if someone has limited or no snake knowledge they will have extreme difficulty in even finding snakes to kill... just look at the stats there are already, 1100 hunters and only 27 dead animals so far... now take into account the cost it would take to have 1000 trained professionals tread the swamps to properly dispatch these animals. not something a state government can really afford to fund. now the rational behind killing the snakes in the field: what is more stressful  being captured and transported, without food or water, in god knows what kind of sack/bucket/container to a facility to be humanly euthanize versus a relativity quick struggle then death. coupled with the fact that untrained people are going to be much less likely to even find these snakes and then the ones capable of finding the snakes will be more likely to be capable of dispatching them properly. now don't get me wrong, i am a snake lover, they are close to my heart and the idea of killing one of these beautiful creatures makes me ill, but there is a problem and something needs to be done about it. plus if the snakes are to be eaten whats the difference then with any other form of hunting? the government finds a quota, and gives hunting licenses to people who want to hunt the animals... there are lots of snakes that really need to be removed so let people hunt them. its not a permanent solution but until knowledge and money is available what needs to be done needs to be done.

cheryl Barthel
cheryl Barthel

PLEASE these animals,snakes and others are not native we need to deal with them and save the native animals,snakes and other. I'm for getting everyone a machete

P. O
P. O

I agree.  Feral cats kill many birds and mice, but we don't see the 2013 stray cat hunt do we? No.  Not fair at all to the snakes

Eduardo Raydan
Eduardo Raydan

It’s so typical American, like a “The Simpson “episode, but there is no Lisa with a moral sense at the end. Instead of a program that educates people to handle snakes, they just ask anybody with a gun and time to spare to go snake hunting. All animals have rights, this is wrong on so many levels, is just people reaction to fear, specially Snake fear, always promoted by the subcontinents of  “Christian mythology’’ symbolizing that the Snake is the Devil, the rest of the world laugh at America for their bullshits solutions to problems, shoot first ask question later.

Mark Bride
Mark Bride

Denying that the Burmese python has potential to rid the Everglades of native species is misguided. Opposums, rabbits and raccoons are nearly extinct because of the Burmese's explosive birth rates. But the way this "rodeo" was conceived and executed has greater potential to ignorant humans than the pythons themselves. completely agree with @Eric Paul and his assessment. Naturalists will quickly change their minds when some of the new kid on the block, such as the African Rock Python, start making snacks out of children. A little extreme, yes. But with such limited resources to control invasive species that are currently making native species extinct, something in a controlled manner that makes sense MUST be employed to at least put their populations in check.

Cindy Z.
Cindy Z.

This article just made me more ashamed of humanity. Burmese pythons in Florida definitely pose a threat to its wildlife, yes, but asking untrained people to kill them and bring them in isn't the right way to do this! By bringing non native pythons into Florida, is a huge risk taken on by the people. Thus, humane measures should be used to solve this problem. Besides, it isn't healthy for the people as well, as they may develop hostile reactions to wildlife.

John C.
John C.

Don't toothless hicks have anything better to do?

Lisa Brookes
Lisa Brookes

Thank you and Thanks to Nat Geo, for saying this. The media has gobbled up the sensational aspects and questionable press releases with no desire to dig any deeper. I read one article where a hunter said he'd use a drill to the head as his "humane" method. The reporter apparently wasn't even bothered.

This all started with the 'python ate a gator' picture and it took a YEAR before the media interviewed someone who actually knew how to interpret the scene, but still everyone thinks a gator clawed it's way out of a snake's belly. So much damage is being caused by ignorance.

Eric Paul
Eric Paul

This has to go down in history as one of the worst ideas ever (right behind the fire ant poison dusting).  Whoever thought this as a logical and/or rational solution to cut down the number of these snakes should seriously be psychologically evaluated.  The reduction in Pythons should ONLY be carried out by FWC officials in a humane manner, after being specially trained!  Using this unfortunate scenario, which we created ourselves, as a publicity stunt that seemingly promotes the killing of a species is atrocious.  Everyone in FL that helped organize this should be ashamed of themselves!

Leighanna Hoyle
Leighanna Hoyle

I am sad to say that this article makes me ashamed of my home state (Go Gators!) and of humanity in general. Yes, Burmese pythons are a problem in Florida, and yes, they need to be dealt with. A bunch of imbeciles with zero snake knowledge and some weapons are such a horrendous way to go about it.

As a reptile lover and a Bryan Christy fan, this article eats at me. We don't even know what is actually a "humane" death to a reptile yet, because their brains and nervous systems work very differently than our own. 

Thank you Bryan for this very insightful, knowledge-based article.

Vanessa Alperin
Vanessa Alperin

@Korey Boyd This is a completely ridiculous plan. It sounds as if you are trying to get a Florida vacation funded by making it "about helping the animals", and you openly admit that "you aren't one to talk about a problem". You are already aware that you are ignorant of a situation. You want to go back to Florida because you liked it. You aren't educating yourself about the problem, you are just walking into cities to ( get these animals off the chopping block". Do you even know what you are saying? I mean with all of the stupidity that I just read maybe this is Darwins theory hard at work. 

Michael MacBride
Michael MacBride

its like fishing. anyone can go fishing, but if you dont know what your doing you wont catch any fish, those that have no clue might catch a fish with some dumb luck but they certainly dont know how to treat it humanly, but those who do know how to fish will catch fish, and know how to dispatch them properly. i dont see hate boards about people killing fish... 

Lara Petersen
Lara Petersen

@Eduardo Raydan 

I agree with you, Eduardo. I shook my head countless times reading this article. Yes, the world laughs at Americans, and hates them for the stupid, impulsive ideas they come up with.

In Canada, there is a reason Burmese pythons, African Rock pythons, Reticulated pythons, etc. are ILLEGAL in the pet trade. Yes, they are cute and impressive when they are small, but what the world realizes and the American's don't realize is that --- SURPRISE!! -- THEY GROW! And a simple solution in Florida... let them go.

Like in the JAWS movie, I can't wait to read about the inexperiences dumb@sses with $1500 on their minds realize that it can take more than six grown men to uncoil a grown python off a human. I'll be watching the news, rotflmfao then.

Melany Vorass
Melany Vorass

@Mark Bride Your extinction claim seems to make sense on the surface. But, with a few exceptions on small islands, 'invasive species' have NOT caused extinctions and such an outcome is highly unlikely. Species move around, will NEED to move around in the face of global warming. Invasive species do well in certain areas because the niche has already been carved out by human activities that resulted in impaired habitat. See my other comment re good book on invasive species 'science.' This book, while not perfect, was very eye opening for me.

Dion DeKok
Dion DeKok

@Eric Paul It reminds me of "rattlesnake round up" style entertainment, not a conservation effort.

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