Win cash, save Glades but don’t get bitten

An expert and his son demonstrate python-catching prowess. But can gun-toting newbies get the hang of it?

scocking@MiamiHerald.comJanuary 12, 2013 

Armed with poking sticks and guns, Miamians Pablo Martinez, brother Esteban and buddy Giovanni Villadoniga beat the bushes at Rotenberger Wildlife Management Area in southwestern Palm Beach County Saturday afternoon, searching for Burmese pythons.

“If we see one, we’re just gonna shoot it,” Pablo said. “I don’t see the point of grabbing one. We’re all a bunch of rookies, a group of guys hanging out. We’re doing it for the fun — but hey, if we’re helping out, that’s cool, too.”

The three are among 837 hunters registered for the 2013 Python Challenge — a month-long, South Florida contest awarding cash prizes.

Many of the hunters at a Saturday kickoff event at the University of Florida Research and Education Center in Davie were raring to go. But what some didn’t realize is that finding a Burmese python sunning on a levee or a tree island in the vast expanse of the Everglades — even a snake 17 feet long — is like locating a toothpick in a stack of hay.

“There’s pythons everywhere in the Everglades, but the chances of seeing them are slim,” said wildlife biologist Joe Wasilewski of Homestead. “A 13-foot python, you might only see two to three inches of it.”

Wasilewski, 60, is one of 88 snake hunters licensed by the state to remove Burmese pythons and other exotic reptiles from Everglades National Park and South Florida Water Management District lands. He said the problem of exotic reptiles is nothing new; he has been removing pets dumped in the park by irresponsible owners since the 1980s.

A personal best

His personal-record catch is one that measured just over 16 feet. But Wasilewski said the python problem has grown worse in the past decade, and he believes it’s due to a Quonset hut full of the snakes being blown into the Everglades by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. They survived and reproduced, he figures.

“If you look at a logarithmic scale, you are talking tens of thousands of them,” the biologist said.

Wasilewski is not a competitor in the Python Challenge. He says he may help staff one of the check stations as hunters bring snakes out of the Glades.

However, Wasilewski and son Nick, 31, successfully demonstrated their python-catching prowess near the C-110 canal in South Miami-Dade on Friday, the day before the big hunt.

They walked the long levee at mid-morning with Michiko Squires, a wildlife technician at University of Florida, armed only with a catch bag and a metal cane with a curved handle that they never used.

“This time of year, sunny mornings after cool evenings is the ideal time for the pythons to come out,” the elder Wasilewski said.

The three walked briskly, but not so quickly that they couldn’t scan both sides of the levee. About 15 minutes after they parked their truck, Nick sprang into a patch of sawgrass beside the canal and jumped on an 81/2-foot male Burmese python. He seized the writhing reptile by the head and tail, and he and his dad stuffed it into Joe’s backpack. The whole thing was over in seconds, without injury to man or snake.

“In my opinion, it was out looking for love,” Joe said of the mature male.

Nick — who has captured plenty of reptiles, but never a Burmese python — was elated.

“I heard the bushes moving — a sound like a snake in the grass to be honest with you,” he said. “Then I just jumped on it.”

The Wasilewskis and Squires continued their search along the levee, planning to cover both sides of the canal. The elder snake hunter was asked for some helpful hints for the many newbies who will be competing in the Python Challenge.

Faster when warm

“You see ’em, you gotta’ grab ’em,” Joe said. “When it’s warm, they’re faster. The second you grab whatever part of it, it is going to try to bite you. That’s not a maybe.”

He noted the snakes are non-venomous, but armed with multiple sets of razor-sharp teeth that curve inward.

“They won’t kill you, but you might bleed a lot,” he said. “Medically, the person should be updated with their tetanus shots.”

As for what a hunter should do if the snake coils around them, he advised: “Grab the tail and go counterclockwise.”

Wasilewski said he doesn’t believe the month-long hunt will do much to knock down the python population, but he still thinks it’s a good idea.

“Even if they catch 200 or 300 snakes, it’s insignificant compared to the overall population,” he said. “But any female they take out, that’s minus 30 eggs. Every one you pull out, it’s one less for reproduction. I hope they pull out a lot, but I don’t think they will.”

The Wasilewskis found no more pythons Friday, despite walking six miles and covering both sides of the C-110. They gave the one they caught to Frank Mazzotti, professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Florida in Davie, who said he planned to fit it with a transmitter and release it to ferret out more snakes.

At Saturday’s kickoff, Ron Bergeron, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation commissioner, said, “I see this as an environmental hunt where the public can participate to save our beautiful Everglades.”

Contestants are restricted to four state wildlife management areas. Acceptable firearms include pistols, rim-fire rifles and shotguns — no center-fire rifles. Hunters must provide precise information on where they kill a python. Killing a native snake, hunting in a prohibited area, or posting photos or videos online showing inhumane or illegal activities will result in disqualification. The FWC said it will put on extra law enforcement patrols at the hunting grounds.

Jeff Fobb, a volunteer with the Nature Conservancy, drew a large crowd at Saturday’s event as he demonstrated on a 13-foot python how to wrangle one of the serpents.

“The first 80 percent is putting your hands on an animal this size,” Fobb said, holding the snake by the head and tail. “You don’t wait for the animal to wrap around your torso.”

But, someone in the crowd asked, “what if it does?”

Replied Fobb: “Don’t let it.”

Hunter Marty Zonkos of Port St. Lucie said he has no intention of attempting to overpower a large snake.

“I jumped on an alligator once,” Zonkos said, “and it was one of the biggest mistakes of my life.”

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