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Python hunting season to start in Florida

Joe Mennine and Ismael Vasquez, co-workers from Jupiter, were tooling down an Everglades canal in an airboat Monday when Vasquez saw a distinctive black-blotched snake, about five feet long, on the levee.

Having completed a “Pythons 101’’ crash course given by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission less than an hour earlier, Vasquez recognized it as a Burmese python. He pointed it out to Mennine, who jumped out and grabbed it.

“It tried to bite me, but it bit itself,” Mennine said. “I grabbed it by its head and threw it in a bag.”

The two returned to the boat ramp and turned the snake over to their FWC instructors.

“I can’t wait to do it again,” a breathless Vasquez said. “I’m a newbie — my very first time. The training definitely helped me know what to look out for.”

The two hunters were among about 50 who gathered at the Everglades and Francis S. Taylor Wildlife Management Area off the Tamiami Trail on Monday for the FWC announcement of a special hunting season for reptiles of concern on state lands.

From March 8 through April 17, anyone with a hunting license and a $26 management area permit may kill exotic, invasive snakes — including the Indian python, reticulated python, northern and southern African rock python, amethystine or scrub python, green anaconda and Nile monitor lizard.

The hunting grounds are the Everglades and Francis S. Taylor, Holey Land and Rotenberger wildlife management areas. Legal weapons include pistols, shotguns and rifles, but no center-fire rifles.

Exotic snakes — especially the Burmese python — have become a big problem in the Everglades. Growing up to 26 feet long, the Burmese is a constrictor that preys on native Florida mammals, birds and reptiles, including the endangered Key Largo wood rat. No one knows how many live in the Glades, but more than 300 were removed from Everglades National Park in 2008 alone. From the park, the snakes have spread north to the Big Cypress National Preserve and south to Key Largo.

Hunters said they would be happy to help stop the spread.

“We feel we have the knowledge, responsibility and technical ability to take care of this problem,” said Bishop Wright Jr., president of the Florida Airboat Association. “We are the best tool in the toolbox in this situation.”

To give hunters their best shot, the FWC brought in some of its own officers, plus local breeders and trappers, for Monday’s news conference and training session. Biologist Shawn Heflick and reptile breeder Michael Cole provided a rundown on the reptiles’ biology, behavior, diet and habitat.

They even brought along two ‘demo’ snakes — a large, pet male named Fluffy and a smaller, rambunctious wild python caught recently in the Everglades — for lessons in safe handling and capture.

Heflick said the best time to hunt snakes is during the cooler months, when the cold-blooded reptiles sun themselves and ambush prey — such as rabbits and rats — along canal levees, in tree islands and in brush and debris piles. He said they are not aggressive, but will defend themselves if threatened.

“You don’t want to end up with a Burmese necktie,” he said, only half-jokingly.

Cole was adamant that snakes be dispatched humanely.

“The quickest and easiest way to euthanize them is with a sharp instrument like a machete,” Cole said. “The veterinary association recommends swift decapitation or a bullet. Don’t club these snakes to death.”

Hunters learned there are some financial incentives to harvesting pythons.

Brian Wood, operator of All American Gators in Hallandale Beach — a reptile processor — said he would pay $5 per foot for a whole snake. He showed off a pair of jumbo snakeskin trousers valued at $900 and touted the flavor of snake meat, although tests on samples from the Everglades show it’s high in mercury.

“The meat is very excellent,” Wood said. “It’s like chicken, but it does taste like snake.”

Several of the hunters couldn’t wait to get started.

Said Rich Andrews of Pompano Beach: “We’ll take care of the problem here for sure. We truly care about the environment. It’s our playground. If the snake problem is as bad as they make it out to be, who better to be out there than us?”