In Florida fight against the python, one man holds the record

Miami HeraldAugust 11, 2009 

MIAMI — Nobody has killed more Burmese pythons in the Everglades than Bob Hill.

Long before the state launched its new python patrol, Hill was quietly -- aside from judicious employment of a 12-gauge -- racking up a count of constrictor carcasses likely to stand for some time.

The patrol has bagged six in three weeks. Hill figures he's "dispatched'' 35 this year alone, and he's been in the dispatching business for the South Florida Water Management District since 2004.

That was the first time a rattled boss rang him from the L-67, a flood-control levee deep in the Everglades. Hill, a soft-spoken Miamian with a half-century of swamp savvy, chuckled recalling it.

"He said, 'Bobby, I've got a snake here. It's as big as my truck.' ''

Some 300 pythons later, the side job has turned into full-time work. And Hill's uncanny nose for the giant snakes -- sometimes, he can literally smell them -- has turned the modest maintenance worker into not only the state's top exterminator of the exotic menace, but a leading authority on their habits.

Skip Snow, an Everglades National Park biologist who has led research efforts aimed at controlling the snake, credits Hill's field work for a good chunk of what is known about pythons in South Florida.

``His service has been unparalleled in helping us address the threat,'' Snow said. ``I've really seen him take it on in a personal way to learn the next thing, to figure out this beast, if you will.''

Hill's skill at spotting the wily predators dazzles colleagues. During breeding season, he can pick up whiffs of python musk -- distinctive, but only if you're another python or know what you're smelling.

``The guy has a gift,'' said Hill's boss Dan Thayer, who directs invasives control for the district.

Hill is a stocky 58-year-old with the grizzled look of a man who spends a considerable part of life outdoors. With ruddy cheeks and snowy walrus-cut beard, he looks a bit like Santa if Claus used an airboat.

For Hill, there is no big thrill to the kill. He professes no desire for snakeskin boots or a shot at an Animal Planet series. He notes, dryly, some interest in the bounty being pondered by state wildlife managers. ``Can they make that retroactive?''

But he takes his study of the snake's ways, and its potential threat to the Everglades' ecological balance, seriously.

He hopes the information he gathers -- where they are, what they eat -- will help scientists develop more effective tools than a shotgun to stop the spread of an alien capable of preying on the Everglades' most powerful denizens.

``After they hit five feet, probably the only predators they have is the alligator, and sometimes the snake wins, sometimes the alligator wins. Pythons don't belong here in the Everglades,'' he said.

Hill grew up fishing and hunting with his father, a Miami banker. He lives in the Cutler Bay area but spends a lot of time at the family camp in the Big Cypress National Preserve with wife Anita, three daughters, one son and 14 grandchildren.

He's worked for the district for nearly 36 years, always in jobs that kept him in the field -- mowing rights-of-way, sand-blasting structures, spraying herbicides and most recently, gathering data by airboat and truck from hydrology gauges.

Over the years, he had pulled a few wayward indigenous snakes out of buildings. But that fateful call from the L-67 was his first encounter with an 18-foot serpent that he instantly knew was no local boy.

He took pictures, and his search to identify it led him to Snow, a scientist who was charting a disturbing surge of pythons in the park. They would soon be consulting each other with increasing frequency.

So many pythons were popping up along the district's extensive network of levees that water managers began worrying they might pose a threat to work crews. Hill even pulled one out of a pump-station bathroom -- an 11-footer that had somehow taken up residence in rafters 14 feet up.

The district decided to deputize Hill, though top managers were initially uneasy.

``You can imagine the reaction when I said I wanted to arm him with a shotgun,'' Thayer said. Hill still is the only district employee authorized to carry a firearm.

Often, he targets snakes other workers spot first. Those are the easiest. Python, which patiently wait to ambush prey, often don't move far in a day.

But a recent excursion down the L-67 extension, south of Tamiami Trail, showed how challenging, and tedious, python hunting can be.

As slow as it will go, Hill drives the levee in a Chevy Savannah van co-workers have dubbed ``Bob's Shed,'' owing to its assortment of work tools and snake gear.

Depending on the season, he'll scan different areas.

In winter, the cold-blooded reptiles make themselves most conspicuous, sometimes stretching across levees to soak up sun. In summer heat, they tend to hunker down and hide -- so six so far is actually a pretty good catch for the seven experts who have volunteered for the state's new python patrol.

At any time of year, even experts struggle to pick python out in the underbrush. But Hill has learned telltale signs.

Sometimes, he said, ``It's just a pattern or shine, like the water on the grass blades.'' He also looks for tamped-down cat-tails, where he discovered they bed. And he's learned where there is one, there are frequently others nearby.

Though Hill came into the game with no python expertise, Snow believes his lifetime of hunting equipped him well. ``You say that some people have good eyes for wildlife, snake eyes. He has them.''

Snow credits Hill for helping delineate breeding and nesting seasons. He also believes Hill was the first to document two behaviors in South Florida: a mating ball, where multiple males entwine a receptive female, and thermogenesis, when a female coils around eggs to warm them.

The carcasses Hill collects and sends to Snow have showed the snake's prodigious reproductive power -- a 16-footer pulled from the L-67 this year had 59 eggs -- and its awesome appetite.

``Really, the question is what are they not eating?'' said district scientist LeRoy Rodgers. ``As far as we can tell, it's salad.''

When Hill finds a snake, he records the spot on a GPS then sizes it up -- first, with his own safety in mind.

While playing down scare-mongering that pythons will begin swallowing tourists, he stresses they are not to be trifled with. Sharp, inward angled teeth can inflict wicked bites, and big snakes, if provoked, could certainly overpower a human.

``I don't want to put myself in a situation where I'm going to get in trouble,'' he said. ``If I catch it, I catch it. A large snake, I won't catch myself.''

Hill has two main tools. When seeking a live specimen, he wields long-handled, lightweight metal tongs to grip the snake. He ordered it from www.tongs.com, which bills itself as the ``world's leader in reptile handling equipment.''

Where he can safely use a gun, he will unsheath a Winchester 1400 and chamber a load of No. 4 steel shot, typically used in duck hunting.

``A head shot is considered a humane way to euthanize them,'' he said, and he can hit it with confidence anywhere inside 15 to 20 feet.

Between road kill recoveries and captures, Hill has handled more than 300 pythons in the wild -- ``no question'' more than anyone else, Snow said.

The tally will surely grow.

This year, he has pulled more snakes off the L-67 than the previous three combined. And with state wildlife managers and Washington politicians pressuring for a major eradication effort, Hill is getting more help.

The district has enlisted two dozen workers to spend a few hours each week scanning for snakes while driving regular routes along levees. Dispatching will be left to Hill and, north of Miami-Dade, state game officers or the python patrol.

With Snow's help, the district held a daylong snake-spotting training session last month, using many tips culled from Hill's field work.

``What you saw in that presentation is the culmination of the partnership I've had with Bobby,'' Snow said. ``Without that, I would not have half of what I was able to present.''

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