Commentary: Everglades python hunt could use a beauty queen

The Miami HeraldJanuary 12, 2013 

US NEWS ENV-FLORIDA-PYTHONS 2 FL

A 9 1/2 foot long Burmese python was captured in the Florida Everglades as part of a three-month hunt approved by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission intending to reduce the number of the nonnative species.

MIKE STOCKER — MCT

If we’re serious about sending forth an army of gun-toting, beer-drinking, redneck snake-hunters to wade into the Everglades and eradicate the python hordes, we’re going to need more than a couple of piddling cash prizes.

We’ll need a queen.

Any officially sanctioned snake-killing frenzy worth a damn comes with a beauty contest. Apparently, girls in bathing attire, presumably of the snakeskin variety, are downright essential to a successful hunt.

So far, only about 400 contestants have signed up for South Florida’s “2013 Python Challenge,” which kicks off Saturday. Compare that to the Rattlesnake Roundup in Sweetwater (that’s the other Sweetwater) which brings in about 30,000 apparent lunatics every year to a dusty town in the middle of Texas with a population of not quite 11,000, where the only other tourist attraction is the National WASP Museum (for the women Army fliers, not the insects.) South Florida’s python shindig would need 18 million attendees just to keep pace, proportionately, with the festivities in Sweetwater.

What Sweetwater offers, along with the rattlesnake holocaust, is a Miss Snake Charmer, though the title is a bit of misnomer, given that pageant winners are required to decapitate a rattlesnake. I dug up this charming Associated Press quote from Laney Wallace, 16, Miss Snake Charmer circa 2011. “Tomorrow I get to skin snakes and chop their heads off. And I’m super excited about it.”

Go ahead with your snide Freudian analysis, but last year that giant posse of displaced Texas cowboys collected bounties on 1,700 pounds of rattlesnake redeemed at $5.50 a pound.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, meanwhile, is offering $1,000 to the hunter who brings in the longest python, and $1,500 for the fellow who bring in the most pythons. Of course, certain rules apply. No roadkill. No pets. “DON’T dismember pythons into more than two pieces or they will not qualify for the ‘longest snake’ category.”

Also, pythons must be dispatched humanely. Miss Snake Charmer would be disappointed, but Florida rules won’t allow decapitations. Gunshots to the head, however, will be okay. Also, “captive bolts,” a slaughterhouse instrument familiar to moviegoers as the killer’s favored weapon in No Country for Old Men. A special FWC online python challenge training course suggests: “To target the correct area, draw an imaginary line from the rear left of the head to the right eye, and then draw another line from the rear right of the head to the left eye. While one person is holding the snake in place, position the captive bolt where those lines intersect. The bolt must enter at a slight angle, not flush to the skull.”

Imagine some conscientious serpent hunter, trying to figure the prescribed humane angle while wrestling a 15-foot Burmese python in two feet of black swamp water. No, this particular snake extravaganza will be all about gun-play. If the hunters can find something to shoot.

Apparently, the idea of a python hunt came out of the governor’s office, where it was conceived as a “market driven” solution to a fast-breeding exotic that’s caused considerable damage to native wading bird and small mammal populations. (Instead of, say, pushing Congress to ban the importation of exotic reptiles.)

But Michael Dorcas, a herpetology researcher, author of Invasive Pythons in the United States and an expert in these stealthy exotics, suggested Monday that the marketplace may seem a little bare. “The one thing I know about these snakes,” said Dorcas, who knows everything about these snakes, “is that they’re very difficult to find.” Dorcas said that Burmese pythons are so secretive and so well camouflaged, “we’ve walked right past a 15-foot python without seeing it.”

He said the snakes range across thousands of square kilometers of southern Florida, most of that habitat away from roads and canals and nearly inaccessible to most hunters. “Probably, some pythons will be removed, but the damage to the overall population will be minimal.”

Dorcas worries more about unintended consequences to other populations, including humans. The Sun-Sentinel reported that hunters from 17 states have signed up for the month-long python chase. They’ll be coming into unfamiliar terrain, laden with poisonous native snakes, underwater limestone holes and other local hazards. The required 30-minute online training course seems a bit inadequate.

Dorcas is more worried about native snakes, likely to be scarfed up by frustrated python hunters, ready to blast away at any reticulated reptile that happens their way. Saturday could be a very bad day to be a brown water snake caught out without proper identification.

Ironically, the Rick Scott Python Challenge comes the same year that the famous Rattlesnake Roundup in Claxton, Ga., immortalized in the Harry Crews novel Feast of Snakes, stopped rounding up snakes. Wildlife officials noticed that the hunters had been pouring kerosene down tortoise burrows, setting them alight and catching the panicked snakes as they escaped. Several hundred other species also resided in those burned-out turtle abodes. Meanwhile, the Eastern rattlesnake has neared extinction. So this year, the roundup became a non-lethal wildlife celebration.

Texans, of course, don’t care much about biodiversity and the relative value of venomous native snakes. Rattlesnake hunts persist, guilt free. Maybe some of the promotional ideas that make these Texas hunts so damn successful might be worth emulating in python-plagued Florida. For instance, in Brownsville, home of the Brownsville Rattlesnake Roundup, locals distinguish themselves from the crazies in Sweetwater by devouring the still-beating hearts of freshly killed rattlesnakes. “They’re little-bitty. You don’t really chew them up. You just put them in your mouth and swallow them,” a festival organizer explained to BigCountry.com, an Abilene, Texas, news website.

A first-time taster compared rattlesnake heart to “eating a slug….. It sure doesn’t taste like chicken.”

Who knows if the still-beating heart of a Burmese python heart in South Florida would have the same gourmet appeal as a west Texas rattlesnake? No, what we need is a queen, Miss Python Challenge 2013.

With a little luck, she’ll be as adept at public relations and reptile dissection as Miss Snake Charmer Laney Wallace, who didn’t slither away from her queenly duties. “You have to make sure you don’t pop the bladder,” she warned. “That’s a huge mess.”

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