Dispatches From The Front Line Of Florida's Wild Python Hunt
The monthlong Python Challenge in the Everglades is part controversial preservationist initiative, part sensationalistic media stunt, and all slinking through swamps trying to kill giant deadly reptiles.
I clung to the trunk of a papaya sapling, trying my best to circumvent a long slide down a steep, pebbly ridge and into a canal overrun with venomous snakes. My fingernails sank deeper into tree flesh. My right wrist was already sore from having been repeatedly gnawed on by a baby alligator. Hunks of limestone rolled under my feet. All I could see of my swiftly disappearing guide, Blake Russ, was the edge of his nylon backpack, which contained the live, 8-foot Burmese python we'd tugged out of the grass a couple hours earlier and shoved into a pillowcase. Seconds later, the backpack vanished, concealed by fronds. That's what the Everglades does: It consumes. By the time I'd steadied myself and hotfooted it to flat ground, using some combination of panicked resolve and choreography I'd aped from House Party 2, Russ — a 24-year-old, 6-foot-1-inch, 250-pound python hunter — was already lying flat on his belly at the edge of a pond. This is how Blake Russ hunts: with his bare hands. Russ was a front-runner in the Florida Python Challenge, a monthlong, state-sanctioned assault on invasive, non-native Burmese pythons, and a member of the Florida Python Hunters, a five-man cabal of devoted snake-seekers who haunt the canals, fields, access roads, and swamps of the Everglades — a sort of rogue militia, vigilante conservationists in blue jeans. Russ is a full-time student at Florida International University, studying construction management, and chases pythons around the Everglades whenever he can, except Sundays, the Mormon Sabbath. He wears wire-frame eyeglasses and drives a dusty blue Prius his buddies dubbed "Silent Night." His own nickname is DanjaRuss, which is a glib nod to his fearlessness — he's been into reptiles since he was a kid growing up in the boggy wilds of central Florida, the youngest of 10 children, a varsity lineman, and a weightlifter who at one point stuffed 27 water snakes into a 40-gallon aquarium. It took me a while to pester Russ into letting me tag along. I'm not sure why he said yes. The Python Challenge had attracted throngs of reporters — most sporting brand-new, knee-high waders fresh from the Bass Pro Shop in Miami — and inexperienced small-game hunters from places like Fort Lauderdale. Russ, despite a surprisingly sweet disposition, was not especially interested in dicking around with yahoos. Later, when a hissing, open-mouthed python was lunging hungrily at my face, he laughed and told me to just grab it by the neck already. "You are the type of person who will be glad this happened," is what he said.
Snakes abide a heavy burden, symbolically speaking. There are dick jokes, endless colloquialisms, Snakes on a Plane. There is the Book of Genesis, in which a serpent slithers by and convinces Eve to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, an unforgivable treason against God, the ur-betrayal. One could argue, insomuch as these narratives get absorbed unconsciously via cultural osmosis, that anyone who's ever been tricked into doing something she didn't want to do now has shit to settle with snakes. Biblical scholars still squabble about the precise implications (whether the serpent was an agent of Satan, or actually Satan, or neither), but the New Testament is fairly unambiguous in its condemnation: "That old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world." Suddenly, if you are mad — at no one, at one person, at yourself — yanking snakes out of the grass and shooting them in the head seems like a reasonable thing to do.
Florida also abides a heavy burden: it's arguably the most routinely maligned state, multitudinous and has no clear identity beyond its own peculiarities, which makes it an easy punch line. There is the established hedonism of South Beach, the youthful vulgarity of Daytona, the gleam of Orlando, the scrappiness of the panhandle. Part of this is geographical, but part of it is just, I don't know, some essential fact of place — the fundamental, inescapable weirdness of Florida. In fact, the state is so well-established as a haven for misfits there's even a Twitter account dedicated to tracking the travails of its anti-hero-in-chief, the headline-ubiquitous "Florida Man." Rightly or not, the rest of America regards Florida, its oddballs and citrus groves and theme parks and golf courses and noted deviants, with a mix of awe and terror. But there is a purity to Florida's misfit repute, and there was a purity to the Python Challenge, as a kind of hands-on, under-thought, base reaction to invasion. It was so simple: There are too many snakes; let's kill some of the snakes. It's easy to feel helpless or neutered in the face of impending environmental meltdowns, to be cowed by the enormity and complexity of the mess, and easier still to feel detached and uninspired, marooned in a city in the dark heart of winter. But Florida does not abide poltroonery or moot intellectualizing. Florida suggests you shut up, get into the swamp, get on your knees, pull out a snake, and murder it. Because there are too many snakes. I'm not saying I went to Florida to cleanse the Earth of original sin, or to repent the fall of man, or to exact vengeance upon the proxy embodiment of an unspecified enemy, or to cure some vague and unearned weariness by helping to solve a material problem in the most primal way possible. But so what if I did?
No one knows exactly how the Burmese python became an established species in the Everglades (the first official sighting was logged in 1979), but the story repeated most often fingers beleaguered pet owners: Folks either unwilling or unable to properly care for a snake that might grow up to 18 feet long and as thick as a telephone pole, and live for 15 to 25 years. Under cloak of night, exhausted keepers dump their charges out of plastic crates on Route 41, whooping or whispering a final farewell as a once-beloved pet wiggles off into the underbrush. There was also Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which decimated nearby reptile breeding facilities, unleashing untold hatchlings, and several lesser hurricanes since, which flung who-knows-what to who-knows-where. What's less ambiguous is how well-suited the Burmese python is to the Everglades. They are prodigious breeders, and population estimates are laughably varied — I heard numbers as low as 5,000 and as high as 180,000; frankly, no one has any idea — but even the most conservative stabs are still troubling.
"The Everglades" refers to the subtropical wetlands comprising most of the southern third of Florida, from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay. It's a delicate ecosystem that includes Everglades National Park, the 1.5 million acres of protected federal land southwest of Miami, and contains endless saw grass marshes, mangrove forests, cypress swamps, tropical hardwood hammocks, and stretches of converted farmland. Adult Burmese pythons don't have many natural predators in South Florida, although crocodiles, alligators, black bears, and cougars have all been known to give it a shot (they usually fail). Without significant opposition, the snakes are consuming wading birds and small to mid-size mammals (raccoons, possums, deer) with terrifying abandon. A feeding python bites first, plunging several rows of sharp, rearward-facing teeth into the skin of its prey, immobilizing it. Then, the snake begins slowly coiling its body around its victim's thumping chest. The python's muscles constrict, squeeze; there might be a gasp, or a crack of bone. Meals are swallowed whole. According to a 2011 study by the Davidson College biologist Michael Dorcas, pythons are gobbling their way through entire populations: Dorcas reported a 99.3% decrease in raccoon observations, a 98.9% decrease in possum observations, a 94% decrease in white-tailed deer observations, and an 87.5% decrease in bobcat observations in the Everglades since the snake's presence became palpable. Burmese pythons are ambitious gourmands — possums are easy eating, but it isn't unprecedented for a large python to gulp down a pregnant sheep, or a goat, or an alligator. I know because in the weeks leading up to my departure, I spent an uncomfortable amount of time typing "python eating stuff" into Google, seeing things I could not unsee.
The Python Challenge was organized by Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), and besides bringing in cash (a $25 registration fee per hunter), its broader mission was to "raise awareness" about the general problem of invasive species in Florida. The FWC was offering a bounty of $1,500 to the hunter who dragged back the most snakes, and $1,000 to whoever bagged the longest snake. Second place in both categories netted $750. The snakes needed to be returned dead and in no more than two pieces. The FWC explained it thusly: "Burmese pythons are classified as Conditional Species in Florida and cannot be transported live. They must be harvested in the field using humane methods." They recommended a captive bolt, a firearm, or a machete. The Challenge website featured a picture of a snake's head with a white "X" indicating the best place to strike to ensure the snake's brain is destroyed "quickly and completely." It's worth noting there's almost no way the Burmese python could ever be eradicated by hunters alone — they're just too hard to find. Despite the snake's considerable size, its brownish-yellowish skin and giraffe-like blotches provide ample, even exceptional, camouflage, and its daily habits remain somewhat mysterious. When I arrived in Florida, 20 days into the contest, Diane Hirth, a spokesperson for the FWC, told me that so far, the nearly 1,600 registered participants (less than 100 of whom were women) had managed to rouse just 41 snakes while scouring a million-plus acres of land. It was grim math. The contest itself felt particularly lawless. Detractors had promptly declared it a cruel and needless massacre that endangered both registrants (the required online training course, designed to teach new hunters the difference between non-venomous pythons and extraordinarily venomous native snakes, took me about two and a half minutes to complete) and bystanders (Russ told me he was sometimes tempted to wear a bulletproof vest to thwart bullets sprayed by overzealous newbies). PETA took particular issue with decapitation as a euthanasia technique, calling it "despicably cruel" and noting that it "cannot be performed in a humane manner in the field." Bryan Christy, author of The Lizard King: The True Crimes and Passions of the World's Greatest Reptile Smugglers, decried the event in an op-ed for National Geographic, writing that "we vilify these escaped pythons, and we pretend cruelty is the price we pay to protect an ecosystem." Challenge participants didn't need a special hunting license as long as they were over 18 and willing to sign a liability waiver. In short, Florida was inviting its citizens to trawl untamed wetlands for giant snakes, without so much as a mandatory in-person demonstration.
When I spoke with Jennifer Ketterlin Eckles, a non-native wildlife biologist for the FWC, she was frank about all the things scientists couldn't ascertain just yet, including how bleak the outlook was, or how far the snakes might migrate. Her best guess was that there are "thousands, probably tens of thousands, probably not hundreds of thousands" of Burmese pythons in the Everglades. She wasn't sure how they got there and believed the best way to catch them was also the hardest: one by one. "Boots on the ground," she said. A sigh was implied. "There's some research ongoing using pheromones to attract them, but so far, trying to bait them hasn't worked. Right now, the best thing is people searching." Until a better solution revealed itself, the state was at least trying to curb pet-dumpings, offering amnesty days when snakes could be surrendered with no questions and no penalties. As of July 1, 2010, when Senate Bill 318 (better known as "The Python Bill") became law, it's illegal to possess, import, sell, trade, or breed "reptiles of concern" in Florida. Last month, the Obama administration announced a ban on the import and interstate transport of Burmese pythons and three other non-native constrictor snakes (the yellow anaconda and the northern and southern African pythons), declaring them injurious. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced the law in a news conference held off Route 41 in the Everglades. Still looking to glean a little more information about what the experience of hunting snakes might entail, I called Greg Graziani, a reptile breeder and licensed python hunter. I was after details: what a bite felt like, how to spot a snake in tall grass, what of recent human casualties, etc. I introduced myself and yammered on for a couple minutes about invasive species and the plague of the python as I understood it. He paused for a moment before announcing that everything I'd heard about pythons and Florida was total bullshit. Graziani believed the python problem in the Everglades had probably been exaggerated and that the Python Challenge was just a bit of absurdist theater, a farce. The real threat to the ecosystem, he suggested, was considerably less glamorous: invasive plants. "The Brazilian pepper, the melaleuca tree, the Australian pine — they change landscapes. That's not gonna be in the headlines," he said. "Run these deer over on the highway, but God forbid one gets eaten by a python!" He was getting worked up now – clicking over to take other calls, getting back on the line and re-raising his voice. "You're talking about a tropical species barely surviving in a subtropical climate. The worst invasive species we have in North America and in most other countries is the domestic feral cat. Nothing kills more than a domestic cat, because a domestic cat kills for fun. But a Cat Challenge? If you went down there and butchered all the feral cats?" He paused. "But it's a snake, no big deal. People don't care." (A couple days after we spoke, scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the Fish and Wildlife Service released a report estimating that domestic cats kill a median of 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals in the U.S. each year, prompting the New York Times to declare cats "one of the single greatest human-linked threats to wildlife in the nation." Graziani, it turned out, had a pretty good point.) In my less swashbuckling moments, I was starting to feel nagged by the morality of the entire debacle. I was no fan of snakes, but the closest I'd come to participating in the ritual murder of another animal was slapping mosquitoes off my friends' shoulders at barbecues. I'd hysterically hurled magazines and half-peeled bananas and house keys at water bugs scuttling across my kitchen floor in Brooklyn, but I had never knowingly launched a kill shot. New Yorkers are prone to romanticizing (if not ransacking) rural cultures out of whole cloth, and I was coming into a half-formed sense that I was signing myself up for certain catastrophe. Whatever my agenda — journalistic, moral, environmental — it felt naïve if not fundamentally flawed. It was, at least, unoriginal. And yet, I arrived in Florida on a Thursday morning.
Several years ago, shortly after they retired, my parents bought a house in Venice, Florida, a tiny island community on the gulf coast, about 20 miles south of Sarasota. Now they spend a few months there every winter, feeding sandwich crusts to pelicans, collecting shark's teeth on Caspersen Beach, and grilling grouper fillets. This is a well-trod path for former public school teachers no longer charmed by things like snow and state income tax. Everyone is always either eating shrimp, or wearing a visor. The highways are wide and evenly paved; the air-conditioning is robust and infinite. This, certainly, is one kind of Florida: gray hairs power-walking on clean sidewalks, waving at passing cars, organizing bridge games, eating supper at 4:30 in the afternoon. My father, one evening, following a viewing of the local news, said, "There are a lot of assholes down here." I'd spent a couple days convalescing with my folks before relocating to Everglades City, a fading municipality with a population of around 500, it overlooks the northern edge of Florida's 10,000 Islands, which pepper the shallow water between Chokoloskee Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. In the late 1970s and '80s, Everglades City was something of a haven for marijuana smugglers, who delivered endless bales of weed via speedboat and biplane, protected and obscured by impenetrable mangrove forests; in 1990, The Miami Herald dubbed it "The Town That Dope Built." Government crackdowns later stymied the drug trade here, but there is still something sinister about the place, intensely quiet in an intensely unpleasant way. There is not a whole lot to do at night besides drink beer and stare idly into the void — your own, and Florida's. The southern edge of the Everglades is wilder than nearly anywhere else I've been in America, in no small part because its terrain is inherently unknowable — it's perpetually shifting, alternately lush and barren, either emerging from or sinking back into the bay, being born or being reclaimed. It exists in extraordinary contrast to the over-sprinkled, tidily clipped lawns of my parents' neighborhood a few hours north, and it is largely unsympathetic to human want. To an extent, it resists passage. It took the state three tries to pave 41, and although I-75 (which cuts through the Everglades about 15 miles north of 41) currently claims the nickname Alligator Alley, there are dozens of mammoth-sized black gators loafing in the sunken streams flanking the roadway here — and no fences to keep them off the pavement. Jim Schneider, a Challenge participant and licensed python hunter, met me for a late afternoon coffee at the Rod and Gun Club, an old hunting lodge directly across the street from the guesthouse where I was staying. The club was built in 1864 and remodeled by the industrialist Barron C. Collier in 1922; its dark, cypress-paneled walls are covered with taxidermy, including a full alligator carcass, and its two bars are overloaded with porcelain whiskey decanters shaped like fish. A couple old jukeboxes sat unplugged in the corner, underneath a framed map titled "Chart of Tropical Storms Passing through Florida from 1900-1930." Schneider, who is soft-spoken and dark-haired, was wearing a long-sleeved Florida Gators shirt under a short-sleeved Florida Gators shirt. He'd studied anthropology in college, and, like Graziani, seemed concerned about the press' sensationalism and misinformation. The Challenge had officially kicked off two and a half weeks ago, on Jan. 12, and the photos from opening day were disconcerting in that almost every wide shot revealed a mirroring wall of photographers — cameras capturing cameras. The snakes were already being dwarfed by their chroniclers. I felt guilty by association, and also just guilty: I wasn't in town to torch Brazilian pepper trees.
Schneider wanted me to know there weren't pythons dropping out of trees and swallowing people. "If there were hundreds of thousands, every idiot would be turning one in. I know what I'm doing, and I haven't seen one [this month]," he said. Schneider said he hunted pythons because it was important to him that his two children have access to "the same Everglades I did." He wasn't going out that weekend because he'd recently injured his foot chasing a fox. That was Schneider's side game, eliminating unwanted critters from people's homes and yards. We chatted for a couple hours, and he patiently talked me through all the native snakes I might encounter: coral snakes (highly venomous), Florida cottonmouths (highly venomous), eastern diamondback rattlesnakes (highly venomous), and dusky pygmy rattlesnakes (highly venomous). After Schneider headed back to his place in Miami, I stayed at the Rod and Gun Club for dinner. The menu included fried alligator and several iterations of frog legs, but I only consumed as many glasses of terrible red wine as I could stomach. I was originally supposed to rendezvous with Russ, who I'd met on Facebook, at a gas station on 41 the following morning, but he'd texted the day before and asked me to meet him at his home in Miami instead, at 8 a.m. sharp. "The weather looks perfect for python hunting tomorrow," he wrote. Everglades City is about an hour-and-40-minute drive from Miami, which meant I needed to be on the road by 6. I woke up before my alarm — I'd barely slept — and dressed quickly. It was unseasonably cool, and I shivered in the dark parking lot, fumbling with my keys. A cold night meant pythons, which are ectothermic (their body temperature is externally mandated), would be out early, jonesing for a little warmth. I climbed into my parents' Subaru and sped east on 41, watching the sun inch up over the Big Cypress National Preserve, chewing on the stale bagel that would turn out to be my last meal of the day.
Russ had mentioned that Devin Belliston, a 26-year-old high school science teacher and fellow member of the Florida Python Hunters, would be joining us. I'd spoken to Belliston on the phone before, and I was eager to meet him in person. The Challenge was divided into two leagues (licensed agents compete against licensed agents, amateurs compete against amateurs), and Russ and Belliston were two of the youngest licensed hunters in the running for the big cash. Although the Challenge only ran for 30 days, most registrants had full- or part-time jobs that required their attention during the week, and at the moment, the contest was being dominated by a guy named Ruben Ramirez, another member of the Florida Python Hunters and a close friend of Russ and Belliston's. Russ told me Ramirez, who is self-employed (he runs an iron work company), was out hunting almost every day. He was exceptionally good at it, and had already hauled back 14 pythons, a staggering percentage of the total yield. Last fall, Ramirez and George Brana — Brana and Blake's older brother, Bryan, make up the last two members of the Florida Python Hunters; Ramirez has the group's name emblazoned on the back window of his pickup truck — found a 16-foot, 8-inch, 130-pound python sunning itself on a canal bank. It was the second largest ever found in the Everglades. When I pulled up to Russ' house, he and Belliston were already outside, loading the Prius. Russ was wearing faded jeans, hiking boots, and a white T-shirt that said "Florida Python Hunters" on the back in orange letters. He jogged over, shook my hand, and explained where we were going — we'd be tracing two canals known as C-110 and C-111, in a Challenge-approved Wildlife Management Area (or WMA) near Florida City, about 30 miles southwest of Miami. He told me there could be a foot of water or more covering the trail in parts. "I might have to carry you over it," he said.
Belliston, who is thin and muscular, with short blond hair and intense blue eyes, shook out two custom, king-size pillowcases. This is standard equipment for the Florida Python Hunters — Belliston's mother, Lorraine, had sewn them from old bedsheets and embroidered "Florida Python Hunters" on the front in tomato-red thread. He tossed me an extra bottle of water, which I stowed in my bag. Russ and Belliston weren't particularly interested in slaughtering pythons — they both keep snakes as pets — but they recognized it as a Challenge requirement. Whenever possible, they preferred to relocate live snakes to research facilities or reptile refuges. There was a moment, late the night before, curled up in my stiff little bed in Everglades City, when I'd reached a kind of détente with the notion that I was probably about to die — I'd seen my limp body being hauled out of a shallow pond by Miami-Dade's famed Venom One unit, my parents hysterical, nearby hunters either solemnly removing their caps or pulling them lower so they could roll their eyes. Because who willingly follows two strangers she met on Facebook into the wilds of the Everglades? Python hunting requires a certain peace with your own mortality, but Russ and Bellliston radiated protectiveness. This was a spiritual exercise for them. They'd read the literature, the reports and papers and peer-reviewed journal articles, and were constantly trying to figure out how to think more like a snake, how to extrapolate and employ python logic in the field. It involved a feeling not unlike empathy. As the Prius pulled onto the highway, they outlined their plan: When we reached the entrance to the WMA, we would split up, and Russ and I would drive the canal bank, park Silent Night, and hike the three miles back to the road. Belliston would move toward us on the same path, then, when he got to the car, drive back, and pick us up near the entrance. I recognized that our chances of finding a python were slight — Graziani had mentioned it required something like 92 hours of searching, on average, to uncover one, and a photographer I'd met that morning from The Palm Beach Post (he was trailing Belliston) told me he'd already been out six times that month, with six different hunters, and found nothing — but the sun was beaming, Black Swallowtails were flitting about, and Russ' pillowcase was swinging jauntily from his belt. "We don't waste our time," Russ said. "If we don't have the weather and conditions, I'm not going out. It sucks to walk 10 miles in one day, to get bit by horseflies and all kinds of bugs. You fall in holes."
We dropped Belliston off and hit the trail, which was dusty and covered in rocks. As we walked, Russ told me where to look — after a cold night, pythons want warmth, but they also want to feel protected, so sunny patches abutting some kind of cover (like tall grass or brush) are ideal. "You gotta think like a snake," he reiterated. "What do they want? What is their goal?" I scanned the edge of the underbrush. I noted the position of the sun. I wondered what snakes want — what anything wants. "They want to feel safe," Russ said, unprompted. I asked Russ if his wife was into this. "She's not, like, into it, but she thinks it's cool to go see different kinds of snakes, and she definitely gets excited when we find a python," he said. Russ and Belliston first met because their wives were friendly — they all attend the same church — but Russ was initially hesitant to confess his snake-hunting habit to Belliston. "One night Devin's wife called my wife and was like, 'What are you guys doing? Want to come over or something?' I'm like, 'Don't tell them we're out snake hunting. They're going to think we're weirdos.' She told her, though. The next time I saw him, he approached me and was like, 'Yeah, I want to start coming out.'" For Russ, the environmental ramifications of his work were obviously important, but I got the impression they were also nearly incidental. He'd been into snakes — and sport hunting, and being outside — for a long time. He saw it as an antidote, a salve, a way of channeling potentially unhealthy or untoward impulses. "My parents said, 'Well, we don't like snakes very much, but if him going out and catching gators and giant snakes and hogs, if that keeps him out of other trouble, away from drugs and alcohol, then I'd rather him risk his life that way,'" he explained. Russ has been bitten by pythons countless times in the two years he's been hunting here, but he considers those wounds points of pride — the price of wrangling snakes using only your body and your wits. I can tell he thinks his is the purest way to hunt, in part because it requires understanding how an animal moves. "First they go crazy, whipping and striking. You grab their tail so they have less leverage to strike — they can't strike as far," he explained. "They're striking all over and then you dodge them a few times and wait for the opportune moment right after they strike. Then bam, you grab 'em. Once you get a hold of their head, that's when they're like, OK, I'm gonna musk you. When you have musk all over you, that's the smell of success. That means you caught a snake today." The "musk" Russ was referring to is a foul combination of piss and shit, emitted by a terrified snake in response to impending capture. Like a scar, it is worn as a badge of valor by python hunters. I asked Russ if he ever hunted anything else, maybe using more traditional means. "If I were to go deer hunting, this would be my preferred way of deer hunting," he said. "I'd get up in the tree with the food on the ground, and when the deer came, I'd jump on it." We hiked for about 25 minutes before Russ' phone rang. It was Belliston. He'd found one. It was around 8 or 9 feet long, and he'd spotted it sunning itself near the canal, in exactly the type of scenario Russ had just described to me. Belliston had easily bagged it and was headed our way. Russ was elated.
A few minutes later, we met Belliston in the middle of the trail, and before any of us could speak, he bent down and let the live snake out of its pillowcase. I'd steeled myself for this moment — for immediate and sudden proximity to an untamed, striking python — but I gasped anyway, and recoiled, and gasped again. Russ grabbed it by its neck and posed for a photo, which I promptly texted to everyone I had ever met. He laid it across the trail to get a better sense of its length. Soon, via a series of events I cannot precisely recall or explain, I was holding it, or doing my best to. I could barely stretch my hands around its thick, writhing body. Its skin was dry and weirdly soft. I raised the snake's head above my head, letting its tail scrape the trail. I stopped breathing. There were handshakes and salutations and then the snake was back in the pillowcase and we were moving again, hungry for our own catch. Russ was energized now, slapping horseflies off the back of his neck, walking faster, his narrow blue eyes darting all over. I was batty on adrenaline and bloodlust, half-jogging, pausing stupidly before every rotten log that resembled, to my untrained eye, a Burmese python. In that moment, I wanted to see a python more, maybe, than I had ever wanted to see anything. We hiked another mile and a half. Russ stopped and muttered something I couldn't understand. Then, in a second, he was in the brush, jerking a snake from the grass. It kept coming and coming: more body, more body, more body. It was stabbing at Russ's thighs, its fangs exposed. "You wanna grab it?" he asked, dodging its strikes.
It does not feel hyperbolic to say that watching Russ wrangle this python was like watching Michael Jackson moonwalking to "Billie Jean" onstage at the Apollo in 1983. Every move he made was exactly the right move, flawless, preternatural. The snake kept going, wiggling, thrusting. Russ was tiring it out, shadowboxing. He invited me to get in on it, to clamp my hands around its head, hold its body still with the heel of my boot. "Here," he said, panting faintly. "Let me hold your tape recorder so I can record your scream." I made some kind of gurgling sound and accepted its tail, pogo-ing from one foot to the other like a deranged toddler on a hopscotch board. The python whipped back and forth. Eventually, Russ took over, letting the back half of the snake curl around his forearm, constricting. "Feel that," he said, holding out his arm. I mean, it felt insane. Unmovable. Somehow, Russ managed to uncoil it and cram it into a pillowcase. It was barely 10:30 a.m. We hiked back to the road, and a few minutes later, Belliston picked us up in the Prius. We had more canals to walk. We drove for a while then parked again. We passed a couple old dudes in T-shirts, shorts, and socks, fishing the canal for shellcracker. "You guys seen any pythons?" Russ shouted. The first man looked at him as if he'd asked him to disrobe. Russ pulled the snake out of his backpack and held it up. The second man nearly tumbled out of his folding chair. "You crazy, brother!" he hollered, backing away. "Y'all got balls, man."
We kept hunting, through thicker, more harrowing trails that weren't really trails at all. I had bug bites and bloody scratches and assorted bits of flora lodged in my hair. Following another brief brush with death — it involved me shoving my hand into a pond and it emerging with a baby alligator stuck to it (and of course by "stuck to it," I mean "eating it") until Russ finally intervened and pried its jaws apart, while stifling what I suspect was a grin — Russ, Belliston, and I met up with Ramirez and Brana, who had corralled three snakes of their own. (The alligator's nubby little teeth hadn't managed to break the skin of my hand, but whatever hysterical wrist-whipping I'd done in response to its chomp had resulted in a throbbing, carpal tunnel–type pain, which I later bathroom-remedied with an Ace bandage.) Brana took the snakes into a ditch near the side of the road and quickly euthanized them using a pellet gun, execution-style. That was all it took. Watching, I felt like I wanted to throw up. Nobody enjoyed this part. Ramirez was particularly distressed. We slunk back to Silent Night, silent. It was mid-afternoon, and the pythons had likely retreated for the day; by all accounts, five snakes was an exceptional harvest. At the FWC drop-off station on 41, we encountered a band of young hunters carrying 9mm handguns and sporting full camouflage outfits and aviator sunglasses. Their sartorial choices seemed particularly extravagant given that pythons can barely see what's in front of them, but to their considerable credit, they'd bagged two — one shot at such close range that at least six inches of snake (including its head) were missing. After they saw our snakes, one of them gave me a high five, which I accepted, although it also seemed uncouth, somehow.
The day I flew back to New York, two Challenge participants from Tennessee became "stranded and disoriented" while hunting and had to be airlifted to nearby rescue units. According to an Associated Press article, "Authorities said the victims, ages 22 and 25, complained of lightheadedness and weakness and were suffering from heat exhaustion and dehydration." People were getting crazy. There was talk of a guy walking a live chicken on a leash, trying to lure pythons out of the water. Someone else was hunting with a trained spotter hawk. There were canoes and rented airboats and new boots and more reporters, thousands of eyeballs scanning the bush. By the time the Challenge ended on Feb. 10, nearly 1,600 hunters had managed to rustle up and kill 68 snakes. It was more than some experts had predicted, but still a middling number. Ramirez took the prize in the licensed division, for harvesting and surrendering 18 Burmese pythons. Russ claimed second place, with five, and also collected the trophy (with Belliston) for the longest python seized by a permit holder, for an 11-foot, 11-inch catch. I phoned in my earnest congratulations. The FWC, meanwhile, stuck to its party line: The point of the Challenge was to raise public awareness about the danger of invasive species, to remind Floridians that the Earth isn't a thing we can rearrange, or toss like a salad. In that regard, they'd succeeded. The Florida Python Hunters kept hunting, even after the Challenge ended; Ramirez caught a 10-foot python the Monday following the awards ceremony. My mother continued to clip Challenge-related articles out of the local newspaper — they kept appearing — and mail them to me. Back in New York, I found myself reconsidering my notions of control, especially as they related to wildness: my own and Florida's. I was ready to accept the python's presence in the Everglades as an immutable truth, a fact to work around. Hunting them was a little like repeatedly jamming your thumbs into one of those Chinese finger traps, the kind that pinch harder the more you resist. Maybe we needed to focus more on surrender and adaptation, and not on the frantic undoing of past mistakes. Or maybe this media circus wasn't just another Florida freak show, but testament to a genuine communal effort to solve an unsolvable problem. Maybe there were things to learn from Florida's frontier fortitude, its gumption and spunk. Then I remembered something Russ had said to me on the trail, when I'd asked him about the ultimate utility of the Challenge. "It's gonna make no difference," he'd shrugged. "Come this summer, there are gonna be thousands born."