WEST PALM BEACH, Florida — The Florida Python Challenge, an annual statewide competition that kicks off Friday, will bring hundreds of snake hunting professionals and novices to South Florida to hunt what conservationists are most concerned about invasive species of the state: the Burmese Python.
Among those preparing for the 10-day hunt: Amy Siewe. At 5’4″ tall and weighing 120 pounds, Siewe may seem small. But when it comes to hunting the Burmese pythons in Florida, Siewe is mighty.
“I don’t look like I can catch a 5-foot snake,” said Siewe, 45. “But I can.”
As a paid contractor for the state of Florida, Siewe, who calls himself a “python hunter,” searches for the reptiles year round. The Florida Python Challenge invites beginners to hunt and compete for cash prizes alongside professionals like Siewe. This year’s challenge runs from August 5-14. The goal is to both capture snakes and raise awareness of the environmental damage they cause.
“The spread of pythons is an emergency for our native wildlife in South Florida,” said Michael Kirkland, senior invasive animal biologist for the South Florida Water Management District and the manager of Florida’s Python Elimination Program. “Human detection is the most effective tool in our toolbox right now.”
Kirkland said professional contractors like Siewe have removed 10,000 pythons since the state began using them in 2017. With the extra help from beginners during the challenge, the state hopes to catch hundreds more.
“When it comes to pythons, we need all the help and awareness we can get,” he said.
Challenge participants must pay a $25 registration fee and complete an online course that includes proving that they can distinguish a Burmese python from native Florida snake species.
Prizes of up to $2,500 will be awarded in a variety of categories, including most pythons caught and longest pythons caught.
For the professional fighters who participate, the challenge is extremely competitive. All are veterans when it comes to catching the bulky snakes. Siewe, a former real estate agent who moved to Florida from Indiana, earns $13 an hour for the time she commits to hunting pythons year-round, then $50 extra for the first 4 feet of each python she catches , and $25 for every foot beyond that.
The first python Siewe caught was over 10 feet long. “I caught it myself, with flip-flops on,” Siewe said, noting that she’d found it in the middle of a Florida highway.
She disoriented the snake by putting a pillowcase over his head, then placed the snake in the trunk of her Camry.
The largest python Siewe captured was 17 feet, 3 inches and weighed 110 pounds.
“I jumped on her in a ditch on the side of the road all 5 meters from her,” Siewe said. “She had the biggest snake head I’d ever seen. That was a real struggle.”
Among those taking on Siewe in this year’s Florida Python Challenge: fellow professional python fighter and defending champion, Dusty Crum. Florida native Crum, 42, grabbed the longest python in the competition’s professional category last year, catching a 16-foot python. In 2016, he was part of a three-man team that took top honors in the challenge, catching 33 pythons.
“A lot of it is luck, but it’s also about being in the right place at the right time,” Crum said. “It’s everyone’s game.”
Snake hunters use a variety of equipment to get the job done, ranging from snake hooks to special carrying cases to an array of lights that can spot the reptiles in the dark of the night.
To prepare for this year’s challenge, Crum uses his carefully curated collection of snake-catching technology.
“When it comes to the challenge, it’s guns blazing,” Crum said. “I try to use all my equipment: small geo-trackers, four-wheelers. I’ve got swamp buggies, monster trucks with big tires on them. We’ll equip it with lights on and I’ll be able to access places the general public can’t.”
The hunt for Python, Crum and Siewe said, is not for the faint of heart. While pythons aren’t venomous, they are powerful — and known to bite.
“They have hundreds of teeth and if they bite you, it’s like a needle stick,” Crum said. “The worst that can happen is when the tooth breaks off and gets stuck inside you, and it gets infected.”
Siewe said she’s been bitten too many times to count. “A 14-footer bit me in the hand. I got bit in the ass, in my calf. Luckily I wasn’t bitten in the face.”
Like Crum, Siewe says she’s working on reusing parts of the pythons she catches. “I use the leather to make Apple watch bands,” she said.
Crum and Siewe both say they’re “in it to win it” when it comes to this year’s challenge.
Neither plan to sleep much during the game, as pythons are nocturnal, meaning the best time to hunt is late at night.
Still, they said the real purpose of the challenge has less to do with any individual wins they could achieve, and a lot more to do with the bigger cause that both say they’re fighting — and chasing — for.
“This is not a trophies or sporting pursuit,” explains Crum. “This is an environmental hunt. It is hunting to save our environment. It’s a special feeling when it’s man against beast, fighting for the environment.”
No humans have been killed by pythons in the US, but many pets have been killed, and conservationists worry that pythons will wipe out entire populations of native Florida species if left unchecked. Among the mammals in the Everglades that are decimating pythons: swamp rabbits, raccoons, foxes, deer, and bobcats.
“The Burmese python is one of the largest snakes in the world, capable of reaching 20 feet in length, and because of our climate, Florida’s pythons can thrive by preying on our wildlife,” Kirkland said. “In some regions of Florida, up to 95% of fur populations have disappeared.”
The pythons even eat Florida alligators.
“The pythons are generalists,” said McKayla Spencer, python management coordinator at Interagency Florida. “They will eat anything.”
Pythons first appeared in the Everglades in the 1970s, probably as a result of the release of a pet snake into the wild, but the population didn’t explode until the 1990s.
At that time, Hurricane Andrew hit Florida, destroying several python breeding facilities, among other things. Kirkland said there is no definitive evidence that the destruction of breeding farms is responsible for the explosion of Florida’s python population. “But it didn’t help,” he acknowledged.
There is no official estimate of how many pythons there are in Florida, due to their stealth nature.
“They’re very hard to find,” Spencer said. “For every python we find, there are 99 more.”
According to Spencer, more and more pythons are appearing in people’s yards and boats as the snakes literally swallow more and more Florida territory.
That’s where human fighters come in.
“I’ve always had an obsessive fascination with snakes and reptiles since I was little and my father taught me how to catch fish,” Siewe said. “I thought, ‘Why isn’t this passion?’ [for] puppies or kittens or something normal?’ It’s not – it’s snakes.”