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Snakes on a Swampy Plain

A pair of python hunters takes to the Florida Everglades for both the thrill of the slithery chase and to help save a delicate ecosystem from the ravages of an invasive species

Author Steve Friess Photography Mark Hartman

snakes

In one wicked motion, the head whips around, the mouth opens wide and the teeth sink into the flesh between Steve Daskam’s thumb and index finger. Daskam shrieks and squeezes the back of the snake’s head with his other hand to force the slitherer to withdraw its fangs before the rest of us can quite compute what has happened, our flashlights spinning like circus spotlights trying to focus. Ignoring the oozing blood and whatever stinging pain he endures, Daskam uses his bleeding hand to regrip the hissing 11-foot-long Burmese python and shove it into a teal pillowcase. Then he starts to laugh.

The rest of us are less amused, least of all photographer Mark Hartman, who sets his camera down as soon as the snake is out of view and tears the belly area of his shirt into strips of cloth with which to wrap Daskam’s injury. The MacGyver move isn’t exactly necessary—there isn’t that much blood—but it illustrates the intensity of the moment.

The photographer and I are horrified and then relieved the attack wasn’t worse. Daskam, 32, dressed in a plaid button-down and khaki trousers, and his python-hunting pal, Devin Belliston, 29, who’s wearing a navy Brigham Young University T-shirt and jeans, are already needling each other about it as we leave the Francis Taylor Wildlife Management Area, about 20 miles west of Miami.

“You totally deserved that,” Belliston says as Daskam gleefully nurses his wounded hand.

By this point, the pillowcased snake is safely sequestered inside a forest-green backpack that Daskam dubs “my adventure bag,” which is stowed in the trunk of his Toyota Corolla between a baby stroller and a set of tools, a trophy of an exciting autumn night squeezed between the common instruments of Daskam’s real life as a father and diesel mechanic. Daskam and Belliston, a high school science teacher, will later meet up to deliver their quarry to one of the nearby Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission offices that take pythons for research.

Don’t pity the snake. Burmese pythons are an invasive species in the Florida Everglades, brought here from India by pet traders in the 1970s. Since the mid-1980s, scientists say, they’ve been multiplying here, wreaking havoc on the delicate swampy ecosystem of the Everglades through the strangling and swallowing of untold thousands of small mammals and other critters. Thrill-seeking hobbyists like Daskam and Belliston, in fact, are doing a valuable service for those interested in protecting the Everglades.

The subculture of python hunting is “useful, very much so,” says Michael Dorcas, a herpetologist at Davidson College in North Carolina and co-author of Invasive Pythons in the United States. “It’s not useful as a technique of reducing the Burmese python population, because there are so many and they’re found over such a vast area, much of which is pretty inaccessible. But as long as the snakes are brought back and data is gathered about them, it’s useful.”

Indeed, python hunting is not only tolerated by the authorities but actively encouraged—and Belliston has proved to be one of the best. In January 2013, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission hosted a month-long Python Challenge in which nearly 1,600 people registered to hunt pythons in the region, a publicity stunt chiefly aimed at drawing media attention to the pythons’ destructive impact on the ecosystem. Belliston and his original python-hunting partner, Blake Russ, won $1,000 for catching the largest of the 68 snakes bagged during the contest, an 11-foot-1-incher, and an additional $750 for catching the second-most, a total of five. The day they caught that 11-footer—their largest ever at more than 60 pounds and just a couple of inches longer than the one they find with me in tow—they had with them a Tallahassee couple who had discovered them on Facebook and, as an anniversary celebration, paid them $300 to let them tag along.

“Usually the first couple hours after the sun comes up are the best in the winter, because then the pythons will come out into the sun to get warm, but we hadn’t found anything yet,” Belliston says. “Blake and I were kind of losing confidence and were apologizing, but they seemed happy we’d shown them some very pretty parts of the Everglades that a lot of people don’t see. And the husband suddenly points and says, ‘Snake!’ We’re like, ‘That could be 30 different types of snake, we’re in South Florida.’ But we looked over and there was a big python. The tail end of it was going toward the canal, so we had a tug-of-war to bring it back.”

Nobody knows how many pythons are now in the Everglades—the number is believed to be in the millions—or exactly how they spread. That just 68 snakes were found when 1,600 rovers fanned out over a month shows just how difficult they are to spot, how well they blend into nature’s palette of greenery. “It’s like looking for a piece of camouflage,” Daskam says.

The aim of researchers is not eradication—few believe that’s possible anymore—but learning ways to contain the snakes’ spread by learning all they can about where they are found, how they mate and what they eat. The answer to that last question: just about anything. Sections of python-infested Everglades where small mammals were abundant as recently as 2003 have been devastated, with the snakes snuffing out more than 99 percent of raccoons, rabbits and opossums and 87.5 percent of bobcats, according to Dorcas’ research. Those species were key links in the food chain, so many of the smaller animals they once kept in check are now overabundant.

It remains in dispute how the pythons took over. One oft-told, ripped-from-a-horror-flick hypothesis has thousands of pythons being liberated from a pet-breeding warehouse destroyed by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Biologist Cheryl Millett of The Nature Conservancy says that’s a tale exotic pet owners tell to absolve themselves, because the likely reality is that thousands of the snakes were released over many years by pet owners unnerved by how huge, heavy and powerful the snakes become as adults. Florida banned them as pets in 2010, and the United States banned their import in 2012.

Daskam and Belliston don’t hide their attraction to python hunting. They could cloak themselves in honorable intentions of ridding the ecosystem of a pest and providing snakes for researchers. But it is, they admit, first about the adrenaline rush. The sense of broader service is clearly a fringe benefit. “It’s an afterthought,” Daskam says. “In other states you can’t be grabbing snakes, you can’t touch wildlife, everything’s so protected. But this one, because it’s invasive, it isn’t protected. So you have that free rein, not as many restrictions. Yeah, you know you’re doing something that’s good. But the truth is, what’s more fun is catching them.”

Belliston is the veteran of the pair, he and his wife having been first invited out in 2012 by Russ and his wife, a couple they knew from their local Mormon church. The foursome spent three months driving a Toyota Prius they nicknamed “Silent Night” around the Everglades without success before finally spotting an 8-footer slithering across a moonlit road. Russ slammed on the brakes, everybody slowly slid out of the vehicle, and then the men cautiously moved in to first firmly step on the python’s head and then grab it behind the neck. Once they had it, they took pictures, stuffed it into a pillowcase and headed for a nearby fruit stand to celebrate over dragon fruit milkshakes.

Russ sold that first capture for $50 to an artisan in Fort Lauderdale who makes snakeskin products. But after they posted some of their pictures on IveGot1.org—a website for reporting python sightings—they discovered that a better destination for their captures would be the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, where the snakes could be examined by University of Florida herpetologists. They also discovered that python hunting is permissible in the vast wildlife management areas around Everglades National Park—provided one has a permit to do so—but not inside the park itself, because national parks ban any form of animal poaching or handling.

After Russ left the region for graduate school, Belliston found other companions to infect with the python fever. Daskam was one of a group who tagged along with Belliston one night after a friend’s birthday party. Soon, he too had his permit and headed out on regular hunts. “I might find one every six times I go out,” he says, “but when I’m with Devin, it’s more like one out of every two. He’s just got this eye for seeing them.”

I had envisioned us trudging through the brackish swamp in waist-high waders, dodging alligators and razor-sharp reeds of sawgrass. While Belliston and Daskam occasionally wander down short slopes to get closer to the water’s edge, mostly we crunch along seemingly endless miles of gravel path on the lookout for a snake that makes the tactical error of crawling onto the road. Often, in fact, Belliston and Daskam cruise up and back in their cars, the better for their chances of spotting something. “You can’t see them in the bushes and stuff anyway, so your best bet, rather than hunting a small area really, really well and picking through the grass, is to cover more ground and look out in the open,” Belliston says.

Under normal circumstances—that is, when journalists aren’t with them—it wouldn’t bother Belliston or Daskam to spend a few hours out here and return empty-handed. These walkabouts are no more about the snakes than they are an opportunity to observe the moonlight-drenched sawgrass plain in all its natural beauty and listen to the soft cacophony of unseen, distant egrets and reptiles. A benign brown snake sweeps by, toads and grasshoppers find themselves within the circumference of our flashlights illuminating the dusk, a family of baby alligators let out caws that sound like the metallic ping of videogame gunshots. This, Daskam says, “is also a part of the experience. It’s a way to get out of the city.”

Both men recount childhoods—Belliston’s in rural Utah, Daskam’s near Minneapolis—that involved wandering about in nearby woods and streams looking for reptiles and bugs with their brothers. Each ended up in Miami somewhat by chance; Belliston was assigned to an inner-city school by the Teach for America volunteer program, and Daskam’s nationwide search for a job where he could apply his specialized diesel mechanic’s training landed him at a tractor dealer here.

“We could walk for hours and never see one,” Belliston warns as we spray one another down with mosquito repellent. “It’s a little bit like looking for Bigfoot. It takes a lot of patience. You can’t get discouraged. But once you find one, you’re hooked.”

We wander long enough for me to stop worrying and just take in the calm beauty and pleasant company. And just when I forget why we’re out here, Daskam and I hear Belliston and our photographer, who are a few feet ahead of us, shout-whisper for us to come toward them. I don’t see anything, but Daskam spots about six inches of a triangular head with a signature green marble pattern jutting out of some vegetation. He makes his move and steps on the snake’s head to disarm it, then grabs it behind the throat. Belliston grasps its midsection and gives it a mighty tug to drag a body that seems to go on forever out onto the gravel.

“Oh, he’s cold. He must’ve just come out of the water,” Daskam says. Belliston laughs triumphantly and exults, “He must be 20 feet long!” Not quite, but he’s clearly quite a bit longer than Daskam’s 5-foot-7 frame.

The snake stops struggling, resigned to being handled by Daskam, so it’s time to find out just how substantial this python is. Belliston gives me one end of a tape measure and we stretch it out.

“Ten feet, 11 inches,” Belliston announces. “Eleven feet! Holy crap!” He turns to me and says, “I told you we’d catch a python for you.”

The guys start posing for pictures with their catch when things get a little reckless. Daskam strikes a fearsome pose, which provokes the python to snap and bare its fangs, resulting in the bite that leads to our photographer’s aforementioned attempt at playing battlefield medic. But as dramatic as the snake teeth and blood are, Belliston and Daskam quickly transform the episode from a brink-of-peril moment to just another bit of bro-tastic folklore to add to the many they’ve created in their illustrious career as python hunters.

“Hey,” Belliston says to Daskam as we ride back toward the city’s lights, the python safely stowed in the trunk, “remember the time you got bit by a python while doing a photo shoot for Hemispheres magazine in the Everglades?”

“Yeah,” Daskam grins back, “that was awesome.”

Ann Arbor, Michigan–based journalist Steve Friess has written for The New York Times and Newsweek. He didn’t know how high he could jump until he saw a python strike.

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