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Where Pythons Prey, Bounty Hunters Play

The Everglades is a 'ghost' town' thanks to the Burmese Python, an invasive species. Snake-catchers are trying to reverse the damage, and have a little fun in the process.

Bella Kubach

Sep 26, 2023

Catching pythons is less about skill and more about technique– or at least according to Toby Benoit. The writer, novelist, and python hunter set out for this year’s 2023 Florida Python Challenge with a mission. 

With a team of first-time python hunters, Benoit led the group through the darkness of the South Florida Everglades. For thousands of years, the Everglades have served as a vital ecosystem for many reptiles, amphibians, and mammals. However, since the Burmese pythons invaded, nearly 90% of the mid-sized mammals in the Everglades have been wiped out. 

Toby Benoit, one of Florida's foremost python hunters. (Courtesy of Toby Benoit)

According to experts, their wide-ranging appetite has led to the python population’s growth and made it unlikely to be eradicated. 

However, this has not stopped dedicated Florida residents like Benoit. 

“I remember the Everglades as being this wildlife wonderland. There were just herds of deer. You could go down to the levees, and you’d see bobcats, possums, raccoons, and birds like out of a National Geographic study of Africa. It was just amazing,” said Benoit. 

Since the python invasion, he describes the Everglades as a “ghost town.” 

After five years of python hunting, Benoit realized how quickly pythons adapt to their surrounding environment. 

“I think the best advice I received was don’t focus on looking at everything to be a snake; start focusing on everything that doesn’t look like a snake,” said Benoit. “They have the greatest camouflage pattern in all of nature.”

The 10-day 2023 Florida Python Challenge competitors wrangled in 209 snakes. While many competitors were likely tempted by the $10,000 prize, others like Benoit were in it for the local wildlife. 

Benoit is just one of the warriors in the fight against the Burmese python population. 

Dozens of wildlife biologists and reptile experts have dedicated countless hours to stopping the spread of these pythons based on their impact on the ecosystem.

Full-time student, part-time snake hunter Nick Ziegler with a recent catch. (Courtesy of Nick Ziegler)

“We have a generalist apex predator that is disrupting the neutral balance across the greater Everglades ecosystem,” said Ian Bartoszek, wildlife biologist and environmental science project manager for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. 

Bartoszek and others employed by the conservancy use radio telemetry to track pythons. His team has caught a record number of pythons this season. 

“We’re nearing the end of this season, and we’re close to 5,000 pounds pulled out since November,” said Bartoszek. 

Bartoszek and his team focus on finding males that will lead them to the big, reproductively active females. However, any contribution to the removal effort is appreciated. 

“There needs to be bigger picture landscape-level tools developed to address the problem,” according to Bartoszek. 

Bartoszek believes that “this issue isn’t going away, and we need an army of observers out there.” 

Lucky for Bartoszek and all of Florida’s population (both human and non-human), others of all backgrounds and skill levels have rolled up their sleeves and joined the python removal effort. 

One 23-year-old Florida Atlantic University student is among the dedicated protectors of the South Florida Everglades ecosystem. 

Civil engineering student by day and python hunter by night, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) contracts Nick Ziegler to remove Burmese pythons from the Everglades.  

“I have two apps on my phone that track me while I’m out in the Everglades,” said Ziegler. “I’ll turn on the tracking and then drive around on levees or roads. When I find a python, I grab it, put it in a bag, and mark the GPS location where I found it. Then I keep going.” 

Ziegler has noticed the growth of the python population over the past few years.

“I used to go down south to catch pythons, but I’ve been catching them up north. I caught my first python in Palm Beach County over winter break,” said Ziegler. 

Ziegler is annoyed to see this spread, mainly because invasive pythons will soon occupy many of his favorite natural areas. 

“There’s places down south you’ll go, and you’ll literally never see a mammal there. It’s really rare.” The more the pythons eat up the native wildlife, “the less food there is for other animals to eat,” said Ziegler. 

An Indiana real estate broker felt so compelled by the python problem that she moved to Naples, Florida to start full-time python hunting. 

Amy Siewe came down to check out the problem when she got wind of it. However, after catching her first python, she was “totally hooked.” 

“This is one of those things like when you know what your purpose is, you just know,” said Siewe, a professional python hunter– otherwise known as The Python Huntress. 

Siewe’s purpose is to catch pythons. Upon moving to Florida, she worked with the FWC and the South Florida Water Management District’s (SFWMD) programs. 

“A lot of people had jobs in addition to this [python hunting] because it doesn’t pay much. But for me, I didn’t,” said Siewe. 

For four years, Siewe caught pythons with the SFWMD’s program. However, “up until about two months ago, I started guiding python hunts unaffiliated with the FWC or SFWMD,” said Siewe. 

“With guiding hunts, I made more in the first month than I used to in a whole year contracted by the other programs,” said Siewe. 

With 400 pythons caught over the past four years, Siewe is one of the state’s top hunters. 

She’s learned their patterns and where to find them– although it’s not easy. 

Siewe conquers these monstrous snakes despite getting bitten dozens of times. “They have a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth,” according to Siewe. 

“It’s a challenge. It’s fun. It’s amazing. I love every single minute,” said Siewe. 

Siewe does it not only for the thrill but for the wildlife. 

“It’s important to try to get this figured out because we're going to lose animals and birds— and you know this can change the entire ecosystem in ways we can’t comprehend.”  

According to Siewe, an estimated half a million Burmese pythons now live in the Everglades. 

Floridians from all walks of life are coming together for a common cause. While most are motivated to hunt pythons to preserve the ecosystem, others are petrified by the idea of a 20-foot-long snake in their backyard. 

Nevertheless, the pythons are going to have to put up a fight. 

Correction: An earlier version of this news article misstated the number of pythons caught during this year’s Python Challenge. The state said 209 pythons were caught. 

This story was produced by MediaLab@FAU, a project of Florida Atlantic University School of Communication and Multimedia Studies. If you would like to publish this article, please credit the writer at MediaLab@FAU.

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