FLORIDA EVERGLADES – Donna Kalil was creeping toward the end of the levee, heading out of the swampy wilderness and back to civilization, when she spotted it. There along the canal, nearly invisible amid the brush, was the elusive tan and brown pattern she’d been after all night.
“Right there is one – python!” cried Kalil, 61, her voice rising above the honking frogs and chirping crickets of the Glades.
She threw her 1998 Ford Expedition (license plate: SNAKER) into park. Without a moment’s hesitation, the professional snake hunter was out of the car and closing in on the creature – a scaly, fork-tongued Burmese python that, at seven feet long, was bigger than her.
Sporting camouflage pants and a fluorescent vest, jewelry made from python ribs dangling from her ears, Kalil crouched beside the serpent. Then she reached for its neck.
It was just before 4 a.m. on Day 5 of the 2023 Python Challenge, a trademarked, only-in-Florida hunting bonanza held in August, and across the Glades, hunters were pulling long hours in search of snakes that can stretch to 20 feet. The 10-day competition is among several unusual strategies the state has devised to try to wrangle a monster problem: Burmese pythons are swallowing the Everglades whole.
The snakes are what scientists call “dietary generalists.” They scarf down native birds, rabbits, alligators and other animals in this vast expanse of wetlands, decimating a place that is unlike anywhere else on Earth. The U.S. Geological Survey, in a study released this year, described Florida’s python problem as “one of the most intractable invasive-species management issues across the globe.”
The state’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission cooked up the hunt a decade ago, drawing headlines worldwide as hundreds of shotgun- and machete-toting hunters traipsed through the muck and marsh in early 2013. Under the current rules, firearms are prohibited and competitors must follow American Veterinary Medical Association recommendations on humanely killing reptiles.
The hunt is open to just about anyone who pays the $25 registration fee and completes online training, and a $10,000 prize will go to whoever removes the most pythons. Nearly a thousand people signed up.
The website for the challenge offers a three-step guide on the “safe capture” of the snakes, advising that hunters begin by assessing the situation: “When you do encounter a wild python, it’s important to know exactly what you’re up against before you put your hands on one,” the training says.
It’s best to approach the snake from behind, the site explains, then pin it with a long-handled tool. Finally, the hunter should grab the serpent around the neck – anywhere lower, and it could “turn its head and bite you.”
Jake Waleri, a 22-year-old native Floridian who snagged a record 19-foot python in July, said in an interview that bare hands “are really the best thing you can use if you know what you’re doing.”
“You know,” he added, “python hunting’s really easy once you learn how to do it.”
The snakes, native to Southeast Asia, first came to Florida as pets. They made it to the Everglades after springing loose from their enclosures – or being set free by owners with buyer’s remorse. “Burms” go from hatchlings (about two feet long, kind of cute) to adults (eight feet long, still growing) at rapid speed, and can live as long as 30 years.
The scope of the python problem took years to come into focus. In 1979, a park ranger named Jim Massey was cruising the Tamiami Trail when he saw roadkill so strange he interrupted a first date to pull over. It was a Burmese python, nearly 12 feet long. Massey lugged the carcass to his car to bring home, he later told the Florida Phoenix. There was no second date.
But for decades after that first reported sighting, the Burmese pythons found in the Everglades were considered one-off escape artists or freed pets. Not until the late ‘90s and early 2000s did officials realize they were rapidly reproducing, their numbers exploding into a full-on invasion.
“As with most ecological problems, by the time you notice them, the problem is probably worse than you realize,” said Ed Metzger, an invasive-animal biologist at the South Florida Water Management District. “So we kind of got a late start on pythons.”
Trying to play catch-up, wildlife officials trained a dog, “Python Pete,” to sniff out the snakes. They deployed radio-tagged “Judas” pythons to lead them to breeding females. They flew in Indian tribesman famed for their tracking techniques. And, year after year, they held the Python Challenge.
Those efforts are believed to have made just a dent in the share of snakes. The high-profile competition has been held five times between 2013 and 2022, netting just over 700 pythons, though authorities stress the real goal is raising awareness. Metzger said it should be judged not by the number removed, “but by how many people we reach.”
No one really knows how many of the invaders are slithering around – “there is no real good population estimate currently,” according to Melissa Miller, a University of Florida research assistant scientist specializing in invasion biology – but the research by the U.S. Geological Survey suggested there “may be tens of thousands across known areas of invasion.” It also found that the pythons have made their way north. An invasion that started at the southern edge of the Everglades has now reached Fort Myers and West Palm Beach.
How far the massive snakes will go remains unclear, especially amid a changing climate. One study comparing the native Burmese python range to parts of the United States with a similar climate found that much of the southern third of the country could become python territory. Warming temperatures add to the uncertainty over where the northward march could end.
One major roadblock to getting the invasion under control: finding the snakes. Burmese pythons are capable of growing as long as 20 feet, or about the length of a midsize U-Haul, but blend neatly into the greens and browns of the Glades.
“People come down here and they think that they’re just going to be slinging the pythons out of the Everglades, exactly like I thought,” said Amy Siewe, a.k.a. the “python huntress,” who trained under Kalil and now offers guided hunts to paying customers. “It’s not like that, and I think it’s an eye-opener for people.”
Of everything Florida has tried, its biggest success has come from putting python hunters on the state payroll. Through an initiative that launched in 2017, a hundred “python removal agents” are paid just over minimum wage to track down and humanely kill the invading reptiles – plus extra cash based on the length of their catches. The effort, run by the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the South Florida Water Management District, has bagged more than 11,000 pythons.
A good chunk of those were caught by Kalil, a former real estate agent and “PTA mom.” When the state started hiring python pros, she was quick to apply. Growing up in South Florida, she was what she called a “feral kid,” roaming the still-wild landscape and catching snakes for fun. She had two older brothers who introduced her to the oft-feared reptile when she was still in diapers; as a teenager, she sometimes kept one tucked under her cowboy hat.
Kalil has always adored snakes, and as her SUV bounced through the Everglades on the fifth night of the challenge, she marveled at the native ones she spied. Eyeing a green water snake, she said, “I’d like to tickle his chin.” And then she did.
The worst part of her job is having to kill the pythons. She thinks they’re amazing. Beautiful, even. She cried when she killed her first and still apologizes to them every time. But they are destroying the environment she treasures, the place she feels most at home.
“We put these here; we have to take them out,” Kalil said.
And so there she was on a weekday in August, keeping python hours as the sun set in a spectacle of oranges and purples and the moon took its place. She slammed the brakes of her SUV at every call of “Hold up!” from a helper, Dave Hackathorn. The West Virginian, nicknamed “Hillbilly Dave,” drives down a few times a year to hunt with Kalil. His friends think he’s “nuts,” he said, but he loves the swamp and the thrill of the catch.
He rode on the roof of the Expedition, pointing a flashlight and gripping the floodlight-adorned guardrails Kalil had installed for better visibility. There were a few false alarms – branches, fish and native snakes can all resemble pythons in the bleary early-morning hours. Kalil said she once nearly grabbed an alligator.
“It’s like looking for half a needle in a haystack,” quipped Hackathorn, who looks for them everywhere, even in West Virginia.
But five hours in, they snagged a hatchling. Then another. And then the seven-footer, which put up a short fight as Kalil wrestled it under control, wrapping itself around her leg.
She reported her catches to her boss at the South Florida Water Management District, then stuck them inside pillowcases: her 794th, 795th and 796th pythons. She tried not to think of what she’d have to do when she got home.
As dawn approached, Kalil and Hackathorn called it a night. The whole way home, she kept scanning for snakes. For every python she caught, she knew, thousands more lurked just out of sight.