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Florida 'Python Challenge' draws guns, knives, drills

7:01 PM, Jan 13, 2013   |    comments
The 2013 Python Challenge gets under way Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013, in South Florida as more than 700 hunters will get a chance to cull the invasive species from the Everglades. (Photo: Andrew West,The (Fort Myers, Fla.) News-Press)
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DAVIE, Fla. -- A University of Florida satellite campus Saturday looked like a "Bass Pro Shops" reality TV road tour as hundreds of hopeful snake killers and media from around Florida, the nation and abroad gathered for the start of an unprecedented hunt that may change the way government agencies manage invasive species.

The Burmese python is the target of nearly 800 hunters who have temporary permission to kill the animals, record their size and location and deposit the remains for research. Aside from the thrill of hunting a potential man-eater and the bravado factor, a total of $5,000 in prize money will go to the top four hunters.

From avid, experienced python wranglers to rank beginners, people from 32 states and Canada have registered for this 30-day experimental public assault on an exotic predator that can grow 20 feet or more and weigh more than 200 pounds.

Shawn Chrom, 22, of West Palm, Fla., signed up for the general public hunt Saturday but said he has no experience wrestling with giant predators.

"I just want to learn something about the snake, how to handle them," Chrom said. "I'm just out here for the experience."

Wildlife officials say the hunt, if successful, could be expanded to include other invasive species that are starting to establish breeding grounds, like the Argentinian black and white tegu (one of which was captured in Cape Coral, Fla., last year) and anacondas.

"Floridians and people from across the United States truly care about the Florida Everglades, and they are clearly eager to help us better understand and solve this problem," said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Chairman Kenneth Wright. "When they harvest snakes, Python Challenge competitors will contribute to the current Burmese python research and management efforts."

The fish and wildlife conservation did not release information as to whether anyone caught and killed a Burmese python Saturday. Finding one in the wild is like looking for a shiny piece of camouflaged clothing.

Activities included snake capture demonstrations as well as methods used for distinguishing invasive species from native ones.

Rodney Irwin, owner of Alligators Associates in Homestead, Fla., is one of a few hundred permitted hunters who are typically allowed to capture and transport Burmese pythons alive, something that is illegal to do without a fish and wildlife conservation permit. It's much cleaner and typically easier than killing snakes in the field, some experts say.

"Pythons are the bright, shiny object in the room," Irwin said. "They get a lot of attention."

Irwin said he has taken four pythons, one anaconda and almost 300 tegus in the last year, as well as a few chameleons.

What about his preferred killing methods for big snakes?

"A shotgun, yes that gets it done right now," Irwin said. "If you had an option to take the animal to a veterinarian I believe the method they would use would be to put a drill to the back of the head and scramble the brain."

Methods for killing a snake include captive bolts, guns, machetes and hunting knives. To decrease suffering and ensure the animal is killed humanely, experts suggest destroying the snake's brain in the safest possible way.

Irwin uses a drill.

Hunters must deposit dead snakes at designated collection stations, typically found at wildlife management agency offices. In addition, hunters must fill out a data sheet that includes the size of the snake, a GPS location and the type of habitat where it was found.

For this hunt, permitted python handlers also must kill any captured snakes on site.

Burmese pythons were first recorded in South Florida in the 1980s. They've since spread through the historic Everglades and appear to be expanding their range northward, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History.

Python details

Florida is allowing participants to register throughout the competition at http://pythonchallenge.org. Online training and registration is required. Prizes include $1,500 for harvesting the most Burmese pythons and $1,000 for the longest snake in two groups: general competition and python permit holders.

Hunting ends at midnight, Feb. 10, and an awards event is planned for Feb. 17 at Zoo Miami.

Chad Gillis, The (Fort Myers, Fla.) News-Press

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