Nearly 800 hunters from across the country have headed into the Florida Everglades this past week, hunting an unusual and exotic prey– the Burmese python. Since the month-long “Python Challenge” began last Saturday, 21 snakes have been confirmed killed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, prompting complaints from PETA and other animal rights groups.
Experienced and diligent snake hunters can claim prizes of $1500 for the most snakes killed, and $1000 for the largest. The largest could prove to be well over 20 feet long, since the animal typically reaches 17 feet as an adult. Be it for the money, the thrill, or the contest’s intended purpose, participants have flown in from over 30 different states, from California to Michigan.
So why is a state-sponsored snake hunt currently underway? The Sunshine State proved to be an overly hospitable environment for Burmese pythons, many of which escaped from a private reptile-breeding facility near the Everglades when it was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Others may have been flown in originally as exotic pets, and later released into the wild when their owners realized they hadn’t fully planned to feed and accommodate a carnivorous 17-foot long household companion.
What may have seemed a mercy to the pythons’ owners soon proved to be a catastrophe for native Florida mammals, birds and reptiles, droves of which have fallen prey to the enormous predators. A non-native of North America, Burmese pythons have no natural predator within the Everglades– forcing Florida authorities to introduce one.
“The 2013 Python Challenge is an unprecedented effort to focus public interest, support and direct involvement to help deal with Burmese pythons,” said commission Chairman Kenneth Wright at a news conference Saturday. “Floridians and people from all across the United States truly care about the Florida Everglades, and they are clearly eager to help us better understand and solve this problem.”
In addition to removing the unwanted reptiles from Florida’s ecosystem, the Python Challenge is meant to raise public awareness about the potential consequences of introducing a foreign species to a delicately balanced environment.
“Aside from the obvious goal of reducing the Burmese python population in the Everglades, we also hope to educate the public about Burmese pythons in Florida and how people can help limit the impact of this and other invasive species in Florida,” said Carli Segelson, spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “We are also using the Challenge to gauge the effectiveness of using an incentive-based model as one tool to address a challenging invasive species management problem.”
The contest is also designed to give biologists clues to where, how, and why the snakes are thriving in their new habitat. Hunters are required to give details like GPS location, the type of habitat where they found their prey, and other pertinent information.
Guidelines for the Challenge recommend against decapitation, since a python’s brain can remain active and sensitive to excruciating pain for hours even after being separated from the rest of its body, according to biologists. Authorities suggest a more quick and merciful death, via a bullet through the top of the head.
Animal rights groups are nonetheless protesting what some see as a barbaric state-sponsored massacre of a living animal. “This bounty hunt is misguided in the first place, but allowing hunters to decapitate pythons — who remain alive and in agony and who will writhe for an hour even after their heads have been cut off — is despicably cruel,” said PETA President Ingrid E. Newkirk in a public statement.
Florida’s accelerating python population in recent years has prompted a state law against the purchase and sale of Burmese pythons as pets, along with a federal law banning python imports or interstate sales. While few incidents have resulted in a coordinated hunting contest, North America has had a long history of problems with introduced animal species, including the gypsy moth in the East, and the zebra mussel and alewife in the Great Lakes area.