Why you should care
Because you too could get paid to hunt pythons.
I’ve only just met Omar Gomez when the burly 37-year-old flips open a cooler to show me his spoils from the night before: a 13-foot, almost 100-pound python, its head blown off by a shotgun blast. “They are really difficult to wrangle,” he says, noting they have a three-foot striking distance and crushing coils that can be “almost impossible” to pull off. Just as the sun finished setting, he discovered its head dipping into a canal — he yanked it out of the water by its tail before it could slither away, wrestling with it before his partner got off a clean shot.
Now, the engorged snake, swollen and pregnant, gives a fetid stench under the humid heat of the Everglades. The sight is gruesome, and intoxicating. Soon, a crowd gathers. This moment, and the reports coming out of South Florida in recent years, remind me of the legend of Ireland, in which hundreds of slithering snakes terrorized the Emerald Isle — until they were driven into the sea by Saint Patrick.
In the past, authorities have conscripted snake-sniffing dogs, radio-tagged “Judas” snakes and even singing snake catchers from India.
This time, the call to banish serpents from the land isn’t coming from God but from state officials worried that the invasive snakes have almost entirely killed off the native mammal population. In the past, authorities have conscripted snake-sniffing dogs, radio-tagged “Judas” snakes and even singing snake catchers from India, all to little avail in their quest to eliminate the Burmese pythons plaguing the region. And so today, with no saints waiting on call, the state is settling for this motley crew of ex-military and public service workers like Gomez, whose group goes by the campy moniker Swamp Apes.
In total, the South Florida Water Management District is paying 25 hunters minimum wage to track and kill pythons under a pilot program. The hunters removed 10 pythons in their first 10 days — a major accomplishment, says state agency chairman Dan O’Keefe, since “simply locating the elusive python is literally like finding a moving, camouflaged needle in a haystack.” The program’s success has spurred knockoffs from other agencies, including a contest where anyone who catches a python can submit a photo to social media and win a “Python Pickup” T-shirt, Yeti tumbler, GoPro camera or a $100 gas card.
Driving along the L-28 canal, it’s clear the hunt means more than trinkets for Gomez. As he casts a wary eye for reptiles — this trip, he’ll find only a harmless black racer — the former fireman and paramedic reflects on the trauma he’s witnessed. There are times when his marriage was rockier, before he decided to head south and work in animal control — murder sites and gruesome accident scenes are easier to forget in the tranquil of the swamps. “It’s about getting your mind off things,” Gomez says, “focusing on something bigger than you, helping other people and a whole community.”
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