Burmese Pythons Wreak Havoc In Everglades

In this handout photo, an alligator chomps on a Burmese python Dec. 23, 2005 in the Everglades National park. More and more of these pythons, originally brought into the county as pets, are turning up in the Everglades where they are upsetting the ecosystem. (AP Photo/National Park Service-HO)
AP Photo/National Park Service

Hearing this shout, Skip Snow slammed on the brakes. When the off-roader plowed to a halt, he and his partner, Lori Oberhofer, leaped out and took off running toward two snakes, actually — a pair of 10-foot Burmese pythons lying on a levee, sunning themselves.

After slipping, sliding and tumbling down a rocky embankment, Snow, a wildlife biologist, grabbed one of the creatures by the tail. The python, Oberhofer says, did not care much for that.

"It made a sound like Darth Vader breathing," she says, "and then its head swung around and I saw this white mouth flying through the air."

Snow saw the mouth, too — the jaws open 180 degrees, the gums an obscene white, the needle-sharp teeth bared in an almost devilish grin. He let out a shriek, then blinked, and when his eyes opened the python's head was hanging in mid-air, less than a foot from his own.

Oberhofer, with a Ninja-like thrust, had snared the python in mid-strike.

"I snagged it right behind its head, on its neck," the 43-year-old wildlife technician recalls. "It was pure reflex — a defensive move. I don't know if I could ever do it again."

The python hadn't succumbed yet, however. "They defecate on you, on purpose, hoping to make you reconsider what you're doing," Oberhofer says. "It's not pleasant."

In the end, the humans were victorious, if not sweet-smelling: Both snakes were bagged, trucked off to the Everglades Research Center, euthanized and necropsied — meaning their innards were dissected, then meticulously inspected, for the benefit of science.

So goes python control in the Everglades, a painstaking, around-the-clock slog against a voracious, foreign snake species that has established a stronghold in this watery wilderness and put native wildlife at risk.

Critters that pythons find most delectable — raccoons, possums, muskrats and native cotton rats — are already under attack, as are birds such as the house wren, pied-billed grebe, white ibis and limpkin.

Scientists also worry that these slithery giants — which have been known to grow as long as 26 feet — may soon start to feast on native species whose survival is in doubt.

"The Everglades doesn't work by itself anymore," says Leon Howell, 58, who has been associated with the park for the last 21 years as a visitor, naturalist, fishing guide and, presently, park ranger. "This whole landscape has to be managed today: water, fire, exotics — you name it."

Which explains the evolution of Snow and Oberhofer into a human firewall against non-native exotics. Without them, Howell figures, "there'd be pythons all over the place."