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)
FORT MYERS, Fla. (USA Today) -- Andres Schabelman is not the kind of guy you expect to see roaming the Everglades in search of a giant, slithering beast that's nearly as long as a stretch limo.
He's 28, holds a graduate degree in public policy from Harvard, lives in San Francisco and works for an Internet start-up - Airbnb.
Schabelman also is one of more than 700 people from 32 states and Canada who plan to kill wild Burmese pythons in South Florida. Called the 2013 Python Challenge, a state-sponsored 30-day hunt started Saturday with a kickoff in Fort Lauderdale.
"I literally have never done anything like python hunting in my life," Schableman said Thursday from his home in California. "In New Orleans, I used to hunt and fished a lot, but nothing like this."
Schabelman said he and three friends from Harvard decided to take a stab at python hunting after they realized the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday would fall in the middle of the hunt and allow them a three-day hunt.
Schabelman and his inexperienced friends are not alone. Hundreds who've never hunted or even handled a wild Burmese python are registered for this attack on a particularly nasty invasive species some scientists say could spread as far north as the Carolinas.
Asked whether he was coming to Florida to kill big snakes or for conservation reasons, Schabelman said: "There's definitely a hunter side in all of us, but it's mostly about conservation. I think there's a myth out there that these two don't go together. But that's not always the case."
Chris Harmon of Palm Beach County, Fla., is joining the hunt as well. But why would anyone want to wrangle and wrestle with a potential man killer?
"Humans have created this problem, so it is up to humans to correct it," Harmon said. "The Everglades have endured enough catastrophes without this. We are not in it for the prize or skins, we just want to do our part."
Wildlife officials say they know of no one who has been attacked in Florida by a Burmese python.
The snakes 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.
They have no natural predators here, eat endangered and threatened species and compete with native animals for habitat and food. Burmese pythons grow to about 25 feet and can weigh more than 200 pounds. They can eat adult deer in one long, icky gulp.
Florida considers Burmese pythons to be an invasive exotic. It is illegal to buy, sell or breed them without a permit. Snakes purchased before the 2010 law went into effect can only be kept if they've been tagged and recorded.
It is illegal to transport a live Burmese python in Florida without a permit, so most hunters (those not trained by fish and wildlife officials) will have to kill their snakes in the field.
That is best done with a captive bolt, a device used to stun cattle and other animals during the slaughter process, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's hunter recommendations. They're about the size of a flashlight and kill by causing blunt trauma to an animal's brain. The state's second-listed preference of taking a python is with a gun, but many experienced python hunters say using guns is dangerous, smelly and bloody.
A machete or hunting knife also can be used to decapitate the snakes, wildlife officials say.
Cheryl Millet, with the Nature Conservancy, travels around the state to train python hunters for state permits.
"They're very powerful and people shouldn't underestimate a python," said Millet, who will be in Fort Lauderdale to train nonpermitted hunters. "My biggest concern is that people are safe and not impacting native wildlife, and that they do treat a python humanely."
Millet and others say hacking away at an animal with a machete or stick-like tool is cruel and shouldn't be used, even on exotic animals. Rules governing the hunt spell out humane killing methods.
Several fish and wildlife commission office and cellphone mailboxes were full Thursday. Millet guessed wildlife officials were too busy trying to process hundreds of registrations before the hunt officially started.
"I think none of us really are sure how many people are going to show up to this," Millet said. "But it definitely has drawn some interest."
Story by: Chad Gillis, The (Fort Myers, Fla.) News-Press