FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — So you want to become the next Florida python hunter. The feat is not as simple as slinging a few snakes while gallivanting through the swampy Everglades before calling it a day.
Take it from Amy Siewe, a professional python hunter who won the award for longest python caught in this year’s python challenge. She worked as a python contractor for state agencies before starting her own guiding service this year where she takes people on python hunts.
Some of the people Siewe guides don’t realize pythons aren’t being captured left and right, she said.
“We don’t catch a python every night or every day, and we were out there for hours at a time without catching anything,” she said. “So a lot of times they’ll be out there after a few hours and be like, ‘All right, I’m done.’ They don’t have the stamina for it.”
The longest snake ever caught in Florida measured 19 feet, and many believe there’s a 20-footer out there. Anyone is welcome to catch a beast like that, but if you want to get paid, you’ll have to go through some preparation and training first.
Florida’s python contracting programs
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) launched a paid python removal program in 2017 called the Python Action Team Removing Invasive Constrictors, or PATRIC. This is a sister program to the South Florida Water Management District’s python elimination program, which began the same year.
Python removal agents earn anywhere from $13 to $18 per hour depending on the area they are hunting for up to 10 hours a day. Working on public land brings in a lower hourly wage while working on lands where an established python range is known to exist, working on sensitive habitat sites or responding to survey requests will earn a higher hourly rate.
If a contractor captures a python measuring up to 4 feet long, they will earn an extra $50, and any python longer than 4 feet will bring in another $25 for every additional foot measured. An 8-foot snake, for example, is worth $150.
And, if you stumble upon an active snake nest and collect the hatchlings, you’ll get $200.
Each program manages 50 contractors for a total of 100 paid python contractors, said McKayla Spencer, the nonnative fish and wildlife program coordinator for the FWC. And there’s no shortage of applications, either.
Depending on the year, Spencer said PATRIC may receive more than 200 applications. The 100 contractors the two programs employ remove around 2,000 snakes a year, give or take, she said.
More than 18,000 pythons have been reportedly removed from Florida’s ecosystems since 2000, according to the FWC.
This surge in people striving to become python contractors and the guidelines around each program differ dramatically from when Siewe first became a contractor in 2019, she said.
“It’s definitely changed since the beginning,” Siewe said. “This has become a huge, huge thing in South Florida now, and everyone wants to be part of it.”
What makes a solid serpent hunter applicant?
The python program applications are easy to fill out, but potential snake hunters face an age-old job-seeker conundrum: How do you gain relevant experience?
Spencer said current contractors may bring on official assistants to go out with them on python hunts.
Facebook pages created by python contractors seeking assistance even exist, Spencer said, which offers an easier avenue for people to get in touch with one another.
“We don’t want people to be discouraged by that, like, ‘Oh, OK, there’s no chance I’m going to get chosen.’ No, that’s not true,” she said. “A lot of these assistants get a lot of experience with the program indirectly because they’re out there with somebody who’s working under the program’s parameters. … People get preference if they’ve been an assistant.”
Military veterans also receive preference.
Prospective applicants may also be proactive in their approach by taking the FWC’s live Python Patrol Training, which is offered virtually every third Thursday of each month from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.
“You can sit in your living room in your pajamas,” Spencer said. “It’s very simple.”
The training covers species identification, how to search for pythons, safe capture techniques, humane killing and how to report pythons to the FWC.
If you want to practice your hunting skills, the public has year-round access to 32 FWC-managed lands where they can remove not only pythons but all other nonnative reptiles, such as iguanas and tegus.
Traps are prohibited, and so are firearms unless a specific area regulation says otherwise. Captive bolt stunners, which render animals unconscious, are allowed.
Siewe said she carries a bolt gun with her at all times. But if you aren’t at that level quite yet, shadowing a contractor or joining Siewe’s brigade first might be a gentler way to ease into the world of python hunting.
“It’s not just about going out and catching a snake,” Siewe said. “There’s a lot more to it, and it’s not as easy at all as what people think it is.”
How to kill a python — properly
The FWC follows guidelines recommended by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), which includes a two-step process to ensure the snake dies without suffering.
Former python challenge winner Dustin “Dusty” Crum said in May that it’s not the pythons’ fault they’ve furnished such a comfortable home in the Everglades, so their death should be as painless as possible. “We don’t want the animal to suffer any undue pain. I’ll say a little prayer for them and make sure that it’s a quick, clean kill.”
To that end, the AVMA 2020 guidelines say “It is important to remember that amphibian and reptilian hearts can beat even after brain death. Death should always be confirmed by physical intervention.”