There are tens of thousands of pythons in the Florida wild, attacking animals and damaging ecosystems – and the quest to stop them has become a collective crusade
On a Thursday afternoon in St Petersburg, Florida, Beth Koehler crouches over a cairn terrier named Ginger, trimming intently as fur collects around her feet. On Koehler’s arm is a scratch – red, jagged and freshly acquired, though not in the way one might expect of a dog groomer.
“There was no way I could pin the head,” Koehler says, referring to the snake that was partly responsible. She had grabbed hold however she could, which made it “pissed”: “It decided to coil up and just throw itself at me.” Startled, Koehler had fallen backwards, cutting herself on a vine – an injury far preferable to the bite of a Burmese python.
“I have never been bit,” she proudly adds. “Peggy’s been bit once, but really, we’re very careful.”
Three days a week, Koehler runs Hair of the Dog with her partner of 31 years, Peggy van Gorder. The other four days the couple are usually out chasing pythons as members of Patric: the Python Action Team – Removing Invasive Constrictors, which is managed by the Florida fish and wildlife conservation commission (FWC).
Koehler and Van Gorder’s love affair with Burmese pythons began in 2016, when the FWC held its second python challenge. (The first was held in 2013; there have been none since.) A month-long public hunt held on a vast expanse of state forests and other government-owned land north of Everglades national park, the challenge was designed to cull numbers while also raising public awareness about a growing ecological problem.
The couple registered and were issued a permit to hunt in designated areas of south Florida. Then they attended a live-capture tutorial, also offered by the FWC. “They bring one in a bag and they drop it on the ground, and they say: ‘Catch it!’” says Van Gorder, adding that this is where they learned the safest way to grab a snake is by its head.
After 80 hours of trudging through cypress forests and freshwater marshland, Koehler and Van Gorder did not catch a single snake, but fellow participants removed 106 pythons. Those who had caught the most and also the longest pythons shared in over $16,000 of prizes…
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