pythonhunters

Stalking Killer Pythons With Florida’s Bounty Snake Hunters

In the 1980s, pythons were luxury pets — but after Hurricane Andrew, nearly a thousand escaped. They’re still out there, decimating wildlife populations and even posing a threat to humans. Can Florida’s top snake hunters stop them in time?

I’m knee-deep in murky swamp water stumbling to keep pace with “Cowboy” Mike Kimmel, one of two dozen state contractors tasked with hunting a ravenous invasive species with no natural predator that’s swallowed whole nearly every racoon, rabbit and fur-bearing mammal in the Florida Everglades. Like a quarter of all animal species here, Burmese pythons aren’t native to Florida. As the name suggests, they come from Southeast Asia, where they grow to more than 20 feet and can swallow small bears and full-grown humans. In 2009 in Florida, an 8-foot python was found coiled around a dead toddler in her crib, its fangs embedded in her forehead. Seven years later in Indonesia, a 54-year-old intact, fully clothed woman was discovered inside of a 23-foot Burmese python that occupied her vegetable garden. 

Contrasting my clumsiness is Kimmel, a lean 31-year-old with a cropped beard and country-western drawl who glides about the shallow pond like a river otter, pausing only to inspect the shedded skin of a native southern black racer snake. “Good sign,” he says, tossing it aside. Kimmel is among the most prolific python hunters in the world, having caught 300 in the past two years, including the 1,000th, 1,500th and 2,000th of Florida’s Python Elimination Program. “Gonna catch 3,000 soon,” he predicts, before recalling the largest one he’s ever caught: 

For the next nine days, he’ll hunt an interwoven maze of levees and swamps for 18 hours a day while competing in the 2020 Python Bowl, in which a TRACKER 570 Off-Road ATV will be awarded to a member of the public who catches the most pythons. Dressed head-to-toe in Wrangler, a white capture bag in his back pocket and a Tomahawk knife clipped to his belt, Kimmel reflexively reaches for his phone at the sight of an air plant, explaining to his loyal Instagram followers that the floating tufts of grass attach to cypress trees and, like orchids, obtain 100 percent of their nutrients directly from the air.

For me, cypress trees mercifully emerge from the water-logged soil like banisters as we slosh through a marshy hammock of shallow water off the L-28 levee, which runs 30 miles north to Alligator Alley. Half of all pythons in the Everglades have been caught on the L-28 thanks to a veritable all-you-can-eat buffet of small mammals. Over the course of five years, the average python will consume a raccoon, opossum, 10 squirrels, 15 rabbits, five American coots, six little blue herons, eight ibises, 15 wrens, 30 cotton rats, 72 mice and four smallish alligators.

As non-venomous constrictors, pythons grab prey with their teeth and quickly wrap coils around the body. Each time the unlucky edible exhales, explains University of Cincinnati biological sciences professor Bruce Jayne, the python tightens until it feels the heart stop beating. Finally, extending its larynx out the side of its mouth like a snorkel to breathe while eating, it dislocates its jaw and swallows the meal whole, using its tail to cram more than its own body weight down its throat. “In some of the larger pythons I’ve obtained in my lab, they’ve had deer hooves in their guts,” Jayne tells me. 

Appetites as such, I’m singularly focused on identifying the fourth-largest snake in the world before it identifies me. I’m told to look for a black/brown/tan giraffe-like pattern that fits together like puzzle pieces. Concerningly, it would also seem to fit nicely with the black/brown/tan landscape of a cypress swamp. “You sometimes don’t see ‘em till you step on ‘em,” Kimmel warns, explaining the front end of a python can disappear in shallow water despite you holding its tail. I glance at the snake boots I ordered from Amazon that promised they could “withstand punctures from all poisonous vipers.” Snake boots can’t, however, navigate. We’ve been in the swamp for nearly an hour when I admit to having no idea which direction the truck is parked. 

You gotta constantly keep your bearings,” Kimmel says, explaining that many inexperienced swamp goers have been helicoptered out — and that’s only if they had cell reception. (Fortunately, Kimmel carries a handheld GPS to track his hunting dogs, which presumably also works on guys like me.)

As we continue wading, I wonder aloud how a snake from Southeast Asia has come to pose an existential threat to the food chain of South Florida. The exotic reptile trade in Miami was “huge” in the 1980s, Kimmel answers, pointing to drug lords for whom large slithery monsters signified strength. Pet-store sales of pythons were “through the roof” back then, adds Jeff Lester, a 49-year-old restaurant owner who worked as a stocker at a Miami Petland in the 1980s. Among the most popular exotics at the time, Burmese pythons were also affordable at $20 to $30 a piece, easy to feed and less temperamental than boa constrictors. Lester recalls crates of Burmese pythons arriving from Asia every week. “Whenever we’d sell a big one I’d think, Where’s it gonna go when it grows up?!?!” 

Many ended up in a warehouse in Homestead, Florida, but the owners couldn’t afford a stormproof facility so they rented a makeshift greenhouse and kept the snakes in Tupperware. Hurricane Andrew, however, obliterated the structure in August 1992, releasing more than 900 pythons into the Everglades. “It was the perfect storm that started this whole thing and why you don’t see anacondas out here,” Kimmel says, puns be damned. “Just Burmese pythons, because a thousand were released all at once to start a breeding population.” And so, Kimmel is now one of 25 contractors paid minimum wage by the state to capture them. Each haul receives a bounty — $50 for the first four feet and $25 for each additional foot — making an average 6- to 12-foot snake worth $100 to $250. To collect, contractors bring their live snakes to be measured, weighed and euthanized at a South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) weigh station, a nondescript wood-framed building with tattered stars and stripes hanging above long tables for snake-measuring. 

As we creep through the soggy cypress labyrinth, we’re also, of course, on the lookout for alligators, which kick silt on themselves to hide in deeper pockets of water and patiently wait for meals to come to them. In a battle of apex predators, pythons and alligators are pretty evenly matched; it mostly just depends on who’s bigger. A few years ago, a 15-foot python split open with a 7-foot gator inside, which would’ve taken a month to digest.

Win or lose, native alligators are the undisputed good guys in the Glades. In fact, not far from here, Kimmel rescued a 6-foot alligator from the 15-foot python that was wrapped around it. “It was so big I had to bear-hug the bundle out the swamp,” he recalls, admitting only moderate concern that the gator’s head was inches away from his face. Failing to lug it up the levee, he slammed the coiled beasts to the ground, unravelling them. A gasping alligator beside him, Kimmel grabbed the python behind the head as it began wrapping around him. It was the first of now three alligators he’s untangled from pythons on the L-28. 

Our day had begun just before 8 a.m., when Kimmel and I rendezvoused at Tippy’s Outpost, an isolated, palm-thatched grocery shop in the wilderness of the Everglades, 30 miles from my South Miami Airbnb. To get here, Kimmel drove three hours from his five-acre ranch in Indiantown, his home and headquarters of Martin County Trapping & Removals + Martin County Wildlife Rescue, a company he runs with his wife, Allie. “We’re the only python-hunting couple in the Glades,” he explains, proudly noting that Allie has been hog hunting with her dad since she was six months old. 

A self-described “ambassador between humans and wildlife,” Kimmel ensures both remain safe by ethically trapping iguanas, tegus, hogs, coyotes, caimans, monitor lizards, armadillos, pythons and any other Floridian invasive species causing nuisance for his clients. He supplements the pest-removal business by hunting pythons exclusively during peak season in late summer, which earns him an additional $15,000 to $60,000. 

Country music twangs from Colter Wall’s Pandora station as I load into a white Ford F-250 pickup with 265,000 miles on the odometer and a lizard foot dangling from the rearview mirror. “Iguana — cut myself, nice little ornament to hang,” Kimmel explains. All parts of the animals he traps are skinned, tanned and monetized into wallets, belts, bracelets, lighter cases, key chains, footballs, preserved heads, sculls, lucky feet and anything else he can extract from the animal — which he then sells on Instagram and his website.

A scrappy son of the Everglades, as a kid he bred and sold exotic reptiles to make an allowance. His parents, professional sailors and fishermen, moved him and his brother onto a sailboat when he was 7, where he lived off of the South American coast for three years. As a teenager, he began volunteering with Florida Fish and Wildlife (FWC), assisting on alligator and nuisance wildlife calls. While on an iguana removal job, an FWC official suggested he apply for the python program, to which he was accepted. Kimmel’s mission is pure: “To make sure a disappearing ecosystem is here for my kids to live off the land. It’s extremely important to me that we nip this in the bud.”

After video of him rescuing the aforementioned python-cloaked alligator went viral, the owner of Florida clothing brand Flogrown insisted on creating an Instagram account for him and corralled the first 1,000 followers, which have swelled to more than 50,000. “They’re from all over the world,” he says in disbelief. In return, Kimmel provides a steady flow of adrenaline-drenched content and responds to every single comment, often with his chosen mantra: The swamp always provides. “Once a week, I’ll be at a gas station and hear someone yell, ‘Hey Python Cowboy!!!’ It’s un-fucking real.” 

A couple hundred feet past Tippy’s, Kimmel turns right down a dirt road and stops to unlock a long metal gate to the L-28, which like all levees in the Everglades is only accessible with a long black master key supplied by the state. The gate swings open with an eerie, tritone groan (each levee gate’s foreboding dirge is unique) before driving through and reattaching the padlock. Then he swipes an app on his phone, clocking in. 

Sunlight begins to peek from behind crowded mangroves of cypress trees that rise from standing water on both sides of the dirt road. Beyond it, vast plains of 3-foot-high sawgrass threaten to lacerate anyone venturing to cross — except snakes, which are always on the move. Like all reptiles, pythons are ectothermic, i.e., “cold-blooded”; as such, they take on the ambient temperature of their environment, so Kimmel adjusts his hunting tactics per the weather. On a clear morning like this, after a cold winter night, he plans to assume his preferred python hunting perch — standing with one foot on the truck’s running board and the other on the gas pedal — hoping to interrupt pythons sunbathing on the road. 

View this post on Instagram

@pythoncowboy on the hunt

A post shared by C. Brian Smith (@seebriansmith) on

It’s a certain amount of luck,” he says, turning up the volume when a Hank Williams Jr. song, “A Country Boy Can Survive,” begins to stream. “But it’s also being in the right place at the right time.” No clouds in a crystal blue sky means the snakes will warm up fast and limit our window to spot them. Once it gets too hot, he’ll walk the shaded areas of the swamp for hours, despite preferring to hunt the levee road to cover ground more quickly.

My heart skips when the truck stops short and Kimmel hops out, but only to retrieve a laceless old shoe on the side of the road. “I don’t know who’s leaving all this fucking trash out here,” he barks with a lifetime of frustration, chucking it into the back of his cab. “Each of the contractors spends a good portion of our day picking up trash to protect native wildlife, but there’s always more.”

I note that we haven’t yet seen one other person on the levee and ask if the L-28, a single-track gravel road on raised embankments running 20 miles along the border of Big Cypress National Preserve, is usually this quiet. “During the competition, this road will be completely overrun,” he says, referring to the Python Bowl (hosted by the FWC, SFWMD and Miami Super Bowl Host Committee) getting underway tomorrow. The stated intent of the challenge is to raise awareness and engage the public in participating in Everglades conservation through invasive species removal.

I explain that I filed the $25 entry fee and will be competing in the “rookie” division, which is greeted with a frustrated sigh from Kimmel. Past contests were “total shitshows,” he says, attracting thousands of wannabe Crocodile Hunters from across the country. Gladesmen viewed them as total failures, responsible for too many native snakes being killed and too few pythons captured. “People left trash everywhere and drove around pointing AR-15s off the back of trucks just to say they hunted pythons,” he laments, gnawing a Red Vine. (Kimmel eats like a kindergartener — candy gummies, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Lunchables, etc.) “I bet this one’s gonna be 10 times worse.” 

The competitions have been successful in one regard: demonstrating to the state that a handful of people were really fucking good at catching pythons. So it hired 25 of them, and gave them a master key to restricted land and cash for every python they caught.

In 2017, the first year of the program, the contract killers were predicted to catch 60 pythons — they bagged 1,100 instead. Kimmel is the youngest contractor and the only full-time trapper. The rest include middle-age lawyers, construction workers, IT managers, realtors and an orchid salesman. Brian Hargrove, an MMA fighter, has caught 392 pythons, the most in the program. (Of Kimmel’s 300 pythons, he’s caught 174 as a contractor.) Florida Governor Ron DeSantis supercharged the slaughter this year, upping the budget of $225,000 to $750,000, doubling the number of contractors to 50 and scheduling this competition to coincide with Miami-based Super Bowl LIV. 

The morning kickoff event with nearly 1,000 people is reminiscent of “Whacking Day,” The Simpsons episode where citizens of Springfield drive snakes into the town square and fatally club them. With FWC biologist Robert Edman looking on, I attempt to catch a demo 12-foot female python as thick as my thigh using only a pair of gloves, a white sack and a golf-club-sized snake hook. When Edman dumps the python onto the ground, she immediately hisses and stares at me. The snake is in fight mode, and I need her in flight mode, he explains. At his direction, I grab the tail to stretch it out and move behind her, preparing to pin it with the rubber handle of the snake hook. “You have to commit,” he coaches. “Don’t go halfway and stop because the snake will see you and try to bite.” 

I take a deep breath, fall to one knee and “shoot for the head,” targeting the snake’s neck. When I make contact, its jaw splays open revealing six rows of razor sharp backward-pointing teeth. I lean into the snake hook, reminded of what Kimmel said about pythons being able to launch five feet through the air to bite, then grab it just below the head, as directed, as it coils around my forearm. Edman urges me to get my legs involved since “the last thing you want is to have both of your arms wrapped up.” As this is the demo snake, I don’t kill it, but Edman reminds everyone that during an actual hunt it would be my responsibility to ethically dispatch the python with a bullet to the brain or swift decapitation. 

Some, like Bryan Christy, writing for National Geopraphic, argue the Python Bowl — which was held twice previously in 2013 and 2015, attracting thousands of amateur hunters from across the U.S. and beyond — promotes senseless animal cruelty rather than awareness of conservation. At a past challenge, Christy overheard a man telling rookies from Maine his technique: swing the snake by the tail and slam its head into a tree. “It stuns ‘em,” he explained. Scott Wisneski, a reptile pet store owner in Central Florida, told The Daily Beast that he thinks the Python Challenges are too much like mob violence: “It’s like saying, ‘It’s open season! Get your pitchfork and your torches and go get them!’” 

That’s actually not too far from how the opening ceremonies at the Python Bowl go. Carlos A. Giménez, mayor of Miami-Dade County, even bids farewell with an invitation to kill: This is a huge threat to the ecology of the Everglades. Whenever you’re out there, 365 days a year, it’s open season on pythons!” 

Pockets of reporters gather around some of the 25 SFWMD contractors competing in the Bowl’s “professional” division, including Donna Kalil, the only female hunter employed by the district. Wearing feather earrings, baggy pants and a long-sleeved pink T-shirt reading “Everglades Avengers Python Elimination Team,” Kalil scoffs at my suggestion that contractors are frustrated by amateurs joining the fray. “The levees aren’t ours,” the 58-year-old real-estate agent concedes. “We can afford to allow the public out for a couple of days. I grew up here and I know there used to be rabbits and raccoons and possums all over the place and now there’s none. I can’t catch them all myself.” 

She tries, though. Every weeknight, Kalil rides in a crow’s nest atop a Ford Expedition with a vanity plate reading “SNAKER” while her best friend, Renee Yousefi, drives. The duo has bagged nearly 300 pythons and finds no difference between themselves and their male counterparts. “Some guys might see a woman doing the work better than them as diminishing,” Kalil says. “But I guess they better get used to it.”

Donna Kalil (bottom) and Renee Yousefi (via Tampa Bay Times)

In particular, local news cameras converge upon Dusty “Wildman” Crum, whose long hair and bravado fit the name. A 40-year-old orchid seller wearing Crocs and a black tank top, Crum is the star of Guardians of the Glades, a hit reality show on the Discovery Channel that follows Crum and his crew deep into the mangroves as they subdue pythons. Kimmel helped Crum pitch the show and made an appearance in the Season One finale, when a 17-footer got the better of Crum (in the same swamp I was in), wrapping around his neck. When Kimmel arrived to assist, Crum was seconds away from blacking out. (Kimmel, too, has been cast in a TV show, but backed out after they asked him to be “a little more redneck-y.”)

Adding to the “Wildman” mystique, Crum prefers hunting pythons in sandals and bare feet, a philosophy that began in his 20s when he was working construction in steel-toed boots that hurt his feet. “I connect to the earth better when I’m barefoot in the swamp,” he explains. “The swamp massages my feet and makes me feel like I’m the only one out there. If I stepped on one in boots, I might never know.”

Some contractors like Tom Rahill, founder of The Swamp Apes, a nonprofit “dedicated to serving veterans through serving the wilderness,” roll their eyes at Crum. “Hunting pythons in Crocs makes for good TV. Maybe that’s why they call it a crock.” 

Rahill, a stocky, 62-year-old ponytailed “reformed hippy” with an unruly beard, claims to be responsible for a quarter of all pythons caught in Everglades National Park. In the same breath, though, he denounces anyone who’s overly concerned with catch counts, a symptom of what he calls a manic “python gold rush” underway in the Everglades. “That’s not why I’m doing it,” he promises me. “I do it to help the environment while at the same time helping the veterans.” 

View this post on Instagram

Rahill, on the mission of the @swampapes

A post shared by C. Brian Smith (@seebriansmith) on

He and The Swamp Apes enable veterans to find post-combat purpose by hunting pythons in the harsh conditions they saw in deployment, all while saving the Everglades. Rahill, a telecom administrator at the Fort Lauderdale airport, lives apart from his wife, a tenured professor at Arkansas State University, and volunteers clearing trails for the park. He noticed that the heartache of missing his wife subsided whenever he had an 8-foot python wrapped around his arm. “As a man of faith, I believe the Lord gave me the inspiration to reach out to veterans,” he says, explaining how service men are heavily trained in situational awareness, unit cohesion and threat assessment. “It was a revelatory moment: I could help veterans while having fun removing snakes!” 

Rahill thinks there’s a nesting female python deep on a levee only accessible by canoe, far from the chaos of the gold rush, and invites me to join him the following morning. We meet at Everglades Holiday Park at the head of the L-33 levee at “oh-900-hours” (The Swamp Apes use military time to further familiarize the veterans). I hop aboard a 2018 Black Dodge RAM donated by Mike Rowe, after Rahill was featured on his saccharinely earnest reality show, Returning the Favor

Creeping along the L-33, we come upon two men out of a John Steinbeck novel lumbering down the levee on foot while carrying a machete, a long gun and an extended paint roller. “I choose to get attacked by the paint roller, you can get my partner here with the machete!” Rahill shouts, mockingly. The enthusiastic fortysomething men, Jamie and John, say they learned about the Python Bowl “on the teevee” and swung by Home Depot to purchase snake-hunting supplies. (Jamie is in plumbing John is in lawn care.)

Rahill drives off, fuming over the interaction. “The days of shooting buffalo from the backs of trains is over, boys!” he yells like a righteous Boy Scout displeased with how liberally Jamie was flagging his firearm. “Was that a new gun? Did they pick that up after they left the Home Depot? I don’t know if he had a round in the chamber, we could’ve been in imminent danger!”

The truck slows as Rahill opens an SFWMD app to document a sighting here yesterday when he and a veteran spotted a python swimming up the far side of the canal. (Pythons are both semi-aquatic and semi-arboreal — i.e., they can swim and climb trees.) Bowing his head in regret, he sighs, “I coulda got it if I went in, but I’d probably have pneumonia now. I’m hoping the Lord rewards my maturity.” A devoted man of faith, Rahill gives the snakes he reports to SFWMD biblical names like “Zachariah” and “Abednego” so “heathanist scientists will be forced to write them in their evil data books.” 

For the rest of the morning, we creep along progressively less-paved levee roads — the L-33, the C-304, the L67(c) all the way down to L-41. Rahill says it typically takes him eight hours to find one python (Kimmel puts it at 12). He mitigates the monotony with spontaneous eruptions of song and slap percussion while bellowing lyrics written on the hunt. “I’ve really been learning my voice over the years,” he says earnestly, before abruptly performing “Big Snake!,” the act one closer of Python: The Musical, an unfinished opus he’s been working on for 20 years. “There are many different angles out there, with Python Cowboy and Dusty and his crazy bare feet. But one they haven’t done yet? The singing python hunter!” 

Rahill hasn’t eaten meat since 1976, figuring the restraint would be a stark reminder to do something daily to help the environment. “I mean, somebody’s gotta do something, man, and we’re the someones.” And yet, when “militant lefties” ask him to specify whether he’s a vegan, vegetarian or pescatarian, he bristles. “I’m a Nug-ent. I only eat meat that I hunt.” As such, he mocks people who object to the killing of Burmese pythons in the Everglades. “What do these people have against cute and fluffy bunny rabbits — which pythons are eating all of? Are they so against rabbits that they won’t allow us to remove these snakes ethically and skin and tan their hides onto a football? It gives honor to that beautiful animal.” 

As a man in his early 60s, Rahill already has a tombstone made for him, which reads, “Tom Rahill: He gave more than he took.” Still, I was not expecting him to have been named “1997 Volunteer of the Year” at Fort Lauderdale’s largest AIDS clinic. “These beautiful young men were dying left and right,” he recalls softly. “As a Christian, what was I gonna do — tuck my tail between my legs? At the end of the day, they’re the same as everybody else and died alone as social pariah.” 

I mention that I’m, in fact, gay, eliciting a belly laugh and slap on the back. 

“That’s great, man! That’s so great. I’ve learned more from the gay community about compassion, love and selflessness than you’ll ever get from me.” 

He does take a little pause, though: “I’m not sure how the other hunters would respond to you being gay so you probably shouldn’t mention that.” 

We reach the end of the levee road at which point Rahill explains we’ll be canoeing 500 feet to where it begins again, then walk to where he suspects the female has nested. “With one female, you may find 10 males who’ve come to dance with the queen,” he says, before grabbing a roll of toilet paper and walking into the weeds to “let Larry outta the house.”  

Afterward, Rahill gathers a checklist of items we’ll need for the journey: life vests, phone chargers, lens wipes, toilet paper, BodyArmor and a custom capture bag with dual openings used by veterans in wheelchairs. As we untie the canoe from the roof of his truck, Rahill explains the colors on his rope — red, black, yellow and white — which correspond to Miccosukee and Seminole flags, adding, “I do this to honor them.” 

I hold my own as a bowman, avoiding curious gators while guiding us into helpful currents. We disembark onto a rickety Miccosukee dock and begin using our oars to “jungle bust” through 3-foot sawgrass for what feels like 10 miles (in reality, it’s less than one). Drenched in sweat and sorely underestimating how much water I’d need, the cliché “needle in a haystack” takes on new meaning. And yet, Rahill is out here most days of the week, for minimum wage, in the hopes of stumbling upon reptilian Bigfoot. Hours later, without finding so much as a shedded hatchling skin, Rahill takes to the ground for a late-afternoon siesta. “I like wedging down in the gravelly stuff,” he suggests, nodding off. “Watch out for mites, though, they’ll ruin your day.” 

View this post on Instagram

Python hunter siesta

A post shared by C. Brian Smith (@seebriansmith) on

As the sawgrass shadows grow longer, I rustle Rahill awake, explaining I need to meet up with Cowboy for a night hunt. As we drive back along the L-67C, Rahill points out a section of sawgrass that’s been matted down by an airboat. “Oh, I like this a lot,” he says, salivating at the ideal conditions. It’s here, four days later, at 10:22 p.m., where Rahill and 24-year-old Marine veteran Andrew Gomez find a 13-foot, 62-pound python, winning $2,000 in awards for both the longest and heaviest snake caught. (Crum accepted the $750 second prize for a 35.9-pound python.)

All told, competitors in the Python Bowl are responsible for 80 captures, leaving hundreds of thousands pythons on the loose. No one I spoke to really believes they can be fully eradicated. It seems pythons are just part of Florida now. 

We drive for an hour along the L-30 and L-31, and come upon a tent on the side of the levee pitched by a Python Bowl competitor, which sends Rahill through the roof. “You just witnessed something that drives me crazy,” he stews, muttering something about protocol. “Dude, they told you not to camp there, don’t freaking camp there! It disgusts me to see that tent.” 

Rahill’s Boy-Scout mentality has earned some disdain from other python hunters. He’s been bad-mouthed, tailgated and run off the levee into a ditch, which he blames on being the second-most prolific python hunter in the Everglades, after Bobby Hill, a beefy, soft-spoken 58-year-old Miamian who’s killed more pythons in the Everglades than anyone in the world. “I have a target on my back because I’ve been successful for so many years. These are the kind of territorial clashes you would’ve seen during the Gold Rush,” he repeats, noting pythoning to now be a “monetized pursuit.”

“I’ve never had a problem with Tom, but a lot of people in the program don’t like him because he sticks his nose in places it don’t belong,” Kimmel says as I get back in his F-250 to learn he’s bagged two pythons since we last met. As the clock hits midnight on my last night in the Glades, Colter Wall crooning away, Kimmel offers me a chocolate cream donut from Walmart. After 10 hours hacking through sawgrass, it feels good to eat like a 10-year-old. 

My week in the swamps is minutes away from ending and I’ve captured zero pythons. Gomez, the ex-Marine, didn’t catch one until his 10th hunt; some never do. “STOP THE TRUCK!!!” I shout, figuring if I can’t find a snake, I’ll at least help out Kimmel with his litter quest. I hop out, proud of myself for retrieving a deflated mylar balloon that I valiantly toss into the cab, awaiting commendation from my captain. 

“Wait, you mean you really didn’t see that?” Kimmel says, pointing to a 15-foot python laying five feet away from the trash I just picked up

“Holy shit, I totally missed it!” I respond, grabbing a snake hook and leaping out of the truck — to save the day, I suppose. 

Alas, Kimmel confesses that it’s been dead for hours. Someone, likely a biker or pedestrian, killed it earlier and tried to carry it out, but it proved too heavy. Kimmel spotted it hours ago and cut off the head, which he’ll sell as an articulated skull for a couple hundred bucks, and will likely pay for Martin County Trapping decals on the TRACKER ATV he’d later win for bagging eight pythons and capturing the 2020 Python Bowl championship.

FWC Photo by Avery Bristol

Dense clouds of mosquitoes, dragonflies and moths swarm about the Rigid LED lights that are mounted to the roof of Kimmel’s truck as he explains that the wild python population is definitely spreading, the only question is how far. A third of the contiguous U.S. lies within the python’s range. By 2100, at the current rate of global warming, they’re predicted to reach New York City.

Perhaps they’ll board an Amtrak from Miami, where Kimmel was recently called about a North African Rock Python that had eaten a family’s Siberian Husky. When he found it, the snake “straight up attacked me,” he explains. “I’m usually like, ‘Pythons ain’t gonna kill nobody.’ But if the kids didn’t see it, they would’ve been wrapped the fuck up and probably killed. Prolly coulda swallowed their parents, too.”