Meet the Hunters Trying to Fix Florida’s Python Invasion
As invasive pythons choke the life out of South Florida, it's down to a loose-knit group of thrill-seeking bounty hunters to get rid of them
ANNE GORDON-VEGA notices a yellowish glint in the brush and slams on the brakes. She’s out of her Chevy Colorado pickup before I can even process what’s happening. The 62-year-old art teacher is basically operating on muscle memory as she dives into the brush with a flashlight, searching for the Burmese python she knows is there.
Gorden-Vega certainly understands more about Florida’s ecology than I do, even though I’m from here and she’s originally from Missouri. In fact, she knows more than most “herpers,” people who head out nightly into the Everglades to scan the coco plums and pond apple trees in search of invasive reptiles.
She’s also aware that she has to be careful. Pythons are constrictors that kill by biting and then wrapping tighter and tighter until their prey can no longer move its diaphragm. While there’s usually no one to hear her scream out in the swampy wilderness, she wouldn’t even be able to if she got into real trouble.
I first got in touch with Gorden-Vega through her friend Robin Haines Merrill, who took to python hunting after she suffered a traumatic injury. She apparently found it therapeutic. After having spent more than a year cooped up in a big-city apartment during the pandemic, I thought snake hunting might work for me too. Now, standing on the side of the road, staring at the 8-foot python in front of Gorden-Vega, therapeutic is the last word on my mind.
There’s no single way to bag a python; each hunter has developed and honed his or her own method. For her part, Gorden-Vega tries to grab the snake behind the head before it can react. Speed, confidence, and efficiency of movement are important. As she moves in on the snake, she does not—cannot—hesitate.
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Although she’s done this more than 200 times before, tonight’s python is partially obscured behind some brush. Gorden-Vega accidentally grabs too far back from the head, and her dirty-blond, shoulder-length hair falls forward into her face, temporarily blinding her. I watch as the snake turns around and sinks its teeth into a vein. Suddenly there’s more blood than I’ve ever seen in my life—dripping down Gorden-Vega’s arm and onto her moccasins.
Gorden-Vega calls for a snake bag to use as a tourniquet to tie off her arm and stop the bleeding, and I run to the truck. We didn’t discuss a contingency plan beforehand, which now strikes me as a mistake. I look for the bag and any sort of weapon to kill the python. I know there’s a revolver in the cab somewhere, but it’s apparently not in the glove compartment. Instead I find some antiseptic and head back out.
When I get to Gorden-Vega, I can see she’s summoning a superhuman amount of willpower. She’s holding the snake in her uninjured hand while its jaws are still latched on to the other, and I’m terrified of what will happen to both of us if she accidentally lets go. Burmese pythons have teeth like fish hooks, and jerking away from the bite could rip her skin clean off. She knows the ambush predator will eventually calm down and release her, as long as she doesn’t fight. For now, it isn’t going anywhere.
“That’s the first one I’ve seen in a month, and the son of a bitch got me,” she says. “I’m actually a little worried about this.”
Feast of Snakes
In the fall of 1979, a man named Jim Massey sped down the stretch of highway that serves as the entrance to the Everglades. He saw something that made him stop in his tracks. Tamiami Trail is unfenced, so seeing roadkill there was not unusual by itself, but here was a large dead snake more than 11 feet long. Massey, a law enforcement officer for the local national park, thought the beast had broken out of one of the area’s famous tourist attractions. But by the time he logged what would become the first possible “Burm” sighting in the area, he was ready to emphatically dispel that notion. “Not,” he ominously underlined on an official report otherwise written in neat cursive, “an escaped snake from Everglades Safari.” Massey kept the skin as a memento.
There’s still a lot we don’t know about how pythons got to South Florida. Although a popular theory states that Hurricane Andrew destroyed a large breeding facility in 1992, releasing tons of snakes into the wild, no one seems to know the name of it or where it was. Most likely, individual pet owners released their snakes into the glades when they got too big, and those pets multiplied into tens or even hundreds of thousands of animals in the ensuing years. Death by a thousand cuts.
People who have never lived in Florida might be surprised by how common python ownership is there. Growing up, I knew plenty of folks who had them. Even on my way here I sat next to a married couple in the airport who casually mentioned that they used to own a Burm—and let it go—back in the ’90s. Florida also has African snails, Oriental fruit flies, and Cuban tree frogs. “It’s the invasive species capital of the world,” as Gorden-Vega puts it. And that’s not even counting the snowbirds who come down to Broward County from Canada and buy up the local real estate, or the retirees of the Villages, up near Ocala, who are plowing through the state’s oak hammocks to build more suburban sprawl. Whether you’re a person or an animal, to live in the Sunshine State is common; to be from there is increasingly rare.
In the decades since Massey found that snake, more than 5,000 pythons have been removed from the Everglades. And while they very rarely swallow people (it has happened at least twice in Indonesia), they’ve eaten practically everything else in the area. A widely cited 2012 study showed that rabbits and foxes no longer exist in some parts of South Florida. Raccoons are basically gone too; their population at the time had declined by more than 99 percent.
In response, the state started two python elimination programs—one run by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and the other by the South Florida Water Management District. In 2017, they hired 25 people apiece and paid them minimum wage to prowl for snakes, with additional money given out based on the length or sex of the animals caught.
The programs have helped to remove thousands of snakes, but now, Governor Ron DeSantis has doubled down. He’s put twice the number of contractors on the state payroll and has gotten experimental. In December 2020, a black Labrador and a point setter became the first members of the newly minted FWC Detector Dog Team. And a new law passed in June will allow state agencies to use drones in the fight against pythons. There are also some ideas being batted around that sound straight out of science fiction, like genetically altering captured male pythons to produce only male offspring, then releasing them back into the wild.
Full eradication is probably a fool’s errand given that a female python can lay between 50 and 100 eggs at one time, but until all these new programs kick in, the contractors are the only thing keeping the python population under a semblance of control.
Some feel that making use of the dead pythons is the key to eradicating them. In other words, if they could be eaten like other wild game, people would have more incentive to hunt them. One private contractor named Donna Kalil advocates eating the invasive snakes. She puts python meat in stir-fries and uses the snake’s all-yolk eggs for cookies. But others are quick to admit that the prospect of eating a python is less than appealing. Perhaps it’s no surprise, given that pythons are mostly made of reconstituted rats and birds these days.
Gorden-Vega, for her part, has a friend who once took a snake to a Thai place he liked and asked the cooks to fry it up. No matter how much spice they threw in, they couldn’t pull it off.
The Florida Department of Health would love for pythons to have food value. It’s in the process of a study that should be finished within the next six to 12 months, but the preliminary results aren’t good. The snake’s mercury levels are seemingly way too high. “As for Donna Kalil, she’s welcome to eat them, but I keep warning her not to,” says Michael Kirkland, a biologist at the South Florida Water Management District.
But even if the state figures out a way to make python meat safe, it’s unclear how it would convince the masses to eat the sinewy flesh. (Beef: It’s what’s for dinner. Pork: The other white meat. Python: It’s technically safe to eat in moderation?) “It’s not what we want to hear, obviously,” says Kirkland. “Putting lionfish on menus in southern Florida has contributed to their removal. The only good news is that [python] hides can be used to make nice products. The carcasses are being used to the highest degree possible. So, though we can’t eat them, we are trying to utilize them and have them not go to waste.”
I get bitten on day three of my python-hunting adventure—but it’s by an enormous trove of bloodsucking insects instead of an invasive snake. I’m out on the Tamiami Trail, where python hunters Ryan Ausburn and Kevin Pavlidis agreed to meet me. I get there early and hop out of my Prius to enjoy the sunset. This is a mistake. When I get back into the car, there are at least 50 mosquitoes lurking inside. I spend an absolutely horrible half-hour speeding back and forth with the windows down, trying to suck them out of the vehicle. I may be from Florida, but I’m never going to get used to just how many bite-y things there are out in the Everglades.
The hunters finally show up at about a quarter to 10 p.m. There’s no mistaking them, either. They’re piloting a vehicle with an enormous tuna tower bolted on top—a perch for better spotting pythons. The license plate spells out “Snakeaholic,” and there’s a bumper sticker on the back that reads, “Awesome Prius, Said No One Ever.” I hope the darkness obscures my car.
We exchange introductions, and I quickly learn that the two are an unlikely match—Pavlidis is a 24-year-old, endlessly upbeat former college cheerleader from Long Island, and Ausburn, 40, is a Miami-bred metalhead obsessed with the macabre. But together they are a force to be reckoned with. “We got the reputation for being arrogant, but we’re probably the top-producing contractors in the program,” says Pavlidis.
We head out together onto the same levee where Gorden-Vega got tagged. It’s considered the current hotspot for herping, and we even pass Kalil the python eater on her way out. Pavlidis stops to chat with his old mentor before we get back on the road, which for him means climbing up onto the tuna tower and shining a floodlight into the brush as Ausburn mans the wheel. Ausburn has experience in this regard, having formerly run a business driving corpses from hospitals to funeral homes. The levees are bumpy and require a degree of finesse to traverse without making your partner stumble and fall from up high. Thus, driving is considered an underrated skill in the herper world.
Python hunting can be very, very boring—think of it as the world’s most frustrating Magic Eye puzzle. Melissa Clark, who tracks invasive species for the University of Florida, told me that the odds of finding a snake—even if you’re standing almost on top of it—are about one in 100. You’re basically squinting into the darkness for hours on end and trying desperately to convince yourself that something out there is moving. Holding on to the rail of the tuna tower is exhausting, as is holding one of those heavy lights. But Pavlidis never loses his energy or his enthusiasm. When our photographer finally spots something at almost 4 a.m., Pavlidis jumps off the tuna tower like the parkour athlete he is and marvels, “He’s beautiful!” The tiny 5-footer is sitting in plain sight on the side of the road. Pavlidis quickly pins its head and holds it up for everyone to see. When he turns to show us the snake, pure joy emanates from his face. I guess the license plate that reads “Snakeaholic” is accurate after all, I think as he bags the python and we head back toward the levee’s entrance.
Everyone is exhausted after the hunt. But I catch up with Ausburn and Pavlidis the next day, this time at their house in Fort Lauderdale, where they flesh out the pythons and pickle their skins. The two roommates try to warn visitors before they even let them come inside. There’s yellow police tape over the front door that reads “Caution: Badass Python Hunters!” But that sort of undersells the experience. When I enter a tiled hallway, five live snakes are sitting on the floor in bags. Tanned skins cover every surface, including a pool table, terrarium, and bookshelf. An open tank of flesh-eating beetles rests near the kitchen. And there’s what’s left of a human foot that Ausburn got on Facebook. The aesthetic of their shared home is best described as Rob Zombie–esque. “One of our strategies is to keep so many taxidermied things around the house that if someone attempted to rob us, they’d turn around and run,” Pavlidis jokes as he gives me a tour.
After catching a record-breaking snake—18 feet and 9 inches—last October, Ausburn and Pavlidis have been trying to parlay their fame into two businesses. Ausburn sells high-quality purses, wallets, and soap under the handle @feel_the_burm_. Meanwhile, Pavlidis is a
talented wildlife photographer and social media influencer who goes by @snakeaholic online. Each hustle, while different, makes a lot of economic sense: The pay for python hunting is such that one needs to supplement it in order to pay rent.
It used to be that the contractors would have to take their catches to a weigh station and have an FWC official measure and sex the snakes. Then the official would dispatch—shoot—them. But the rules changed during the pandemic so that the contractors had to do the dirty work themselves. For people like Ausburn who don’t have a squeamish bone in their bodies, it’s a blessing in disguise.
He explains how it all works while standing on his back patio: The snakes are dispatched with a pellet gun (or a Ruger 10/22 Charger if they are over 11 feet long) and then put on ice. Eventually they are sliced right up the belly, and the skin is clamped onto a metal workbench. They are fleshed out and placed in 50-gallon containers filled with a vinegar solution. Ausburn and Pavlidis are so prolific in the field that there is an enormous backlog of skins at times. As Ausburn jostles one of the containers during his demonstration, it breaks, leaking a fishy-smelling pickle juice all over the concrete. The skins have to be placed in something else quickly, or else they’ll be no good.
Ausburn goes to look for a suitable receptacle, and Pavlidis keeps right on scraping the meat out of a giant, glistening skin. It’s a wonder he’s even awake. Last night we were out hunting until 4 a.m., and he was up three hours later for a scuba certification course. Then he had to pick up their truck from the mechanic. “It got full of vegetation from driving out on the levees,” he says. This isn’t even unusual—most days he’s wrestling alligators at Everglades Holiday Park before switching right to snakes in the evening.
Some contractors have their own television shows, the most famous of which is probably Guardians of the Glades on Discovery Channel. There’s also a Swamp People spin-off called Swamp People: Serpent Invasion that airs on History. But the state has created obstacles for independent creators like Pavlidis. The FWC, for instance, won’t let contractors monetize their YouTube footage. “I’m holding back my best content until I can get that rule changed,” he says. He knows he can reach a ton of people on something like TikTok in the meantime, but there isn’t a lot of room to educate people on a platform that specifically appeals to those with short attention spans.
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Pavlidis and the dudes on TV aren’t the only ones out there trying to make money by being filmed with the pythons. The bachelors have learned to carefully vet whoever asks to be taken on a hunt. Ausburn recalls a stripper who, it turned out, wanted to take nudes with the phallic-looking animals. “At the end of the day, I’m contracted by the state, and I’m trying to be professional,” he says. “I’m not trying to do anything to screw this up.”
Their jobs—with their nocturnal, nonstop schedule and emphasis on blood and guts—put them out of step with much of mainstream society. Pavlidis, who is a straight-edge vegan, is a particular anomaly. The need to supplement their income means they have time for basically nothing else. But that’s OK. Dealing with snakes is all they really want to do anyway. “Most people don’t do interesting things,” Pavlidis says. “I get sick of people taking selfies at the bar. I was over that phase by my second year of college.”
Ausburn dumps the leaking container of snake hides into an enormous oil drum while Pavlidis picks eyeballs out of the skulls he’s just cleaned. When the time comes, the skins will be dried, oiled, and made into art pieces. The whole process will take about seven days, and Ausburn will charge about $190 for a purse. The handbag will be shipped somewhere in the continental U.S.; the bags and bags of entrails this process generates each week will end up on the sidewalk with the rest of the suburban trash.
The python’s broken-off tooth is still lodged in Gorden-Vega’s hand when I catch up with her the next night. But she’s back at it with a teeny-tiny Band-Aid over her wound. It doesn’t hurt that bad, she says, and the swelling went down with some ibuprofen. After the snake was released, she tied off her arm with the snake bag and kept hunting for pythons on her way back home. Tonight we’re near the south end of Lake Okeechobee—closer to the center of the state—where the land is so flat we can see five different lightning storms on the horizon.
The sun is about to set, and mammatus clouds that look like giant cotton balls dot the sherbet skies. Though the setting is more beautiful than out on the levee system, Gorden-Vega is less familiar with how to navigate it.
The snakes she’s seeking are new to this place too. It was too cold for them to venture this far north just a few years ago. In 2010, temperatures dropped to about 14 degrees for two days. Scientists believe the snakes that survived are the ones most adaptable to cold weather—and that they then bred with each other, creating supersnakes.
This area has not seen the level of devastation that other parts of the Everglades have, which means there are mammals among the sawgrass and willows that can still be saved. Plus, Gorden-Vega speculates, given that the pythons here might actually have something to eat, she could find a monster full of deer hooves and bobcat tails. “If I see a python, I’m not thinking about anything but jumping on it,” she says.
There are also financial incentives to her being here. All told, Gorden-Vega pocketed only about $200 for the 8-footer that bit her earlier in the week; had she found nothing, she would have been driving around for hours at her own expense. Although the FWC normally pays $8 an hour, it’s offering folks almost twice that to venture up state Road 27—think of it as surge pricing for the Gladesmen gig economy. The extra cash is good for those who don’t or can’t have a side hustle like making handbags or appearing on television.
Not that Gorden-Vega is in this for money or fame. Her accountant has been begging her for years to pick something—anything—else to do with her time. But she doesn’t want her personal life publicized. The ceramics artist just likes to be out where things feel “snakey,” though she’s pressed to expound on what that adjective means. It’s just an inexplicable feeling, of which herpers have many. The Everglades are a puzzle she’s addicted to solving. And she’s OK maybe coming home empty-handed if it might help cut pythons off as they move north.
“It sickens me what’s happened to our beautiful South Florida,” she says. “What are we gonna have here? It’s gonna be like Jurassic Park with all the reptiles.”
We spot some rabbits—potential snake prey—but the only serpent we manage to see is a glossy, aquatic crayfish snake that darts into the middle of the road. Nothing in the way of pythons. The vegetation here is totally different, and it’s more difficult to focus our eyes than before. This might be for the best. We shine a headlight into the greenery and observe what seems like millions of spider eyes staring back. It doesn’t make the idea of wading in there very appealing.
Eventually Gorden-Vega gets turned around. She heads back toward state Road 27 and we see two headlights in the distance. Out on the levees, it’s common to run into another contractor. But here, less so. She’s curious and a little concerned about who followed us in.
It turns out to be an FWC officer, who’s clearly happy to have someone to talk to. He wants to share what happened with the road-stretcher he came across the other week: He ran it over, but that big ol’ python still slithered away—which tells Gorden-Vega that her suspicions are correct. There are monsters out here waiting to be found by anyone bold enough to find them. And she will.
“Someone’s paying me to come out here?” Gorden-Vega asks rhetorically as she puts the car back in drive. “That’s the best gig on Earth.” She’s incredulous at her luck as we turn our flashlights back on. As slow as tonight is, the season is just about to heat up.
This story originally ran in the Danger Issue of Field & Stream. Read more F&S+ stories.