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Trained Python Patrol at Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge

Python being caught

Angie De Bree uses a catch pole to catch a
reticulated python. Photo by Bill Calvert.

On March 5, 2009, staff members of Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in Boynton Beach, Florida, joined a trained group of professionals in South Florida skilled in handling large, non-native snakes. These include such dangerous snakes as reticulated and Burmese pythons, boa constrictors, and green anacondas. The Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Venom Response Unit taught various capture techniques, including the use of catch poles, Kevlar gloves, and towels for distraction. Another technique is using another person as "bait" to distract the animal. Local and national news crews filmed the action as staff members practiced the techniques to capture powerful snakes. The overall goal of the training is to have at least two trained responders at the location of a sighting within 20 minutes before a snake has the opportunity to move to another location.

Although there have been no confirmed sightings of pythons at the refuge, there are documented cases of these snakes migrating north from Everglades National Park where a breeding population is established. Due to suitable habitat at the refuge, the northernmost portion of the remaining Everglades marsh, it may be only a matter of time before these snakes are found within or near the refuge. The snakes chosen for the training were all captured in the south Florida wild.

Although not venomous, a bite from one of these powerful snakes animals is painful and incapacitating because the species' teeth point backward. Pythons are constrictors and hold their prey by biting it while simultaneously strangling and squeezing it to death before consumption. It is dangerous for even an experienced snake handler to catch a snake greater than 10 feet in length because these animals are very muscular and powerful. If a large snake were to bite and begin to constrict around the handler, it would be very difficult to remove it without help. Therefore, the policy of the Venom Response Unit is to always have back-up if the snake is over 10 feet long. Students received first hand training in the importance of that lesson as one massive snake started to constrict around Biologist, Tiffany Trent's arm. Although she was not bitten, it took three others to remove the snake: Senior Biologist Cindy Fury; Biologist Angie De Brée; and Public Use Specialist Serena Rinker.

Why are pythons in Florida? Python hatchlings are sold at swap meets and pet stores throughout the United States, costing from $20 to $85 each. They are usually only approximately 20 inches long when hatched. Within a year, they can grow to eight feet in length, require larger meals and enclosures, and create a great deal of waste. Irresponsible pet owners, who can no longer care for them because of their massive size, have been releasing the pythons into the Everglades and throughout South Florida. Some pythons also may have escaped from ill-equipped enclosures. Due to Florida's tropical climate, the snakes are able to thrive in the Everglades. Some researchers speculate that the snakes could conceivably survive in the lower third of the United States.

Python wrapping

A reticulated python wraps around Tiffany
Trent's arm.Cindy Fury is helping her remove
it, and Serena Rinker is coming to help.
Photo by Bill Calvert

Stomach contents of captured pythons have included the federally endangered Key Largo woodrat, white-tailed deer, wading birds including the endangered wood stork, even alligators along with every mammal found in the Everglades with the exception of the Florida Panther. These invasive snakes are listed as Reptiles of Concern in Florida because they disrupt the natural ecosystem by eating many kinds of Florida's native animals and migratory birds. They also may out-compete many of Florida's native species for food sources and habitat.

Because these snakes grow to such large sizes, have such aggressive temperaments and are such prolific breeders, it is impossible to find sanctuaries and experienced handlers who are qualified and willing to take them. Because of this, once they are captured the snakes are humanely euthanized. After euthanasia, necropsies are performed on the snakes to gather information to determine the age, health and stomach contents, as well as to potentially provide information that may be helpful in capturing additional snakes in the future.

Submitted by Angela De Bree, Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, Boynton Beach, Florida