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Python hunters must humanely kill snakes: How Florida has cracked down in contests through the years

The old bridge at sunset is framed by thatch pines at Bahia State Park. (MIAMI HERALD STAFF/TNS)

A hunter shooting a gun to kill a python? Forbidden.

What about freezing the snake to kill it? Prohibited.

A python run over by a car? Not allowed.

These types of killings have happened before, though rarely. So how is someone supposed to properly kill a snake in the Python Challenge, the state-led contest that sends hunters scouring the Everglades for them each year? Details about the deaths of nearly 1,000 hunted snakes come to light in records that document the state’s enforcement efforts.

The state records, reviewed by the South Florida Sun Sentinel, illustrate the many times snakes were properly captured and killed. And they also document the fraction of snakes that weren’t. The records, which date from 2013 to 2023, also show the agencies behind the tournament have kept adjusting the rules to stamp out fraud and keep any unethical snake slashing to a minimum.

There is vigilance to ensure snakes don’t suffer. And more rules could be on tap for the next upcoming challenge.

“We take the issue of humane treatment of all animals very, very seriously,” said Mike Kirkland, a senior invasive animal biologist with the South Florida Water Management District, which operates a python contractor program and assists with the state’s Python Challenge.

Here’s a closer look at the efforts.

The contest draws people from around the world to South Florida to kill Burmese pythons for sport. The state says the competition garners crucial awareness about the harm invasive pythons are causing to the Everglades. Last year, more than 1,000 hunters participated in the event.

Financial awards are in store for contest winners, including for the novice, professional and military competitors who catch the longest snakes.

A key concern always is if the snakes are humanely euthanized, which involves “pithing,” or the manual destruction of a python’s brain to limit any pain or suffering. Reptiles differ from mammals in how they express pain or suffering, in that reptiles do not respond to it much at all, at least not in obvious ways.

“A mammal might cry out, you know, if you have a dog or cat, it hurts its paw, it might limp or it might whimper,” Kirkland said. “Just like if I have a cold, I’ll complain to my wife all day long that I don’t feel well. But reptiles seem to be a little bit more stoic, and they don’t express themselves the same way.”

For a snake to be humanely euthanized, two critical steps must be taken.

The first is to render the reptile unconscious either through a shot to the head with a weapon such as a captive bolt or air gun.

The second step is where the pithing part comes in. A tool such as a screwdriver, pick or spike is jammed into the snake’s head to smash its brain, hardly an easy process.

Pythons “are very resilient animals,” Kirkland said. “Any connected brain tissue to the spinal column could mean that the animal is still conscious. So that’s why pithing as a secondary euthanasia method is required.”

Minding the rules

Hosting the contest has led to a team-up of many entities: The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and South Florida Water Management District get assistance from the University of Florida. UF was first contracted and paid by SFWMD in 2013 to “provide science support,” said Frank Mazzotti, a UF wildlife ecology professor.

That’s because UF has “the staff and facilities and experience necessary to be the objective third-party experts for these events,” Kirkland added.

UF handles the necropsy examinations — how the python died — which “eliminates any concerns of a bias for any of the challenge participants,” Kirkland said. UF also determines metrics, such as the length of each snake captured, and from that information, contest winners are selected.

Prize determinations are conducted by the Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida with the FWC and SFWMD, based on the data collected by UF, which informs of any potential issues, an FWC spokesperson wrote in an email.

Records from the FWC and UF — obtained by the Sun Sentinel in response to a public-records request — show that a system, often color coded, is employed to flag captured pythons for a range of actions that go against the rules, such as turning in snakes that haven’t been killed properly, snakes captured and killed outside of the contest boundaries, or snakes that are not pythons at all but rather native to the Everglades, such as a salt marsh snake. Some of these actions resulted in consequences, such as competitors being eliminated from the challenge, or pythons not counting toward the total contest sum.

Snakes may be flagged with various colors “based on the reason for potential elimination of the snakes or the contestant,” the records from 2021 state.

No one color-coded flagging system is the identical, though. Each year’s contest has seen a different iteration.

In 2021, three marks were given to three snakes that were killed by a firearm, which is prohibited.

In 2020, a hunter was eliminated from the challenge for freezing snakes, which is considered an inhumane method of euthanasia.

Pythons also cannot be hit by a car as a way to kill them, and in 2023, two marks were given to snakes that had been hit by a car — a “roadkill snake,” as the records note — and they were not included in the total python count.

“There’s been an evolution of the color schemes,” Mazzotti said. “There’s been an evolution of concerns over participant behavior. We’ve tried to get better every year.”

Documenting concerns

The state records highlight the scrutiny that dead snakes receive.

In one snake’s case in the 2023 contest, the level of its brain destruction was uncertain. Similar observations, some generating more gruesome imagery than others, were jotted down for other pythons, resulting in a range of marks, explaining why a competitor’s catch was flagged. “Skull destroyed beyond what would be expected. … Seemed a bit over the top,” one entry notes.

In 2023, of the 209 total pythons counted as being removed during the challenge, there were 40 snakes flagged, with 24 of the 40 receiving a mark for insufficient pithing.

In 2022, of the official 231 snakes removed for the challenge, about 40 of the nearly 100 that were flagged noted pithing issues.

And in 2021, of the 223 pythons counting toward the challenge, at least 40 of the more than 50 flagged snakes received notes about pithing issues or arriving to the check station still alive. Often, the observations about those pythons state they either were not pithed at all or if they were, the brain was not fully destroyed.

In 2020, a color-coded flagging system appears to exist, but it differs from the ones that succeed it. Marks were given for factors such as missing coordinates of a captured python and euthanasia by freezing.

Because the challenge did not become consecutive until 2020, the only two other challenges before then were in 2016 and 2013, when it does not appear to have color-coded systems to the same capacities as more recent years, but detailed notes about each submission and disqualifiers are still evident. And just because a snake was flagged did not mean it did not contribute to the challenge’s total python count; in most cases, it still counted toward the python tally.

The challenges’ rules, flagging systems and overall guidance have progressed throughout the years, Mazzotti said.

“There’s been a constant evolution, and as problems were recognized, we took steps to correct them,” he said.

Lessons learned

UF drafted summary reports at the conclusion of the competitions that offer a rundown on what happened and recommendations for the future.

For example, in the 2023 report, UF recommended “a detailed video demonstrating proper euthanasia techniques be made available to participants to provide a visual demonstration of humane euthanasia techniques, with particular focus on proper brain pithing.”

In 2021, UF recommended participants’ “vehicles be checked by the check station operator before entering and when exiting the approved search area to prevent snakes captured outside of the challenge time frame and hunt areas from being submitted.”

With the announcement of 2024’s challenge likely around the corner — last year’s was announced on May 24 — Mazzotti said UF and the other participating agencies will talk about the lessons learned from last year, if there are any new concerns and if regulations need to be more specific.

The goal is not to go on a disqualification spree. The challenge has been created with the intent of encouraging people to participate, Mazzotti said.

“We’re very flexible and very adaptive,” he said.

But disqualifications do still happen, especially if euthanasia standards are not met.

“It might have been in the past that individual snakes were disqualified but other entries were allowed by the same participant,” Kirkland said. “But if that was the case, it’s no longer the case. If one participant has a disqualified python because it didn’t meet the euthanasia standards as determined by the UF examiners, then that participant is disqualified from the entire event now.”

“Any disqualifications, though rare, just go to show how seriously we take the humane treatment of these invasive animals while simultaneously protecting our native wildlife.”

Serpent fraud?

Other marks throughout the years include incomplete data about where a snake was caught and when, turning in snakes still alive or turning in snakes that were captured and killed outside of the challenge.

“Say a month before the competition, you catch a 14-footer and you go, ‘Oh maybe I can win with this,’” Mazzotti said. “So you put it in the freezer.”

But for those potentially caught committing serpent fraud, the consequences could be grim. If a python contractor were to falsify information during the challenge, they could be kicked out of the challenge.

It’s unclear exactly how many python hunters or their catches have been eliminated. None of those behind the contest gave definitive figures on that aspect of enforcement.

If the hunters happen to be a part of the FWC or SFWMD’s python-elimination programs — which are efforts that run continually — they could be removed from those programs, too. SFWMD only has 50 contractor spots, and the agency gets 100 new applications every week, Kirkland said.

“If you’re going to try to cheat, per se, in any way, shape or form, that would be a very big risk to give up your privileges for one of the most coveted positions in the state,” Kirkland said.

‘I love pythons’

For those considering competing in the python challenges or a career in python hunting, SFWMD python elimination specialist Donna Kalil believes they should be free from common misconceptions about the activity.

People shouldn’t enter into this realm for money, if they think they’ll be slinging snakes every night or if they tend to be impatient. Poor vision might not be a great asset, either, she said.

Kalil, who has competed in all six python challenges and, as of Wednesday, caught 863 pythons throughout her entire career as a hunter, said she lives a nearly nocturnal life hunting pythons four nights a week because she’s an environmentalist.

“If you don’t love being out there, you have no reason to be out looking for pythons because if you’re not finding them, you’re not going to enjoy your time,” she said.

Like many other python hunters and scientists, killing the animal is Kalil’s least favorite part.

“I love pythons. They’re beautiful,” she said. “Unfortunately they don’t belong there, through no fault of their own, but they don’t belong, and they’re causing so much havoc to our native species. … It’s one python to several 100 animals that it’s going to take out.”

“It’s not an easy thing to do,” she said.


© 2024 South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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