KILLERS OF SERPENTS – THE PYTHON CHALLENGE IS THE ONLY THING KEEPING THE EVERGLADES FROM BECOMING A TWO-MILLION-ACRE SNAKE PIT
On July 1, 2009, a pet Burmese python in Oxford, Florida, escaped from its terrarium, slithered into the crib of a two-year-old girl, and strangled her to death. The snake, named Gypsy, was eight and a half feet long, weighed 13 pounds, and had not been fed in a month. The child’s mother and her boyfriend—who had six prior felonies—were each sentenced to 12 years in prison for third-degree murder, manslaughter, and child neglect.
The incident was Florida’s first known case of a nonvenomous constrictor killing a child, and it set off a media frenzy. In stepped a tattooed Florida wildlife rescue expert named Justin Matthews. About a month after the girl’s death, Justin made national news when he captured a 14-foot Burmese python in a culvert outside a Sweetbay Supermarket near his Manatee County home. He identified the snake as an escaped pet and scolded its owner for not having a radio-transmission device implanted in the animal, as required by law. He named the snake Sweetie, after the Sweetbay chain. Local news outlets declared him a hero.
But later that summer, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) discovered that Justin had actually purchased the animal at a reptile supply store and staged the capture. He made a public apology, insisting that he had simply been trying to demonstrate the dangers of keeping pythons as pets. “I did it for wildlife education,” he told the Tampa Bay Times. But Justin was quickly written off as a loose-cannon redneck seeking personal glory and publicity for his rescue business and faded from public view.
Now, more than three years later, Justin, a rangy 50-year-old with a beard and a Pall Mall-induced rasp, is walking through Big Cypress National Preserve—a 720,000-acre patch of cypress marsh in the northern part of the Florida Everglades. His mission is to kill Burmese pythons, which can grow as long as 20 feet. He is one of 1,400 people who have signed up to hunt, shoot, and decapitate as many of the snakes as they can in a month as part of Florida’s first-ever Python Challenge.
Many media outlets have described the 2013 Python Challenge as a “bounty hunt.” But the contest’s chief organizer, Frank Mazzotti, a professor of Wildlife Ecology at the University of Florida, prefers to call it an “incentive-based market solution.” Participants compete in two separate divisions: one for general competitors, another for year-round permit holders. The winners receive cash prizes for kills—$1,000 for the longest, $1,500 for the most.