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Why Florida’s Giant Python Hunting Contest Is a Bad Idea

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Burmese python

Burmese python. Image: bobosh_t, via Flickr

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has announced that it will hold a month-long competition starting January 12, 2013,  “to see who can harvest the longest and the most Burmese pythons” from designated public lands in southern Florida. The goal is to raise awareness about the threat this invasive species poses to the Everglades ecosystem, and to generate “additional information on the python population in south Florida and enhance our research and management efforts.” Python hunting permit holders, as well as members of the general public, are invited to compete for the cash prizes of $1500 for the most pythons killed and $1000 for the longest python killed.

The Burmese python is one of the largest snakes in the world. (In August researchers at the University of Florida reported the capture of a 17.7-foot-long specimen—the biggest one ever found in the state.) And there’s good evidence that these constricting snakes, which are native to Asia, are bad news for the Everglades ecosystem. In January researchers published a paper implicating the python in the dramatic decline of raccoons, bobcats and other mammals there.

But allowing anyone over the age of 18 to register and go out and hunt giant snakes on public lands? What could possibly go wrong?

Contest rules require that all participants complete a 30-minute online training course on detecting and documenting the pythons and that they dispatch the snakes “using humane methods,” guidelines for which are available. But compare those rules to the more stringent requirements already on the books for obtaining an FWC  python removal permit, which specify that applicants must, among other things, “have experience capturing wild snakes, handling aggressive snakes and working in remote areas.”

How reliably can a novice sort Burmese pythons from native Florida snakes—some of which are venomous—in the wild after 30 minutes of preparation online? And obvious human safety concerns aside, can someone who has never handled snakes before really be counted on to kill a large constrictor humanely in the heat of the moment? Check out those euthanasia guidelines—they’re more complicated than you might think.

The Burmese python is a very real problem for Florida’s residents—humans and wildlife alike. But the 2013 Python Challenge does not seem like the wisest way to tackle it.


Kate Wong About the Author: Kate Wong is an editor and writer at Scientific American covering paleontology, archaeology and life sciences. Follow on Twitter @katewong.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. levet1066 6:13 pm 12/7/2012

    I see a Darwin award coming out of this

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  2. 2. Andrew Planet 6:26 pm 12/7/2012

    It would greatly facilitate the eradication of the Burmese python as an invasive introduced species if it were offered as food in a menu at some restaurant or other food outlet. This is also true of other introduced species worldwide and so plagued is the world by their numbers that it would engender a steady income for many from an otherwise wasted wild natural resource.

    Anyone for grey squirrel stew or roast back in England, or would you rather opt for the Canadian goose salad? The fact that these animals have only fed from wild sources of nourishment adds to their potential as items of consumption. The mere fact that they are deriving alimentation from and are present within an ecosystem must mean that they are competing with native niche species. To simply eradicate non native species without making good use of them is throwing away money.

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  3. 3. frankblank 8:26 pm 12/7/2012

    They don’t call it Floriduh for nothing.

    Re Andrew’s eat-em-up solution: Pyth-filet. Slogan: Real Americans eat furrin creepy-crawlies!

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  4. 4. kwong 8:34 pm 12/7/2012

    Andrew Planet: According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, “Burmese pythons from Everglades National Park have been found to have very high levels of mercury and may not be recommended for human consumption”

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  5. 5. RSchmidt 8:38 pm 12/7/2012

    The smart people will catch the stupid snakes and the smart snakes will catch the stupid people. That’s how things are supposed to work. Good luck to both sides!

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  6. 6. Common sentences. 11:48 pm 12/7/2012

    Yes. Let’s all whine about the poor snakes or point fingers in that this is some how an improper way of recruiting help for the purpose of dealing with an invasive and deadly species and while we’re at it, let’s also give PETA and the Humane Society a ring to get their POVs.
    It never ceases to amaze me that people enjoy dictating moral behavior to those who are not in their environments. We tell the Indians to not kill the tigers – who are eating their people. We tell the Africans to not kill the lions – who are eating their people but God forbid anything deadly enters our own backyard while our kids are playing in the grass.
    This reminds me of when one of my friends from Upstate NY shot a wolf while he was hunting deer.
    He had said, “wolves do not belong here.”
    I was angry with him, but that was until I grew older and had kids of my own. He was right of course and so is Florida.

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  7. 7. karenalcott 11:56 pm 12/7/2012

    The mercury problem is like other contaminants, a side effect of being a predator. The farther up the food chain you are the higher the concentration you cary, another good reason not to go cannibal. Still tuna and bear are safe in small doses, you just don’t want to eat them every day. But if python was to become a specialty item in upscale restaurants or a holiday treat, local hunters who know the terrain and are experienced could make a little extra income and do the local wildlife a favor. Other snakes are tasty if your careful not to dry them out; most things go better with bacon, so pythons should to. It’s all a matter of marketing.

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  8. 8. em_allways_right 12:31 am 12/8/2012

    Some people kill a few invasive snakes; Some snakes kill a few overpopulated people, just nature trying to balance out.

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  9. 9. The Tin Man 1:24 am 12/8/2012

    It is obvious that the State of Florida is not yet really serious about eliminating pythons. They are treating them no different than any other wild game animal, managing them like deer, using them as a revenue enhancer. Identifying pythons is not really a problem, the 15 ft. length should be the first clue you got one, and they are not going to be mistaken for any other native endangered species. Could hunting pythons be any more dangerous on public or park lands than on private property? And the humane kill nonsense- Who are we trying to appease here? When a python wraps itself around the neck of a small child, is it being humane? When the gator chomps down on one, or a python is run over by a car, is humanity an issue?

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  10. 10. Lost Martian 6:20 am 12/8/2012

    It is better than doing nothing.
    People complain even when someone is trying to solve a problem. And in this case the solution is obvious: chase, hunt and kill these pests.

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  11. 11. r2d2hahaha 6:53 am 12/8/2012

    “Burmese pythons from native Florida snakes—some of which are venomous…”

    What the hell? Since when were Burmese pythons venomous? Let me guess, Kate probably holds a PhD in feminine studies but claims to be an expert on reptiles. Kate, please go back to the kitchen and deep fry some snake nuggets and grab me an ice cold beer rather than worry about the scary world outside.

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  12. 12. loureiro 7:25 am 12/8/2012

    I am brazilian and I worrie about that case of yours too, because from outside we can see that out of balance of nature, telling a lot of things. For instance, all this rudness of climate moves together as a trigering thing. Let’s stay allert and not get paralized by some minor considerations that don’t want any involment. We have to antecipate things… climate change is an atrattive ground to this species. Should we close our eyes? There is nothing wrong going after a form to bringing things under control. During a season, we incentivate the capture of “jacarés” in the “Pantanal” too, because if we don’t, they will problably exterminate with the other species. Not only the snakes meat is very good ( it’s like fish), but their leather problably could be of great comercial value. This kind of view is the best way to launch the first steps to equilibrium…

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  13. 13. curmudgeon 8:23 am 12/8/2012

    “What the hell? Since when were Burmese pythons venomous? ”

    Learn to read! She clearly states that novices may find it difficult to tell the difference between a (non-venomous) python and a (venomous) native; the obvious problem with that being that they might attempt to capture a venomous species by mistake and learn of their error the hard (and possibly fatal) way.

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  14. 14. curmudgeon 8:39 am 12/8/2012

    “wolves do not belong here.”

    So it takes growing up to become an ignorant peasant then? There has never been any verified report of an attack on humans by wolves. All the scary stories are fictional, a false prop for the farming industry’s merciless eradication of wolves from their entirely natural habitats.

    The result of that, especially in Scotland, has been a vast overpopulation of prey species which has proven to be a far bigger nuisance. There are parts of Scotland where you literally can’t move for deer whose bark stripping diets have become a severe threat to both wild and cultivated forestry.

    There has long been a concerted campaign to reintroduce wolves to Scotland which would clearly be the morally and ecologically right decision but it has been continually resisted by people who, like you apparently, believe only the fairy stories when in truth the domestic dog, because of centuries of quite deliberate neoteny and juvenilisation, has far and away a longer rap sheet for injuries to children (albeit that the risk is still minor). Since I presume you are not proposing a cull of dogs any time soon, perhaps it’s time to wonder whether you junior didn’t have it right in the first place!

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  15. 15. 9:41 am 12/8/2012

    HaHa, Florida is in the South, there will be hundreds of Rednecks out hunting snakes, Not Children, Not People who don’t know what a Python look’s like, Plus they must have a hunting license.

    Contest rules require that all participants complete a 30-minute online training course on detecting and documenting the pythons!
    NOT a BAD Thing at all, life is hard, it’s harder if your Stupid.

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  16. 16. RSchmidt 10:04 am 12/8/2012

    @curmudgeon, “There has never been any verified report of an attack on humans by wolves.” actually there was one a few years ago in Alaska. But still, considering that 600 people a year are killed by deer, it’s a very low number.

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  17. 17. Finematerial 10:37 am 12/8/2012

    What’s the thesis here? Why is the contest a bad idea?

    It’s not in this article. Two implications seem to be:
    1.It’s unsafe. Yes some Darwin awards may be given out.
    2.It’s not nice to the snakes. Remind me to shed a tear later.

    The real question is does it help get rid of the snakes. Where is that addressed?

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  18. 18. Lynne_up_north 11:09 am 12/8/2012

    Wow, r2d2hahaha, you manage to completely fail your reading comprehension AND be offensively sexist while doing it. Congratulations on appearing to be stupid.

    Separately, yes, there’s a reason why torturing even a pest species to death isn’t ok. And no, the general public can’t always be trusted to make a clean kill. Similarly, not all pythons are 15 feet long — there will be a lot of smaller ones — and though probably most of the people will be able to tell the difference between pythons and native snakes, some won’t. And then you have a chance of either people dying, or endangered species dying.

    I’m not real clear on how thinking either of those things is ok makes anyone into a better human being.

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  19. 19. jkizer 11:43 am 12/8/2012

    My comments are in caps, just following the text on which the observation is offered.


    Contest rules require that all participants ————– HAVE A HUNTING LICENSE…………
    complete a 30-minute online training course on detecting and documenting ———-

    the pythons and that they dispatch the snakes “using humane methods,” ……

    guidelines for which are available. But compare those rules to the more stringent requirements already on the books for obtaining an FWC python removal permit, ————–

    which specify that applicants must, among other things, “have experience capturing wild snakes, handling aggressive snakes and working in remote areas.”
    How reliably can a novice sort Burmese pythons from native Florida snakes—some of which are venomous

    in the wild after 30 minutes of preparation online? And obvious human safety concerns aside, can someone who has never handled

    snakes before really be counted on to kill a large constrictor humanely


    in the heat of the moment

    Check out those euthanasia guidelines—they’re more complicated than you might think.


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  20. 20. RDH 11:45 am 12/8/2012

    Kill a snake “humanely”? Sure. And when stomping on a spider, do so humanely too. And cockroaches – don’t forget to treat them with respect. Then stomp on them or spray ‘em with poison.

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  21. 21. Lynne_up_north 11:56 am 12/8/2012

    jkizer, being shouty makes you look insane. It’s not that your post is insane, or that you’re all wrong, but being SHOUTY isn’t a good conversational thing. Try just using the —- to separate your own comments, or something like that.

    I think the issue is that 30 minutes online is not necessarily enough training or screening, and there is a lot of potential here for things to go wrong. Sure, for some, *possibly* most people it might be enough, but for others, it won’t (and speaking as someone with cousins who used to live in Florida, I do not over-romanticise the intelligence of the hunting public; some people with hunting licenses are pretty damn dumb). The problems won’t be evident until after the fact, when harm will already have been done, is the issue with a plan like this.

    Also, the issue of the danger pythons may pose to anything else, has no bearing at all on the issue that if you’re going to kill them (and let’s make this clear, they are a pest species posing a danger, and I think they do need to be killed) they still ought to be killed humanely. Why is it ok to cause unnecessary suffering to something you need to kill?

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  22. 22. SteveinOG 12:12 pm 12/8/2012

    How did the phythons get into the everglades? They were sold by pet stores to “exotic” pet owners, then “released” when they got too big. What idiot buys a pet that gets bigger and bigger until it kills and eats you? Obviously, the solution is hold pet store owners and pet holders responsible for their own idiocy. All “exotic” pet sellers and owners should be dragged into court and fined weekly until they remove their pets and progeny from the wild. You crap in the street, you clean it up.

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  23. 23. outsidethebox 1:15 pm 12/8/2012

    Anything done to correct a problem that is not done by the government with a governmental employee paid by taxpayers is, to most liberals, a wrong idea on the face of it. Can we ban volunteer fire departments too while we’re at it?

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  24. 24. jkizer 1:19 pm 12/8/2012

    Looked it up. Didn’t realize what shouty is and that using caps is being shouty – my apologies. I don’t often write on the web – thanks for the heads up.

    What is the web significance of the asterisks – *possibly*?

    As to the insane part – the jury is still out.

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  25. 25. Dwang 2:30 pm 12/8/2012

    While I take the author’s point that this incentive system is perhaps less than perfect, I would argue that Florida should be commended for making an attempt to address the problem in a manor based on sound economic principal. For me, the author’s argument fails in connecting the size of the incentive with the segment of the population it attracts. I don’t think a bunch of ignorant urbanites from Miami are now going to spend their weekends hunting pythons in the everglades for a narrow chance at either $1,500 or 1,000. What is more likely is that people experienced in navigating the Everglades and with some knowledge of indigenous snakes who may have been hunting prior to this incentive plan, will now shift their focus to pythons. This shift may have a positive impact, barring the one idiot who will surely make the news and get eaten by a snake or gator while drunk. But to paraphrase RSchmidt above, that’s survival of the fittest.

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  26. 26. Xopher425 2:30 pm 12/8/2012

    @r2d2hahaha – Your post really shows your ignorance. It was over the top, condescending, and insulting, too. She did say “distinguishing pythons from native species – some of which are poisonous” – meaning some of the Florida species are poisonous.

    Do try not to project your own issues on others when posting a comment, please.

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  27. 27. karenalcott 3:04 pm 12/8/2012

    As someone who lives in southern Maine and who grew up hunting and fishing; I must point out that local hunters know the terrain, recognize the local wildlife, care about the survival of local children, livestock and pets and are often motivated by financial concerns. I grew up in a home where grey squirrel, geese, ducks, deer and rabbits were an important resource. But paying a bunch of “sports” ie folks from urban areas who buy an out of state licence and tend to accidentaly shoot each other as well as children, pets and livestock, to crowed into an unfamiliar area all at once is indeed a recipe for disaster. We have a problem with too many white tails in our residential areas and have learned that the best choices are to raise the limit and expand the season for local hunters or employ professional shooters, generaly Registered Maine Guides during their slow seasons. If the meat and skins are marketed correctly, this can be done without taxpayer funding,
    As for shooting a wolf in a wilderness area because they don’t belong there, how ridiculous. I live right in town and I have had coyote, moose and black bear in my yard over the years, the moose by the way is far and away the most dangerous of the three. Like my neighbors I keep my trash out of the way, do not feed the birds until the bears are denned up for the winter and watch for signs of unusual behavior, usually caused by disease or some idiot feeding them. Problem animals need to be put down for safety’s sake, an animal surprised by some sport in his own territory is not a problem animal, the sport is.

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  28. 28. Lynne_up_north 3:48 pm 12/8/2012

    jkizer, I figured it was just unfamiliarity with convention; your posts are saner than the usual people who use all-caps. :D

    The *possibly* is just a way of emphasizing “possibly.” I know that for some people 30 minutes online is enough. Maybe it would be for most, but I’m just not sure about this part.

    And, I am concerned that a lot of the “amateur snake hunters” they get because they are making this a publicized contest will be people not very familiar with either the wildlife, snakes, or how to hunt properly. There seems very little protection against that. I think that there should be more of a vetting programme for the hunters.

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  29. 29. Scienceproofreader 6:42 pm 12/8/2012

    I’s quite innovative. i suppose a few of the wrong species may be killed but that’s fairly minor compared to the thousands of native snakes, ,mammals, amphibians etc. that these pythons would eat.

    anyways, seems like a productive action AND it’s good to involve hunters in a positive activity to help the environmnet. i don’t hunt myself but hunting will happen so best if channeled this way.

    Re a comment on wolves…never had an incident where we live or when I worked up north. wolves that know humans (here) run the other way or, if they had never encountered humans (up North), were curious and sniffed everythong then went on their way.

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  30. 30. redman134 7:46 am 12/9/2012

    I can see the positive and negative effects of this hunt. On the positive side, the $25.00 fee can be used to help support a way to solve the snake problem and allowing civillians to register and hunt these snakes will help in public awareness. On the negative side, some people will probably be injured but no more than on any other expedition, be it hunting or otherwise.

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  31. 31. Russell Seitz 3:21 pm 12/9/2012

    I am deeply shocked Sci Am should be so sexist as to keep Miss Wong indoors at the height of the deer season .

    Will none of the editors pop for her license and lend her a gun, so she can write more knowledgeably in future?

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  32. 32. ATLDave 10:53 am 12/10/2012

    This article reflects a fairly ignorant view. I’m sure Ms. Wong is well-qualified in many areas, but wildlife managment does not appear to be one of them. There are numerous animal populations that are mangaed in the United States primarily through hunting. All the same risks – possible accident, possible accidental death of non-game/non-targeted species, possible unpleasant death of individuals of game/targeted species – are all present. But there are numerous regulatory and enforcement schemes that keep those dangers to a relative minimum.

    How does Ms. Wong suppose that feral pig populations (another invasive, damaging species) are kept under control? How does Ms. Wong suppose that various migratory non-game birds survive dove or quail season each year? How does Ms. Wong suppose that white tail deer are not subjected to agonizing deaths in wire snares or from gunshot wounds to the lower digestive tracts?

    These are the same concerns that attach to the Python scheme discussed, yet ethical hunting practices and basic enforcement schemes keep these risks from outweighing the great benefits to allowing hunting. Ms. Wong presents no evidence whatsoever that what works for all other forms of hunting in the southeastern United States would not work in this instance.

    I will not comment on the snarky tone of the piece except to say that it is unbecoming to a publication of Scientific American’s prestige, even in its blog incarnation.

    In short, a little more throughtful consideration before pressing “publish” is in order. A gut-level “I don’t like this!” reaction is not a sufficient basis for informed or informative commentary. I look forward to seeing a return to SA’s usual high standards.

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  33. 33. tucanofulano 5:34 pm 12/10/2012

    Very lame piece, as most of S.A.’s are; it should not have been published unless and until the author provides a viable alternative. Nay-saying is cheap and it is un-productive. Get out of the “ivory tower” and into the arena.

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  34. 34. Grumpyoleman 9:25 pm 12/10/2012

    Deliciously Darwinian. I hope SA will keep us all posted on the progress of bubbas chasing snakes.

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  35. 35. ErnestPayne 10:03 pm 12/10/2012

    Would also help if there was federal legislation banning the import of species. Frankly 30 minutes doesn’t seem to be long enough to train Floridians (based on my wife’s family resident in the state).

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  36. 36. ATLDave 10:45 am 12/11/2012


    NO training is required in most states for dove hunters who are required to differentiate between migratory non-game species and doves in flight. Yet hunters manage to make that distinction, because there are consequences for getting it wrong. I daresay distinguishing between a python and another species of snake is no tougher than distinguishing between a fast-flying dove and, say, any of the finches.

    The authors of the post and many of the comments seem to presume a certain level of ignorance by hunters. In my experience, and in the national experience of wildlife management, that presumption is misplaced.

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  37. 37. BuckSkinMan 7:34 pm 12/12/2012

    People who are unprepared and / or inexperienced should not even go hiking in Yosemite National Park. Every year we read of these “victims” who -unaware of the dangers & unfamiliar with ways of dealing with them – die. And the best routes up Mt. Everest are littered with the corpses of those same kind of “pilgrims.” So it’s not the hunting of pythons that’s a problem: it’s the number of “newbies” out for a little “harmless” adventure.

    I hope Florida Fish and Wildlife makes it clear to those interested that there are risks – real ones- involved in hunting ANYTHING. Let the risk takers then proceed as they will – the resulting death toll from that will be no less inevitable than the toll from other “tourist activities” in our wild lands. In case no one has noticed: there’s a big surplus population of humans on this planet, too.

    I also agree with ATLDave: experienced hunters are among the safest you can find. Every year, 750,000 hunters take their high powered rifles & shotguns (and some handguns) into the wild in my state. – The resulting death toll is near zero. Six or so die of heart attacks but deaths caused by firearms are about equal. How does the news media react? They print stories about these deaths, without distinction or details and ignore the other 749,988 hunters who return home unharmed.

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  38. 38. bungay lad 4:30 pm 12/13/2012

    In regards to the comment about wolves not belonging in New York State. The wolves have been there since before European settlers arrived. They retreated from much of their range as forests were cleared. They are now back where they belong and will help to maintain healthy deer populations. Please explain when the wolves have taken a child in North America lately? The Boas in Florida are an invasive species that should have been controlled before they ever had a chance to escape. We don’t need them and other exotic species as pets.

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  39. 39. MariaPR 9:22 pm 12/14/2012

    I just want to point out that Florida’s concept has some precedent. Remember those birds we used to have, what were they called… passenger pigeons, right? If I recall, their hunting was monetized, ” Neltje Blanchan, in her book ~Birds That Hunt and Are Hunted~ documented that over a million birds were exterminated at one time from a single flock. One hunter was reputed to have personally killed “a million birds” and earned $60,000, the equivalent of $1,000,000 today.” Ref is the Wikipedia page on Passenger Pigeons.

    As we all know, those birds are *extinct* and the biggest factor was actual hunting. Not habitat change + hunting (like in the case of the Moa or Carolina Parakeet or possibly the Thylacine), but direct hunting by humans for prize money/cheap worker food/hell of it. I’ve often thought that if countries really wanted to get rid of their invasives, putting bounties on their heads would be an excellent way of doing it. Humans are damn good at wiping out animals, so why not harness that potential for a *good* cause for a change?

    Humans, by their initial actions (lazy, callous pet owner dumping their impulse-buy pet or responsible dealer who had thieves smash their rigs or a hurricane knock a wall in) put those animals there, and *Humans* should be proactive about removing them, and the government should aid that. Of course, there is cause to worry about the training being given (I think having a valid hunting license and passing a visual identification test -not glazing over a 30 minute training video- would be a better way of ensuring people know what snakes are what and that they’re also aware of the difference between a garter snake and a cottonmouth aside from “small snake, not a python”.) and weed out the people who are just there to goof off and shot at anything that moves.

    I think this idea could work, and I do not agree with the blogger that this isn’t a good idea. It may not be the *best* idea, but hell, it’s worked accidentally in the past.

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  40. 40. rodestar99 8:30 am 12/17/2012

    The writer of this article has never been in the
    everglades. I can assure you that anyone who has the
    equipment and the ability to enter this environment to
    go hunting will know how to deal with the snakes quite
    effectively. Anyone who doesn’t know their way around
    in there will not go in far nor stay there long…lol.

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  41. 41. brianboyle1 6:42 am 12/29/2012

    I predict that the vast majority of Python Hunt Contest participants will be experienced hunters and woodsman from Florida, with few novices. The Everglades is a very remote area and people coming to hunt anything here need to be prepared to camp in the puckerwillies. There are also plenty of bear, bobcat, panther and aligators to contend with in addition to poisonous snakes. Personally, I’ve never hunted pythons before, but I have captured hundreds of live snakes, many poisonous, in Florida over the last 40 years here and have hunted and camped in these woods for the last 30. Something must be done about the invasive species in Florida and this is a good start.

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  42. 42. dee68101 1:54 am 07/30/2013

    Excellent article indeed! You deserve an award for this. People need to be more educated when it comes to snakes and reptiles in general. However since this is about the snake issue, many may hate my comment but it’s how I feel. I understand over-population completely, but this is the most in-humane and morally inept thing I wish I had never heard or laid eyes on…not your article of course (the snake hunting). Does it take someone sitting in Nebraska to explain an actual “humane” way of MOVING the snakes and not killing them?
    Don’t get me wrong. I do understand the fear when they get that big. I being a snake owner myself however know that a snake is NOT going randomly, premeditate, viciously attack a human. A snakes natural reaction is protection…ie to hide. I blame the conservationist with the Everglades. I’ve been there and have SEEN them throwing food in the marshes…what does that say?

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  43. 43. rowow 9:51 am 07/31/2013

    this is the stupidest fucking article ever made, probably from a pussy fucking city bitch, nest time when you make an article dont do it on something which you have no information on, I mean you fucking said “some of these snakes are venomous” yes if they bite you you could get an infection from the mouth but thats NOT fucking venomous, completely different, next time make a article on fucking painting nails which you also probably dont know how to do, stupid fucking bitch

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