The first python Siewe snatched was more than 10 feet long. “I caught it myself, in flip-flops,” Siewe said, noting that she found it in the middle of a Florida freeway.
She disoriented the snake by placing a pillowcase over its head and then placing the snake in the trunk of her Camry.
The largest python Siewe caught was 17 feet, 3 inches long and weighed 110 pounds.
“I jumped on her in a roadside ditch all 17 feet from her,” Siewe said. “She had the biggest snake head I’ve ever seen. That was a real showdown.”
Among those taking on Siewe at this year’s Florida Python Challenge is Dusty Crum, also a professional python hunter and the defending champion of the challenge. Crum, 42, is from Florida and last year snagged the longest python in the competition’s professional category by catching a 16-foot python. In 2016, he was part of a team of three that received top honors in the challenge, catching 33 pythons.
“A lot of it is luck, but it’s also about being in the right place at the right time,” Crum said. “It’s everyone’s game.”
Snake hunters use a variety of devices to do their job, from snake hooks to special carrying cases to an array of lights that the reptiles can spot in the dark of night.
To prepare for this year’s challenge, Crum employs his carefully curated collection of snake-trapping tech.
“When it comes to the challenge, the guns fire,” Crum said. “I try to use all my gear: small geo trackers, quadricycles. I’ve got swamp buggies, monster trucks with big tires on them. We’re outfitting these with the lights on and I’ll be able to go places that the general public can’t.”
Python hunting, said Crum and Siewe, was not for the faint of heart. Although pythons aren’t venomous, they are powerful – and have been known to bite.
“They have hundreds of teeth, and when they bite you, it’s like pinpricks,” Crum said. “The worst that can happen is if the tooth breaks off and gets stuck inside you and becomes infected.”
Siewe said she had been bitten too many times to count. “A 14-footer bit my hand. I was bitten on my butt, my calf. Luckily I didn’t get bitten on my face.”
Like Crum, Siewe says she is working to reuse parts of the pythons she catches. “I use the leather to make straps for Apple watches,” she said.
Crum and Siewe both say they are “in the process of winning” this year’s challenge.
Neither plan on getting much sleep during the competition as pythons are nocturnal, meaning the best time to hunt is late at night.
Still, they said, the real purpose of the challenge has less to do with individual victories they could achieve and much more to do with the larger cause they both fight – and hunt – say they are.
“This isn’t trophy hunting or sport hunting,” explains Crum. “This is an ecological hunt. It’s the hunt to save our environment. It is a special feeling when people fight against animals for the environment.”
No humans have been killed by pythons in the US, but many pets have, and wildlife officials fear pythons will destroy entire populations of Florida native species if not stopped. Among the mammals in the Everglades that decimate pythons: swamp rabbits, raccoons, foxes, deer, and bobcats.
“The Burmese python is one of the largest snakes in the world, reaching 20 feet in length, and because of our climate, Florida’s pythons are able to thrive by preying on our wildlife,” Kirkland said. “In some regions of Florida, up to 95% of fur animal populations have disappeared.”
The pythons even eat Florida alligators.
“Pythons are generalists,” said McKayla Spencer, Interagency’s Florida coordinator for Python management. “They eat everything.”
Pythons first appeared in the Everglades in the 1970s, likely as a result of the release of a pet snake, but populations didn’t explode until the 1990s.
At that time, Hurricane Andrew hit Florida and destroyed several python breeding facilities, among other things. Kirkland said there was no definitive evidence that the destruction of breeding farms was responsible for the explosion in Florida’s python population. “But it didn’t help,” he admitted.
There is no official estimate of how many pythons there are in Florida as they are stealthy.
“They’re very hard to find,” Spencer said. “For every python we find, there are 99 more out there.”
Spencer said pythons are increasingly appearing in people’s yards and boats as the snakes literally engulf more and more Florida territory.
This is where human hunters come in.
“Snakes and reptiles have always fascinated me, ever since I was little and my father taught me to catch fish,” Siewe said. “I thought, ‘Why isn’t this passion? [for] Puppies or kittens or something normal?’ It’s not – it’s snakes.”