Hunting Pythons with the Ladies of the Glades
The Burmese python population has exploded in South Florida, but you might be surprised to see who's out on the front lines.
For Beth Koehler and Peggy Van Gorder, this is how it works:
Three days a week they run Hair of the Dog, their dog grooming salon in St. Petersburg. Then they close up shop, pick up their camper and head down to the Everglades for three nights of hunting Burmese pythons.
Each night of the hunt, they spend hours slowly rolling along gravel back roads searching for the elusive invasive reptiles. They switch on massive lights atop their Jeep, lights that turn the night as bright as day. The humid air is filled with a subdued chorus of hoots and ribbets.
The night I rode with them, the younger, more athletic Van Gorder drove, never going more than about 6 mph. Koehler, thinner but more focused, stood with her head through the sunroof, peering ahead for any sign of a snake.
The pair, known to their fellow python hunters as “PegBeth,” achieved some statewide fame last year when they bagged the 500th python to be caught by hunters working for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. They told me they’re not doing it for the money. There’s hardly any profit in searching for the slithery invaders. The job pays $8.46 an hour plus $50 per snake, with another $25-per-foot bonus for snakes longer than 4 feet. Some nights the pair comes up empty, meaning they are basically making minimum wage.
Read about Elvis the scout snake and other initiatives funded by the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida to help eradicate invasive species like Burmese pythons from the Everglades and lionfish from Florida waters.
No, they’re doing it to try to make a difference in Florida’s environment.
“I grew up down here,” Koehler, a 60-year-old Pembroke Pines native, said from the lookout perch. “I’ve seen the changes that have taken place.”
She pointed out that the pythons—powerful constrictors that squeeze the life out of their prey—have eaten plenty of birds and deer, and nearly all the foxes, raccoons, squirrels and other small mammals that once made the Everglades region special.
“And now,” she said, “all you’re going to see are rats, gators and pythons. … That’s why they have to be taken out.”
Van Gorder, an Army brat who grew up all over the place, said they also relish the adrenaline rush of wrestling with a big, hissing snake. Once, she was bitten on the hand by a struggling python. The snake’s tooth remained lodged in her finger for months. It didn’t lessen her enthusiasm for the hunt.
“We want to get our adventure in now,” the 54-year-old said cheerfully. “I can sit on a cruise ship when I’m an old lady.”
I rode around in their back seat for six very long hours that night. We didn’t find a single python, making this a minimum wage night. When I mentioned I was disappointed at not seeing one, they opened the big, locked box behind my seat and pulled out a white bag. Inside: an 8-footer they’d caught the night before, still alive.
LADIES’ NIGHT OUT
The first Burmese python turned up on the outskirts of Everglades National Park in 1979. It measured 11-foot-9 and had been flattened by a car. Rangers made a note of the discovery but made no inquiries about where the snake came from or if there might be more.
By the late 1990s, a National Park Service biologist named Ray “Skip” Snow had begun sounding the alarm about pythons taking over the Everglades. No one took his warnings seriously because he had no proof that pythons were mating in the wild. In 2003, he finally found hatchlings, incontrovertible evidence of breeding—only to be told by the people in charge that it was now too late to stop the snakes.
Today, biologists estimate anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 pythons infest Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve and the thousands of acres of marshy public land surrounding them. To combat the continuing spread, two state agencies have hired hunters to track the snakes down one at a time and haul them out of the swamp. As of September 2019, hunters working for the agencies have caught a little over 2,500 pythons.
To the public, the face of Florida’s python hunting program is Dusty “Wildman” Crum, who once caught a python that measured 16 feet, 11 inches long. Crum, an orchid dealer in Venice, started out hunting the invasive reptiles while riding a bicycle up and down South Florida back roads.
Now he has a truck—and his own TV show. He stars in the Discovery Channel’s Guardians of the Glades. On the highly entertaining show, the folksy, thick-bearded Crum runs through the swamps barefoot, showing little apparent regard for the gators, feral hogs and venomous native snakes that also occupy the soggy terrain.
The truth is, though, Florida’s licensed python hunters come in all shapes and sizes, and from a variety of backgrounds and attitudes. Quite a few of them—some of the most successful ones, in fact—are female. And they don’t follow Crum’s approach.
“I’m not barefoot!” Van Gorder joked, showing off her boots.
Last year, a Miami TV reporter doing a story on python hunters noted that he was “quite surprised to see just who’s out in the Glades catching snakes.” The hunter he was startled by was Anne Gorden-Vega, whose LinkedIn profile describes her as a teacher at the Ceramic League of Miami and artist who specializes in hand-carved tiles, sculpture and raku firing.
What LinkedIn doesn’t mention is that the bubbly 61-year-old Floridian has caught more pythons than the 37 other hunters working for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
How has a 5-foot-10 art teacher with long gray hair managed to top all the other snake-seekers? “There are two secrets to being a successful python hunter,” she told me. “One: Getting out there. Two: Just looking. There’s no magic to it, despite what you see these guys doing on TV or online.”
Gorden-Vega grew up hiking around the Everglades, enjoying seeing all the animals. She gave it up when she became a mom, trading in her nature hikes for nine years as a soccer coach. Then one day one of her art students walked into class bragging about going out hunting pythons with one of the state’s contractors.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Gorden-Vega told me. “I thought, she doesn’t even know where the Everglades are, and now she’s going python hunting out there?’”
Gorden-Vega finagled an invitation to tag along, and found she enjoyed the nighttime snake searches.
“Monday became Ladies’ Night Out,” she said. “We would drive around on Monday nights laughing our asses off.”
She noticed, though, that these expeditions were different from the nature hikes of her youth. She saw no raccoons or foxes or any other small mammals. The pythons had eaten them. A 2012 scientific study found that between 2003 and 2011, the areas where pythons had proliferated saw a 99 percent decrease in raccoon populations, a 98 percent drop in opossums, a 94 percent drop in white-tailed deer and an 87 percent falloff for bobcats. The number for rabbits and foxes: 100 percent.
Monday became Ladies’ Night Out. We would drive around on Monday nights laughing our asses off.
— Anne Gorden-Vega
The pythons’ effect on the landscape made Gorden-Vega want to do more snake catching. She checked online and discovered the state wildlife commission was seeking to hire more snake hunters. She told her art student, a 59-year-old stay-at-home mom married to a judge who has his own TV show. They both filled out applications but figured they had zero chance of being selected. To their surprise, the wildlife commission hired both women.
“I looked at her and said, ‘They’re desperate,’” Gorden-Vega told me.
Of the 38 snake hunters the commission employs, a dozen are women. (The South Florida Water Management District did not respond to a request for information about how many women it employs as hunters.) Gorden-Vega has a big advantage over most of them. She and her husband, a service technician for AT&T and part-time charter boat captain, live about 30 miles from some prime python hunting grounds. That means she can venture out more frequently than many of the others.
She drives a 2017 Chevy Colorado ZR2 with four-wheel drive and bright LED lights on top. The truck has what she calls “68,000 python miles” on the odometer. She burns a lot of gas patrolling the levees half the night.
“My tax guy said, ‘You should really rethink this python thing,’” Gorden-Vega said. “I told him I can’t. I have to do it … I’m addicted to the adrenaline, on top of helping the Everglades. If I break even, I feel like I’m ahead.”
Sometimes Gorden-Vega goes hunting with friends or with licensed hunters from out of town. She won’t go with just anyone, though. Although they share a common goal—ridding the Everglades of these scaly intruders—not all the python hunters get along. Gorden-Vega, talking about it, just laughed, then said, “There’s more drama on the levees than you would believe!”
Sometimes, though, Gorden-Vega goes out alone, leaving her husband at home as she cruises the levees. She fills the silence by listening to audiobooks. When I asked what kind, she said, “Historical fiction, anything about Florida, murder mysteries, weird stuff. It’s fun being out in the Glades and listening to stories about the Everglades.”
Her two sons, who are in their 20s, “think I’m a badass,” she said. “It impresses their friends when they whip out a picture of Mom with a snake. They introduce me as the python hunter.”
Gorden-Vega figures her best tool for catching pythons is the element of surprise. The pythons are used to being the apex predator, so when she grabs one by the head the snake is too surprised to react. That gives her a chance to stuff it into a bag.
If it puts up a struggle, the wrestling match usally takes about 15 minutes or on the rare occasion up to an hour. She just lies down on the snake, digs in with her elbows and tries to wear the thing out. Sometimes the pythons fight back in a very messy way, peeing and pooping on her.
“We call that the sweet smell of success,” she said, “because you smell that way because you got one.”
She can’t picture herself ever quitting. “It becomes a part of you,” she explains. “You think, ‘It’s warm tonight, I’ve got to go out.’ You get an itch.”
“THIS HAS TAKEN OVER MY LIFE”
On Donna Kalil’s website, she does not call herself a python hunter. Instead she’s a “python elimination specialist.” She wears a python-skin hat. Her Ford Expedition has python-skin seat covers and a custom-made “Python Perch” on the roof. Her license plate says “SNAKER.” Once, when she gave a speech at a conference, her daughter Deanna made cookies for the audience using python eggs.
“This has taken over my life,” Kalil told me.
Kalil collected snakes and lizards as a kid. She sold Florida real estate in the 1980s. In 2017 she became the first female python hunter hired by the South Florida Water Management District. She was going to try it for three months, but the months have stretched into three years.
Now the 5-foot-10, 125-pound Kalil is one of only three people licensed to hunt pythons for both the water district and the wildlife commission, meaning she has access to land owned by both agencies.
The water district and the wildlife commission take a different approach to the python problem. Wildlife commission contractors capture the snakes and haul them to a laboratory in Davie to be examined, while water district contractors are hired just to kill the snakes, period. The two agencies say they’re going to “align and expand upon” their differing approaches but so far have not explained what that means except that they won’t let hunters work for both agencies anymore.
Listen to author Craig Pittman chat with Donna Kalil about all things python hunting in the “Welcome to Florida” podcast
Kalil believes in killing animals only if you’re going to eat them, so this has been the hardest aspect of the job. The first one she killed was a little one, just 4 ½ feet long. She shot it with a .22-caliber pistol, one bullet fired straight into the brain.
“I cried for a good long time,” she said. Even now, “I can’t look them in the eyes. And I apologize to them for what I’m about to do to them.”
Scientists have cautioned the hunters not to eat Everglades pythons because they’re full of mercury deposited in the marsh as a result of air pollution from nearby cities. But Kalil bought her own mercury testing kit so she can check each snake’s meat and make her own decision about whether it’s safe to eat.
“I’ve only had one come up positive,” she told me. “It was a 15-footer. Most of the snakes I catch are 7 to 8 feet long, so they’re only a couple of years old and they haven’t yet absorbed that much mercury.”
She’s also tried cooking the leathery eggs, finally deciding that soft-boiled is the best way: “They’re all yolk, very rich in protein.”
One nearly killed her. She was grappling with a a 7 ½-footer when her daughter called. Rather than let the call go to voicemail, Kalil tried to answer it.
“It was a silly mistake,” she told me. While Kalil’s attention was elsewhere, the snake suddenly wrapped itself around her neck. She couldn’t get the leverage to pull it loose, so she had to stagger back to her truck, where some friends were packing up their gear, and tap one on the back. Her friends got the snake off of her before she passed out.
“We bagged it, and it’s all good,” she said. I asked what would have happened if she had been by herself. She said, “If I had been by myself, hopefully I wouldn’t have answered the phone.”
Kalil hasn’t saved any other hunters, but she has rescued a couple of alligators that were losing battles with pythons. She has also caught a python that had already swallowed a gator.
Kalil has caught nearly 300 pythons so far, including more than one “mating ball” made up of multiple snakes tangled together during breeding season. The biggest python she’s caught by herself was 12 ½ feet long. The biggest one she nabbed with assistance was a 15 ½ footer.
I use a dry rub steak seasoning on it. It’s like protein bubble gum because it takes a while to chew it up.
— Donna Kalil
She enjoys taking volunteers and reporters out on a hunt. She lets them sit up top in her Python Perch, which is modeled after the tuna tower found on fishing boats. It gives her passengers an unparalleled vantage point for seeing the full landscape and looking for the telltale glimmer from the snakes’ scales.
She brings along water and granola bars—and also jerky she’s made out of python meat. “It’s very chewy,” she told me. “I use a dry rub steak seasoning on it. It’s like protein bubble gum because it takes a while to chew it up.”
Kalil has done multiple TV interviews—“ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS,” she says, ticking them off—because she wants to show viewers that python hunting is not some sort of Wild West roundup where anything goes—contrary to what some amateurs have posted on social media.
“I love snakes,” she said. “I have seen people grabbing snakes by the tail and slinging them around. I see that as harassing them. There’s no need to grab a snake by the tail.”
When she started out as the lone woman working for the water district, no one showed her the ropes, she said. “There were cliques out here that didn’t want to share information,” she said. “Their attitude was, ‘I learned the hard way, so you should have to learn the hard way too.’”
Kalil said she’s tried to take the opposite approach—not just showing new hunters the right way to catch pythons, but even recruiting people to sign up for the job. She doesn’t want them thinking it’s anything like what they’ve seen on Guardians of the Glades, she said.
“That’s why I try to get in front of the cameras so much,” she told me. “I don’t want to see a bunch of guys coming out here shooting up the Everglades because they think the only good snake is a dead snake.”
A SWAMP SISTERHOOD
One of the people Kalil helped to train is Amy Siewe (pronounced SEE-we), who says she abandoned a successful career in real estate in Indiana to move to Florida and become a python hunter.
“I have this insane passion for snakes,” she told me. “I can’t explain it.”
When she was growing up, her dad would take her to a nearby creek and teach her how to catch frogs and other small critters—including reptiles. She started keeping snakes as pets, and even began breeding them for sale while she was selling real estate.
Siewe, 43, documents her reptile encounters on her Twitter, Instagram and YouTube accounts, one of which is called “Amy’s Snake Adventures and Other Wild Escapades.”
Siewe filmed herself catching Lake Erie water snakes, and the video went viral. Soon she got a call from a reality show that was filming a python hunt, asking if she’d be interested in participating. Her reaction was: “Wait, they pay people to hunt snakes in Florida?”
She never got on TV, but the inquiry planted a seed. She hated Indiana’s bitterly cold winters. She traveled down to Florida and managed to get Kalil to take her out on a hunt. They caught a python that night.
“Right there, I was hooked,” she said. She went back to Indiana and told her fiance she had to move to Florida right away. That was at the end of January. By mid-March, she was a Florida resident, renting a room from a stranger and trying to figure out how to get hired to do what Kalil was doing. (Her fiance eventually joined her.)
“I thought, ‘OK, I’ll jump into the Everglades, the snakes will be everywhere, I’ll pull them out and everything’s good,’” she told me.
When she tried to get hired, she discovered an apparent catch-22. To become a licensed python hunter, she had to show she had experience hunting pythons. But how to do that without getting a license first? And she didn’t know which agencies were which—the wildlife commission, the water district and so forth.
I have this insane passion for snakes. I can’t explain it.
— Amy Siewe
By volunteering to ride with Kalil and help her catch snakes, Siewe picked up the necessary experience to get her license, and a job with the wildlife commission, last July. She is also an authorized agent for the National Park Service. Unlike most of the other python hunters, she lives in a condominium on the western side of the state and primarily patrols the Big Cypress National Preserve.
Learn how to help eradicate invasive species like Burmese pythons from the Everglades and lionfish from Florida waters through the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida.
She ventures out looking for pythons about four times a week, sometimes on foot, sometimes by car, sometimes by canoe. She and a partner paddle out to islands in the swamp, hop out, grab any snakes they see and then load them into the canoe to take back.
“One time I went out canoeing, we got seven pythons that day, one of them 14 feet long,” she told me. “The canoe was so low to the water we could not have put in another snake.”
In the short time that she’s been a licensed python tracker, she’s seen news stories touting new ways of looking for the elusive snakes. The state has tried having dogs sniff them out and using a new type of camera with infrared technology that would be mounted on a drone.
The problem with the dogs, she says, is that they’re at risk of being gobbled up by alligators. As for the technological advances, she says, those devices still can’t spot the pythons if they’re hidden beneath the earth.
“They burrow,” Siewe said. “A lot of their nests are undergound. You can be standing right on top of a python and not see it.” That’s why the only way to catch them is the slow, low-tech way: hiring hunters like Koehler, Van Gorder, Vega, Kalil and Siewe to search for them for hours on end, then grab them by hand and stuff them into a lockbox.
About that box, by the way: When hunters working for the wildlife commission catch pythons, they’re supposed to take them to a state laboratory in Davie. Some pythons are killed with a bolt gun and then cut open for examination. Some are injected with a microchip for tracking and turned loose so they will lead the hunters and researchers to other snakes.
At least, that’s the way it’s supposed to work. But during the coronavirus pandemic, the rules changed. The Davie lab was no longer open to visiting hunters. Instead, “we are having to euthanize our snakes and do virtual measuring and weighing with a meeting app,” said Gorden-Vega.
Snakes that come from Everglades National Park and Big Cypress have to be turned in at those parks, she said. Snakes that come from outside federal property, the hunters can keep.
“I personally have been selling them to another contractor who processes them and is selling the final leather to a designer that makes top-of-the-line handbags,” she told me. “I’m glad they’re going to good use, but I’m not that happy about having to dispatch my own snakes. … I guess we’re all learning to deal with things in ways we’re not used to. Definitely interesting times!”
SEE MORE IMAGES OF GORDEN-VEGA ON THE HUNT:
CRAIG PITTMAN is a native Floridian and award-winning journalist. He spent 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times and now writes a weekly environmental column for the Florida Phoenix. He is the author of five books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in January, is Cat Tale: The Wild, Weird Battle to Save the Florida Panther. The Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend, and he just started a podcast called “Welcome to Florida.” He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.