In the Florida Everglades now, it’s vets-versus-pythons, as survivors of U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wrestle with a different kind of foe: lethal Burmese pythons.
While Everglades National Park does not permit hunting, it has authorized some 30 agents--mostly private individuals--to find and capture pythons, park spokesperson Linda Friar tells ABC News. The snakes, which are not native to the park, are rapidly gobbling up small mammals, thereby reducing the number of species present, say wildlife experts.
One agent, says Friar, is Tom Rahill, 57, who six years ago founded Swamp Apes, an outfit dedicated to helping U.S. vets get over their residual war trauma by spending time in the wild. Members of the group, he tells ABC News, volunteer to collect trash and mitigate invasive species. Those species range from plants (for example, poisonwood, which Rahill likens to “poison ivy on steroids”) to animals. By far the biggest prey they capture, he says, are Burmese pythons, which now are locked in a death-struggle with native Florida alligators to see who will be king of the food chain.
Nor are the snakes content to stay put in the park.
Oscar Corral, founder and president of Explica Media, which is making a documentary, "The Python Invasion," scheduled to be released this fall, tells ABC News that in September 2013, a python slithered into West Kendall, Florida, and killed a dog.
Says Rahill, “There’s concern about what will happen if more of them get into suburban areas and attack children or pets. It’s rare, but it’s happened. These are incredibly powerful animals, up to 11 for 12 feet long. They could kill me, if I didn’t handle them right, let alone a little kid in some back yard.”
Experts estimate that some 100,000 pythons may be living in the Everglades. Last year, the state of Florida permitted a special month-long hunt, the Python Challenge, which covered not only the 2,400 square miles of the park but to other big properties managed by state agencies. Some 1,500 volunteers captured only 68 snakes.
Rahill tells ABC News that his group, since 2008, has captured 150 snakes. Its goal, he says, is to bag at least 200 next year.
Why do the Swamp Apes succeed where other hunters have failed? Rahill thinks it has to do with two things: first, his volunteers all have military training. They are, he says, aware, focused and battle-hardened, comfortable with keeping their wits even in extreme conditions. Second, he says, those who suffer from PTSD find the disorder works to their advantage. “One characteristic of PTSD is hyper-vigilance. Being vigilant is good in the Everglades.”
The men work up to python-hunting by small degrees, he says. “There’s lots of less-dangerous invasive species. We start with chameleon-hunting, then hunting tegus (lizards that feed on crocodile eggs).” Eventually, they become qualified to deal with pythons.