'I Begin to Wonder Who Was Holding Whom': ABC News' Matt Gutman Learns How to Grab a Python in the Everglades

Hunting for Giant PythonsPlayABCNews.com
WATCH Hunting for Giant Pythons

The python hunter chuckles and says "hold this," handing me the tail of a 9-foot-long Burmese python he'd spent the last few minutes ticking off.

I do as I'm told, knowing the cameras are rolling and that I'm with a bunch of guys so macho they don't even wear bug spray in the Florida Everglades, which has only recently become a garden of Eden for pythons, but has always been skeeter heaven (I, of course, had applied liberally).

The end of the tail curves around my clenched fist... and at this point, sweating, I begin to wonder who was holding whom.

From a few feet away Greg Graziano, one of the three python hunters we're doing a story about for "Nightline," says: "and I gotta say I've seen a few people be able to do this, but if you do get bit, freeze. Don't jerk, don't pull. You pull, those teeth angle backwards," and break off in the skin.


Graziano, Shawn Heflick -- who only wears shorts in the bug-infested, sawgrass-carpeted Everglades -- and Mike Cole are the stars of National Geographic's Friday night show, "Python Hunters." They've grown up with pythons, become python gods of sorts, breeding psychedelically colored versions of them -- some of which sell for $50,000 each.

When Hurricane Andrew, a powerful Category 5 storm, ripped through South Florida in 1992, it destroyed a huge python hatchery. The storm flung the hatchlings in their dishes like Frisbees. Voila, a generation later an estimated 100,000 non-native pythons live where they shouldn't: in the Everglades.

And I am holding one of them.

The guys, enjoying every second of this, tell me to keep backing up, pulling the snake's tail and the snake with me. "Nightline" producer and New Zealand native, Bartley Price, a graduate of almost every war and conflict and every sizeable natural disaster the past quarter century, is also with me. But the 6-foot-4 Kiwi is terrified of snakes. Something he waits to explain until the drive down to the Everglades, "you see, there aren't any snakes in New Zealand," he says to me, "plus a Serbian warlord once dumped a snake in my lap to scare me," since then...big guy, big phobia.

"Yeah, you see the arrow?" says Greg Graziano, referring to a blotch of scaly color on the back of the killer snake's head. "That's where your hand wants to be: right at those jaws."

Now Shawn Heflick pipes up, "High up on it. Because otherwise, he's so flexible in the jaws he'll be able to snap at you."

I keep backing up... away from those flexible jaws. Deep breath. Communicate to arm that it must not fear... And GRAB! Overwhelmed with joy that I have not been bitten or eaten, the snake is firmly in my grasp.

The critter in my hand starts coiling around it. Pythons are constrictors, they bite and it hurts, but they produce no venom and rarely, if ever, attack humans. In fact, I am told they prefer flight over conflict. But they will fight if cornered.

The snake I was holding had recently been captured in the Everglades. It was not a pet, and in fact unceremoniously peed on Graziano as soon as he took it out of its sack.

But the numbers of pythons in the Everglades have shrunk recently. Two back-to-back cold winters killed many, and perhaps, say the python hunters, there weren't that many to begin with.

Which is why they spend a lot of time stomping through woods, punking each other, trading frat-boy humor and educating the public. The guys also moonlight into lizard and gator hunting when python times are lean. They've pursued pythons for two seasons and are working on getting a third.

I finally relinquished my hold on that python, awed by its power, handing it over to Graziano. I felt somewhat cured of my snake fear... but producer Bartley Price (who also put himself into shark cages to cure his fear of sharks) had no such luck.