A program to eradicate invasive pythons from Florida's Everglades began Friday with a slithering success: Trappers caught a nearly 10-footer within about an hour of setting out, a shock to even the experts.
"It surprised us," said Shawn Heflick, a herpetologist who helped capture the snake Friday. "If you would have told me yesterday I was going to go out there today and that quickly find one, I would have called you a liar."
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission announced just this week the state would allow a few permitted snake experts to begin hunting, trapping and killing the nonnative pythons in an effort to eradicate them from hundreds of thousands of acres in South Florida.
Gov. Charlie Crist had asked for the program two weeks after a central Florida child was strangled in her bed by a pet python that escaped its enclosure.
The number of pythons in South Florida and throughout Everglades National Park has exploded in the past decade to potentially tens of thousands, though wildlife officials aren't sure exactly how many are slinking around South Florida. Scientists believe pet owners have freed their snakes into the wild once they became too big to keep. They also think some Burmese pythons may have escaped in 1992 from pet shops battered by Hurricane Andrew and have been reproducing ever since.
Officials say the constrictors can produce up to 100 eggs at a time.
News conference anything but routine
The FWC held a news conference in the Everglades on Friday morning, explaining to anxious reporters that it would be highly unlikely to catch a glimpse of the giant snakes.
Then they climbed aboard several airboats and headed to a hunting camp on a tree island in the wetlands about 30 miles west of downtown Fort Lauderdale.
"We wanted to show everyone the habitat," said FWC spokeswoman Pat Behnke.
The reporters saw more than habitat: They witnessed the first capture in the state's fledgling python hunt program.
"We're walking along a boardwalk and one of the experts looks down, and there's a python!" Behnke said.
One of the experts spotted it slithering from a dense cover area. Heflick, along with another trapper, "jumped on it and hauled it out."
After measuring the snake and collecting data, the trappers severed its brain from its spinal column, he said.
Pythons wrecking nature's balance
Pythons have no natural predators in Florida, so their populations grow unchecked as they feed on birds, small rodents and other native species, disrupting the ecosystem's natural balance.
The first phase of the hunting program will last several months. Depending on the results, officials may license more trappers.
Earlier this week, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, both from Florida, sought the federal government's blessing for python hunts in the Everglades.
"One down, 99,999 to go," Nelson said Friday after hearing of the python capture.
Nelson also wants Congress to ban importing the snakes.
On Thursday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would expand existing programs and may provide additional funding to eliminate the snakes from the Everglades.
Experts in Everglades National Park have been tracking and capturing pythons for several years. Hundreds have been removed, said park biologist David Hallac.
"Once these snakes are out in the open Everglades, they're very hard to find," Hallac said. "It's a big challenge for Everglades National Park, where we have a million acres of potential habitat."