By Brian Vastag
The Washington Post
— MIAMI — As they bounced into the Everglades in a beat-up truck, Ruben Ramirez and George Brana overflowed with confidence.
They were in the final days of Florida's Python Challenge and had already bagged 18 of the snakes, more than one-third of the 50 or so killed during the month-long hunt.
"You're looking at the winners right here," said Ramirez, 40, pointing to his chest. "We're kicking butt," said Brana, 44.
More than 1,500 people had signed up for the state-sponsored event, the first ever to allow anyone in the nation to hunt, regardless of whether they were licensed. And Brana and Ramirez were out to bag at least one more python, for a little insurance.
They sounded more cocky than worried. Most of their competitors were a bunch of novices — "yahoos," they called them — who waded into the swamp at the start of the event and quickly got out after experiencing the back-breaking work of hunting pythons for hours a day under a hot sun in the Florida muck.
When state wildlife officials hand out the prizes Saturday morning for the biggest and most pythons caught, Brana and Ramirez boasted, the smart money is on them, two Cuban-Americans who have caught pythons and other snakes by hand since they were kids.
Whether the state was a big winner is hard to say. Estimates put the Everglades's python population at 100,000 at the most, so 50 dead snakes seems like a paltry harvest.
But supporters said that is a lot of hungry mouths removed from the swamp, where mammals have disappeared by the hundreds since the python became established.
Researchers who counted Everglades National Park mammals found that 99 percent of raccoons had vanished, along with the same amount of opossums and 88 percent of bobcats, according to a study released last year. Marsh rabbits, cottontails and foxes couldn't be found.
The data are not in from necropsies of the snakes performed at a University of Florida lab in Fort Lauderdale, so no one knows how many big females that carry an average of 50 eggs were removed, or how many males that compete to mate with them, or how many babies waiting to contribute to another generation.
Besides, critics should consider that hunting was forbidden in Everglades National Park, which comprises 40 percent of the swamp, said Frank Mazzotti, a University of Florida ecology and biology professor whose students performed the necropsies.
Only 10 percent of the remaining terrain is accessible by foot, narrowing the estimate of available snakes to 600. So harvesting more than 50 monster serpents exquisitely camouflaged in the swamp is "an incredible success," Mazzotti said.
In any case, state wildlife officials said, the goal of the hunt wasn't just bagging snakes, but also drawing attention to the havoc that pythons and other invasive species such as two large and greedy lizards — the black and white Argentine tegu and Nile monitor — as well as the Cuban tree frog, wreak upon native wildlife in the Sunshine State.
"The victory is in making people aware about invasive species," Mazzotti said. "There are almost 140 species of introduced reptiles in Florida right now, any one of them waiting to be the next python.
"We could be talking about Cuban tree frogs," he added, "but who's going to get excited about Cuban tree frogs?"
Giant slithering pythons draw cameras, but hunters caught more bird-egg and small game-eating Argentine tegus during the state's annual reptile and small game seasons for licensed hunters last year.
"There are more non-native lizards breeding in Florida than native lizards," he said. "That's nothing to be proud of."
It's unknown how the Burmese, African, Indian and other species of pythons found their way into the Everglades.
Biologists are almost certain that owners of exotic pets contributed to the nearly 140 invasive amphibians and reptiles living and breeding in the Everglades, a menace that competes with native wildlife for territory and food.
The idea of the challenge, an idea that officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service endorsed, was to make people who visit and relocate to Florida aware that releasing caged animals into an ideal climate is a terrible decision. They quickly become established.
Anyone who gets tired of raising invasive animals — or if they get too big for their cages — can give them to the state's pet amnesty program, no questions asked, said Carli Segelson, a spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
"It could be a python or a hedgehog, or a parrot, any number of animals we're dealing with," Segelson said. "They're given to qualified pet adopters who can care for them."
Pythons, which grow up to 20 feet, are tough to manage, as are green anacondas, the world's heaviest snake, also on Florida's most wanted list.
To figure out whether they are the gluttons who do in raccoons and the rest, Mazzotti is slicing up the snakes and removing eggs, sperm and guts to study what they ate. Snakes had to be dead before they reached the lab and had to be slaughtered under recommended guidelines — shoot it square in the head, or cut it clean off.
The challenge had one last purpose, which is where Ramirez and Brana come back in.
In addition to the $1,500 prize for the largest haul in two categories — hunters with and without permits — and the $1,000 award for the largest snake, the state is considering another offer — a possible job, or a stipend for the best snake removers.
It was exactly what Ramirez and Brana were hoping for as they sweated in the wild.
Brana and Ramirez wanted to prove that their outfit, Florida Python Hunters, a snake removal business, is an expert at harvesting snakes.
But on the Thursday before the end of the challenge, after five hours in the field, they were driving home empty-handed. As the raggedy Ford eased down a gravel road, Ramirez's wife, Michelle, called on a cellphone. "Did you catch anything?"
"No, nothing today. You know how hard it is," Ramirez said, exhausted after searching the edge of canals where wild alligators sunned on the banks, stepping in black muck that pulled at him like ankle weights, and pushing through brush with thorns that slapped his face. "It's not easy."
In the middle of the word "easy," Ramirez slammed the brakes and the phone flew. "Python!" he shouted.
A nine-foot snake was slithering down a stone levee toward a canal. Ramirez and Brana bolted from the truck. Weirdly, pythons usually don't move until someone reaches for them, so the guys stood for a minute taking photos.
When Ramirez got a little too close, the snake made a lightning U-turn toward woods. But Ramirez grabbed it by the tail, dragged it onto the road, stuck his tongue out, and threw up a victory sign.
"What I tell you, bro?" he shouted, gripping the python's head with one hand, high-fiving Brana with the other. "We're the best!"