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Florida's 'Python Challenge' draws adrenaline junkies, eco-warriors

Jan. 17, 2012: Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, right, Ron Bergeron, second from left, of the Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service Supervisor Ranger Al Mercado, second from left, and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., left,hold a 13-foot python in the Everglades, Fla. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

The chance to traipse through Florida's Everglades in search of wild pythons up to 15 feet long has attracted nearly 700 thrill-seekers from throughout the country.

The Sunshine State is offering cash prizes in the month-long “Python Challenge,” which begins tomorrow and is aimed at helping to control the exploding population of the non-native Burmese pythons, which have devastated Florida's eco-system. Anyone is eligible for the hunt, so long as they participated in a 30 minute course and paid a $25 fee - barriers which did not deter Ron Powell..

“The truth, I’m entering out of boredom," said Powell, 58, a retired firefighter who lives in Bradenton. "I’m a 40-year-old adrenaline junkie and I just retired. You can only fish and play golf so often. I’m looking forward to being down in the glades.”

Andres Schabelman, a 28-year-old Harvard graduate living in San Francisco, is making the trip out of a desire to help Florida's ecology.

“We were motivated by helping with the sustainability of the ecosystem,” said Schabelman, who will make his way down to Florida next weekend with three-like minded friends. “We are going in with excitement, but also caution. We have been working on a plan of attack.

“I’m fairly aware of the dangers that exist in the wild," he added. "We will be doing things the proper way.”

Carli Segelson, spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which is sponsoring the contest, said cash prizes of up to $1,500 will be given to hunters who catch the largest and most pythons. The pythons that have nearly eradicated entire native species such as deer, bobcats and rabbits are believed to be traceable to abandoned pets and pythons released from a breeding facility destroyed during Hurricane Andrew in 1992. 

The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that as many as 100,000 exist in the Everglades. Although the snakes are not venomous, experts say they could potentially pose a deadly threat to small children. They kill by squeezing, then swallowing, their prey.

“Aside from the obvious goal of reducing the Burmese python population in the Everglades, we also hope to educate the public about Burmese pythons in Florida and how people can help limit the impact of this and other invasive species in Florida,” Segelson said. “We are also using the Challenge to gauge the effectiveness of using an incentive-based model as one tool to address a challenging invasive species management problem."

The online tutorial recommends that hunters use machetes to decapitate their quarry, or dispatch them with bullets.

Some critics, mainly People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, have spoken out against the hunt saying that decapitation of the snakes—which is considered a valid form of euthanization for the hunt—is borderline barbaric and sent a letter to Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission earlier this week.

"This bounty hunt is misguided in the first place, but allowing hunters to decapitate pythons—who remain alive and in agony and who will writhe for an hour even after their heads have been cut off—is despicably cruel," PETA President Ingrid E. Newkirk in a released statement. "Many of these animals were once someone's 'pets,' who have since been thrown out like garbage, and the FWC has an obligation to ensure that they don't suffer any more than they already have."

Officials for PETA urged the wildlife commission to curb the recommended method to kill pythons to “immediate destruction of the brain by gunshot or captive-bolt gun.”