November 14, 2018

Contributed
Tale of the tape. The python measured 17 feet and 5 inches.

Contributed Tale of the tape. The python measured 17 feet and 5 inches.

HOMESTEAD — One of the South Florida Water Management District’s snake hunters last week killed the largest Burmese python caught so far in the state — a 17-foot, 5-inch female weighing 120 pounds.

Homestead’s Kyle Penniston made the solo capture. It’s the third python measuring more than 17 feet captured as part of a state program that started less than two years ago.

“I was by myself and riding along the levee when I saw this massive girl in the water. I didn’t realize how big she was until I grabbed her by the head and started pulling her out,” Penniston told the Free Press. “She started wrapping me while I tried getting her up the levee, and I ended up losing my grip, and as soon as I knew it she had my hand in her mouth.

“We were both done by the time I got her up the levee.”

Penniston has been hunting for the South Florida Water Management District Python Elimination Program since its inception about 18 months ago and is one of the most effective of the program’s 25 hunters with with 235 invasive pythons eliminated.

SFWMD’s python hunters have now eliminated 1,859 Burmese pythons on district-owned land. The captured snakes would stretch a combined length of more than two miles and collectively weigh more than 11 tons, according to a SFWMD press release.

Penniston, who stands at about 5 feet, 8 inches, has the second most captures logged with SFWMD behind Miami’s Brian Hargrove, who has 257. Penniston hunts about six hours a night by himself through the Everglades, which he considers an ideal job.

“I’m blessed to be able to do this,” he said. “I love what I do.”

Penniston describes pythons as beautiful but he takes his job as a steward of the Everglades seriously. The exotic predator has got to go, he said.

“It’s not their fault they’re here. They’re just trying to survive,” he said.

Eliminating Burmese pythons is critical to preserving the Everglades. The invasive snake, which breeds and multiplies quickly and has no natural predator in the Everglades ecosystem, has decimated native populations of wildlife.

“Florida taxpayers have paid billions of dollars to restore the water quality of the Everglades which doesn’t guarantee a place for native wildlife,” the SFWMD press release says.

Penniston said the area he usually hunts is mostly devoid of wildlife.

“The pythons are eating everything out there,” he said.

Penniston was chosen from more the 1,000 applicants to patrol district lands. As an independent contractor, he’s paid minimum wage and earns an additional $50 per snake measuring up to 4 feet and $25 for each additional foot. Females with eggs net more cash.

Last week’s capture put $375 in his pocket.

Penniston hunts wide swaths of the southern Everglades on district-owned land and pointed to the C-111 levee, which passes under the 18-Mile Stretch, as a potential python hot spot.

Researchers with the University of Florida have been finding increasing numbers of pythons on the the eastern boundary of Everglades National Park, particularly around the C-111 Project Basin, as reported on its website.

Pythons in Keys

Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge Manager Jeremy Dixon reports that a 4-foot Burmese python was captured at the Ocean Reef Club on Oct. 29. It’s the 10th one found in Key Largo this year, according to Eddmaps.org.

“It was a juvenile,” he said. “Males tend to breed when they’re at least 7 feet, females a little larger.”

The refuge’s next python hunt is tentatively scheduled for 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 28. For more information or to volunteer, call Dixon at 305-451-4223 or email jeremydixon@fws.gov. The refuge headquarters is located at 10750 County Road 905.

tjava@keysnews.com