The first python Siewe caught was over 10 feet tall. “I caught it myself wearing flip flops,” Siewe said, noting that she found it in the middle of a Florida highway.
She disoriented the snake by placing a pillowcase over its head, then stuffed the snake into the trunk of her Camry.
The largest python caught by Siewe was 17 feet, 3 inches long and weighed 110 pounds.
“I jumped on her in the ditch on the side of the road, all 17 feet,” Siewe said. “She had the biggest snake head I’ve ever seen. It was a real power struggle.”
Among those taking on Siewe in this year’s Florida Python Challenge: fellow professional python hunter and defending challenge champion Dusty Crum. Crum, a 42-year-old Florida resident, caught the longest python in the competition’s professional category last year, catching a 16-foot python. in 2016 he was part of a three-man team that took top honors in the challenge, catching 33 pythons.
“A lot of it is luck, but it’s also about being in the right place at the right time,” Crum said. “It’s anybody’s game.”
Snake hunters use a variety of equipment to get the job done, from snake hooks to special carrying bags and an array of lights that can spot the reptiles in the dark of night.
To prepare for this year’s challenge, Crum uses his carefully curated collection of snake-catching technology.
“It’s guns blazing when it comes to the challenge,” Crum said. “I try to use all my equipment: small geotrackers, quad bikes. I have swamp buggies, monster trucks with big tires. We dress up the ones with the lights on and I’ll be able to get into places that the general public can’t.
Crum and Siewe said python hunting is not for the faint of heart. Although pythons are not venomous, they are powerful and have been known to bite.
“They have hundreds of teeth, and when they bite you, it’s like a needle stick,” Crum said. “The worst thing that can happen is when a tooth breaks off, gets stuck in you and becomes infected.
Siewe said she has been bitten too many times to count. “A 14-footer bit me in the arm. I was bitten in the ass, in the calf. Luckily I wasn’t bitten in the face.
Like Crum, Siewe says she is working to replace some of the captured pythons. “I use leather to make Apple watch bands,” she said.
Both Crum and Siewe say they “wanted to win” when it came to this year’s challenge.
Neither of you plan on sleeping much during the competition, as pythons are nocturnal, which means the best time to hunt is late at night.
Still, they say, the real purpose of the challenge has less to do with any individual victories they might win and more to do with the larger cause they both say they fight and hunt for.
“This is not a trophy or sport hunt,” Crum explains. “This is an environmental hunt. It’s a hunt to save the environment. It’s a special feeling when a man against a beast fights for the environment.
No humans have been killed by pythons in the US, but many pets have been affected, and wildlife officials fear the pythons will wipe out entire populations of Florida’s native species if they are not stopped. Among mammals in the Everglades, pythons are disappearing: swamp rabbits, raccoons, foxes, deer and bobcats.
“The Burmese python is one of the largest snakes in the world, reaching 20 feet in length, and our climate allows pythons to thrive in Florida by preying on our wildlife,” Kirkland said. “Up to 95% of fur-bearing populations have disappeared in some regions of Florida.
Pythons even eat Florida alligators.
“Pythons are generalists,” said McKayla Spencer, Florida’s interagency python management coordinator. “They’ll eat anything.”
Pythons first appeared in the Everglades in the 1970s, likely due to the release of a domestic snake, but the population did not increase until the 1990s.
Then Hurricane Andrew hit Florida, destroying, among other things, several python breeding facilities. Kirkland said there is no conclusive evidence that the destruction of breeding farms is responsible for the explosion in Florida’s python population. “But it didn’t help,” he admitted.
Due to their secretive nature, there is no official estimate of how many pythons there are in Florida.
“They’re very hard to find,” Spencer said. “For every python found, there are 99 more.
Spencer said pythons are increasingly showing up in people’s yards and boats as the snakes literally devour more of Florida’s territory.
That’s where the manhunters come in.
“From a young age, I had an obsessive fascination with snakes and reptiles, and my dad taught me how to catch fish,” Siewe said. “I thought, ‘Why isn’t this a passion?’ [for] puppies or kittens or something normal?’ It’s not – it’s snakes.