Pythons ran amok in the Everglades until these hired guns showed up

Dusty Crum heard someone yelling the snake was in the water, but he couldn’t see it.

With only a first quarter moon lighting the tangled Everglades, Crum dove in blindly. He grappled with the nearly 17-foot cord of muscle, wrapping his legs around its slick scales. When it began slipping away, only one option remained to keep his prize. He bit down on the python’s tail and held on.

Crum’s nickname, after all, is “Wildman.”

The 37-year-old, who hunts barefoot, may be one of the more eccentric bounty hunters roaming South Florida these days in an effort to rid the Everglades of the invasive and voracious Burmese python.

WATCH: Epic battle between python and alligator caught on video.

The cadre of hired killers — a blend of eco-warriors, swamp scamps and a former political activist — began their landmark mission in March, earning minimum wage as contract workers, plus bonuses based on snake size.

They have killed 788 snakes as of Wednesday, including females with dozens of eggs, and one massive 17-footer that weighed 130 pounds.

“This is a historic effort,” said Crum, who lives in Myakka City east of Sarasota and deals in orchids when he’s not hunting pythons. “We’re out there at least a few days a week putting it to them.”

The program began as an experiment by the South Florida Water Management District. It was set up with a $175,000-budget and a sunset date of June 1. When money remained at the scheduled end date, it was extended, and then extended again with another $125,000 approved this month by the district’s board. The Dec. 14 vote also expanded the program to Palm Beach County.

Related: Missing man found in python.

It is the most successful python removal initiative Florida has tried, said University of Florida wildlife ecology professor Frank Mazotti, and not just because of the numbers of snakes removed.

A clutch of celebrity tourists and politicians have joined in hunts, ginning up a South Florida sensation that has gained international interest.

“I think putting boots on the ground, and the right boots on the ground, has been part of the success,” Mazotti said about the program and the 50 hunters hired by the district. “But one of the best things is the attention it has brought to the problem.”

In July, Emmy-nominated chef Gordon Ramsay was on a hunt that netted three pythons in western Miami-Dade County. He cooked up the catch on a levee near where the snakes were found for his TV series “The F Word with Gordon Ramsay.”

Crum and fellow python hunter Bill Booth took legendary rocker Ozzy Osbourne and his son Jack on a summer snake hunt for the show “Ozzy & Jack’s World Detour.” The senior Osbourne’s recollection of the excursion in a Rolling Stone article is laced with characteristic obscenities, but the so-called Prince of Darkness said he didn’t think it was “very cool” to be in a boat surrounded by snakes and alligators, and that it was not his “cup of tea.”

Florida Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera; U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney, R-Naples; and state Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, also have gone on python safaris.

WEATHER LOVERS: Be in the know with our weekly weather newsletters.

Previous efforts to contain or reduce the python population in the Everglades have included a wide array of techniques, including implanting female snakes with trackers, hiring snake hunters from the Irula tribe in India, training snake-sniffing dogs and holding python-hunting contests. In 2016, more than 1,000 people from 29 states registered for the state’s Python Challenge, which netted 106 snakes.

A team led by Booth, which included Crum, won 2016’s grand prize of $5,000. Pythons are typically killed with a .22-caliber gunshot to the head, or by inserting a sharp object into the brain.

“We don’t want the snake to suffer,” Crum said. “It’s not their fault they are in the situation they are in.”

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, PETA, has raised concern over the methods used to kill the pythons. In a Dec. 19 letter to the water management district and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, it said a video online shows a snake that got shot in the head and neck. 

 “A python should never be shot in the neck since it’s imperative that the animal’s brain be destroyed immediately to avoid prolonged suffering,” wrote Lori Kettler, deputy general counsel for PETA. 

 PETA also said in the letter that putting a bounty on an invasive species thwarts eradication efforts because it adds value to the species, thus encouraging its continuation for economic gain.

There is no good estimate on the python population in the Everglades, Mazotti said. But there are “a lot” and they have a diet of everything from rodents and birds to alligators and deer.

“Every python removed from the wild is one less snake that is preying upon and competing with our native wildlife,” said Kristen Sommers, who leads the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Wildlife Impact Management section.

Check The Palm Beach Post’s live radar.

A native to Asia, the Burmese python is considered one of the largest snakes in the world. FWC’s website says it was likely introduced into the Everglades by accident or intentional releases by pet owners. While not venomous, “the giant constrictors have thrived, assuming a top position on the food web.”

FWC launched a similar python program in April with 21 contractors working on public lands managed by the commission in South Florida. FWC contractors have removed 43 pythons, Sommers said.

“Your heart will be pumping when you’re done, that’s for sure,” said Jason Leon, a python hunter with the district who bagged a 17-foot snake this month that earned him a $375 prize.

Leon, 28, also holds the state record for the longest python caught for a snake he killed in 2013. It was 18-feet, 8-inches long, and weighed 128 pounds. The Miami-native works two day jobs and hunts pythons at night.

“I love being out there. It gives me peace of mind. You hear the frogs, enjoy the wildlife and catch pythons,” he said. “And we are helping the environment.”

If you haven’t yet, join Kim on Facebook Instagram and Twitter .

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Weather

Honda Classic weekend forecast
Honda Classic weekend forecast

Sunny, warm weather continues for the Honda Classic this weekend as a ridge of high pressure sits on Florida. Both Saturday and Sunday are expected to have only a 20 percent chance of showers with high temperatures in the low to mid-80s. Morning lows should linger around 70 degrees. Related: 3 things to do in Gardens: Honda Classic, Hot...
Winter isn’t over just yet, March chill in Florida forecast
Winter isn’t over just yet, March chill in Florida forecast

Florida is having one of the warmest February’s on record, with West Palm Beach’s average temperature a toasty 74.9 degrees. But Old Man Winter is making another southern sojourn with cooler temperatures expected early next month courtesy of an unusual weather pattern that also roared to life during the frigid winter of 2009-2010...
Honda Classic forecast for Friday
Honda Classic forecast for Friday

Day two of the Honda Classic will happen under mostly sunny skies with a 20 percent chance of rain and unusually warm temperatures. The persistent ridge of high pressure that has influenced Florida weather for the past several days remains in place, keeping daytime highs in Palm Beach Gardens in the low 80s. The normal high for this time...
Sunny day, but chance for morning and afternoon showers
Sunny day, but chance for morning and afternoon showers

Forecasters predict a slight chance of morning and afternoon showers in Palm Beach County. Download The Post’s WeatherPlus app Expect highs in the lower 80s, with east winds around 10 to 15 mph into the evening. Skies will be mostly sunny with a 20 percent chance of rain, according to the National Weather Service. Check for storms with our live...
“Happily, I’m an experienced boater,” man says after nearly hitting Jupiter surfers
“Happily, I’m an experienced boater,” man says after nearly hitting Jupiter surfers

A man who said he is an “experienced boater,” was tracked down by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission last month after witnesses said he nearly hit surfers in the waters off Jupiter’s Carlin Park. Pierre Esperance, 63, is facing a misdemeanor charge of reckless or careless operation of a vessel, after...
More Stories