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.

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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.

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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.”

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