Python CowboyWe join Trapper Mike on the front lines of conservation down in the Florida Everglades.
With the rain letting up, a little bit of sunshine begins to break through a sizable storm camped out over the wetlands. Mike Kimmel ushers his old dog Moose into his pickup, which still carries the stench of swamp water from their last outing. And a hundred previous outings before that. With the weather clearing, they’re heading back out into the vastness of the Florida Everglades in search of aliens that have invaded the natural wonder of this seemingly endless subtropical wilderness. We sent two members of our team to join Mike on his patrol for these alien reptiles that are wreaking havoc in the wetlands.
At nearly two million acres, Everglades National Park is one of the largest, most unique environments in the world. Made up of nine distinct habitats ranging from its famous mangrove forests to the freshwater sloughs that hold and move the water that makes a swamp…a swamp, this area is home to over 390 different native species of animals. Unfortunately, thriving among these many native species are an overwhelming number of invaders that have established a foothold and are quickly changing the balance of power in this one-of-a-kind environment. Two of these species are on Mike’s mind today as he heads out to do what he can to help reestablish environmental order, and those species are the Green Iguana and Burmese Python. They are two reptiles that have upset the natural order of things and created a conflict with the local population as well.
Throughout southern Florida, invasive reptiles have thrived and run rampant, along with the throngs of other invasive plants and animals that have established a residence in Florida recently. While some high profile lizards such as the Tegu and Nile Monitor pose a threat to the ecosystem by indiscriminately devouring huge numbers of eggs of all species, they are not the greatest reptile danger that has moved into the region by far, despite their huge size and aggressive reputation. The Green Iguana and Burmese Python are significantly more dangerous thanks to their ability to establish complete dominance over the terrain where they reside, creating natural dead zones of animal diversity. Introduced in the 1980’s as exotic pets that either escaped or were released by their owner, these reptiles have overrun the local ecosystem, causing serious and irreparable damage of all sorts.
Green Iguanas, which can grow up to five feet in length and weigh in close to 15 pounds, have invaded residential and commercial areas, causing damage to infrastructure such as sidewalks, roads, buildings, seawalls, and electrical transformers, costing millions to repair. They also spread salmonella through their plentiful droppings and take over the dwellings of other burrowing animals, pushing them out of the ecospace and posing a threat to the survival of many other animals such as the endangered Burrowing Owl and the Gopher Tortoise. To highlight how serious the problem has become, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has stated that Floridians can kill these iguanas year-round without a permit. They have been blunt in declaring war on them, stating that residence owners should “kill Green Iguanas on their own property whenever possible.” There are tens of thousands of these invaders throughout Florida, and their numbers have blossomed in the warm Florida climate with its plentiful food and limited number of natural predators.
Alongside these green invaders, the Burmese Python has become an arguably larger issue, due to their larger effect on the ecosystem and their ability to take on a host of prey animals. Though almost never seen by the local citizens, they can grow up to 20 feet or more in length and adults can weigh in at a hefty 140 pounds. Some females can even reach 400 pounds. They are also an apex predator with no enemies other than man, and they decimate small and medium-sized animal populations wherever they reside. The damage is staggering, similar to that from deforestation or toxic pollution; between 90-99% of small and medium sized animals have been wiped out by these pythons. This includes a variety of wading birds, raccoons, opossums, squirrels, bobcats, lizards, alligators and marsh rabbits When there is prey to be taken, the Burmese Python will eat.
Since large portions of the Everglades are inaccessible, it’s hard to put a number on exactly how many Green Iguanas and Burmese Pythons inhabit the area, but experts estimate that there are at least a hundred thousand of each. These numbers can grow quickly. A Green Iguana female can lay 20-70 eggs in a year. A Burmese Python can lay 50-100. This sort of explosive growth potential has prompted the FWC to put in place new programs directed at fighting the their spread and protecting the southern Florida ecosystem.
“Some of the best conservation in Florida comes from hunters. If you love the outdoors you’re going to want to protect it.”
We joined Mike, also known as Trapper Mike or Python Cowboy, on the front lines of this battle against invasive species for the future of the Everglades, and Florida’s environment itself. Mike owns and operates Martin County Trapping and Wildlife Rescue, which is one of the fifteen state-contracted python hunting organizations, and Mike is regarded as one of the most prolific trappers in the state.
Born in Martin County Florida, Trapper Mike’s love for animals was spawned as a child when his father sold his business and his family began traveling the North Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, living on a sailboat for several years. While on a boat, he began educating himself on the many fish species he encountered, catching and identifying them from books he would read. He became known as a local fish expert, and residents on the islands his family would visit sometimes came to him to identify their catches. This interest in nature evolved and blossomed into a love for reptiles and amphibians as well. When his family eventually settled back in the United States, he began breeding all sorts of them, from chameleons to snakes to poison dart frogs. His first bit of professional conservation came from volunteering with the FWC, wrestling alligators on nuisance removal calls. His love of the animals around him became his calling. Before the state officially hired python hunters, they would hold “bounty challenges,” which were events where the general population would compete in capturing as many pythons as they could. This proved to be ineffective in curbing their numbers, and it led to the creation of the official python hunting program that Mike now participates in.
Now, years later, Mike has the Martin County Trapping and Wildlife Rescue running at full speed. He specializes in hunting pythons, but will also hunt iguanas and hogs while rehabilitating animals at his wildlife ranch. His family also plays a big part in his operation; his mother acts as a guiding voice and helps his girlfriend Allie raise the rescues at the ranch. He leans on his father’s lifetime of knowledge as a businessman and a fisherman, while his brother, who works at a law firm, helps him navigate the legal waters. His family has joined him on his ranch and they have found a great balance.
Being avid hunters, conservationists and people who like to do things a little out of the ordinary, we accompanied Mike and gained a firsthand look at what it takes to combat invasive animals in the Everglades.
“People can become confused, they only see me killing, killing snakes, killing iguanas, killing hogs. But at the core of it, I do this because I love our wildlife and they’re killing our wildlife and ecosystem.”
Going on a hunt with the Python Cowboy is an experience that’s hard to replicate or imagine. Typically, he’ll head out for three to five days at a time, hunting both day and night, sleeping in the swamp. It’s not easy work at all; the animals are not interested in being found and catching a python can be a little tricky and risky. Shooting them is less than ideal since it’s hard to keep them fresh while being out for that long, and the chances of missing a shot only to have the snake escape into the water are high. Even if he did hit them, there’s always the possibility of injuring them inhumanely or ruining their hide. WHat that means is that one has to get a little dirty and capture them alive by hand. Mike does this, and will keep all the snakes alive in the back of his truck until the last day, when he will humanely euthanize them all. He will then take his haul to the homestead field station where they measure, weigh, and sex the snakes, recording the data for research. They then pay accordingly and hand the snakes back to Mike. With the snakes back at the ranch, Mike will skin them and de-flesh them, taking them to a professional tanner in Sebring, Florida, to make products from their remains, which he sells on instagram and at his educational events. All of his revenues go right back into his operation and the conservation efforts he leads.
While one of his main goals is controlling the Burmese Python population, he also runs a few different operations at his five acre wildlife ranch. Aside from the iguana and hog hunting, he spends countless hours saving and rehabilitating native animals, giving them a new home or releasing them back into the wild if possible. He will even rehabilitate some invasive species and take them on the road with him as a way to educate people. Mike also runs a program for people who can no longer take care of their pet reptiles; instead of having people just release them into the wild and adding to the problem at hand, he takes them in. Currently he has a red-tail boa, a veiled chameleon, and fifteen other snake rescues. Since the state only pays for pythons, these are all things he does for free.
“That’s why I do this as opposed to letting someone else. I go out of my way to euthanize it the most humane way and make use of the remains , honoring it.”
Over the last two years, researchers have noticed an increase in native populations due to these efforts. In the first year of operation, they estimated a capture of 60 pythons for the year; 1100 were actually captured, blowing the estimate out of the water. This doesn’t mean they can afford to scale back their efforts, though. Recognizing this progress, the South Florida Water Management District and FWC have begun pumping more resources into these conservation efforts and are looking to bring on 25 more python hunters, hoping to increase their impact. As for Mike, life has not slowed down at all as his successes and the successes of the program have piled up. With things in full swing down at the ranch, he’s also been consulting for a popular TV show and building his Youtube channel. Recently, he also captured the state program’s first active python nest, caught a potentially record-breaking 17-foot monster python, and quelled a rabies outbreak. All in just a few days’ work.
After three nights covering miles of wetlands in the dark, Mike, Moose, and his visitors from Texas emerge from the swamp, ready to unload their haul. Bringing home six snakes and an overflowing cooler full of iguanas, it’s been a successful hunt that represents another step towards returning this ecosystem back to its normal state. Next, it’s on to the skinning process and making sure nothing goes to waste. Washing off the swamp can wait for later.