EVERGLADES — Looking for some relaxation and possibly a bit of adventure, four long-time friends went for a guy’s weekend to a secluded cabin in the Everglades on July 5. Sounds like the opening line of a horror move, right?
The men certainly had a surprise and enough adventure to make Steve Irwin jealous.
Frank Branca, Randy Murphy, Steve Cooper and Brian VanLaningham grew up together in Highlands County. They get together a few times a year at Branca’s cabin in the Everglades to catch up, swim, and enjoy the sunsets from their airboats.
One of the first chores to do upon arrival is opening up the “camp” and airing it out. The next chore was to turn the propane on for the stove. Branca headed out to the propane tank which is under the house. He froze when he heard the hiss.
“I knew right away it was and Burmese python,” Branca said. “I saw her head and could see she was sitting on a nest of eggs. I shot it with my pocket pistol.”
Branca’s “pocket pistol” is a .38 lightweight.
The four men grabbed the the snake, who was still moving, and began pulling out from under the crawl space, and it kept coming and coming and coming.
“We were wondering how long the snake was,” Branca said.
They wouldn’t have to wait long. The men wrangled her out and grabbed a measuring tape. She was 16 feet and 5 inches. That almost matched the record of 17 feet found in the Big Cypress National Preserve.
But wait, there’s more. This snake was sitting on a massive clutch of eggs and they were in different stages of hatching or hatched. The “babies were anywhere from 18-20 inches long, Branca said.
Branca and his friends decided to call a Everglades Conservationist “Alligator Ron” Bergeron, an expert on pythons, alligators and many other Everglades subjects. Bergeron was in the area filming a documentary with a working title of “Python Removal.”
Ron hopped in his airboat and had to see the giant for himself. Bergeron is fighting the nonnative snake’s presence in the Everglades. Between the men, Bergeron and an Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist, they guessed at the female’s weight.
“She was about 165 pounds,” Branca said. “Each of her teeth were an inch long and are curved back so when she bit into something, it couldn’t get away.”
The skin of the snake has drawn a lot of attention and Branca said he has had good monetary offers from Dusty Crum, from Guardians of the Glades and Bergeron.
“We are just going to take it to Sebring Custom Tanning and hang it up in camp,” Branca said. “It will be a real conversation piece.”
Branca was a bit surprised to see the python.
“This is the first python I have seen in a while, “ he said. “I have been coming to the Everglades with my dad since I was 4 years old. I have had the camp out here since I was about 20 years old.”
Branca was not worried about getting in trouble for killing the snake. The eggs were destroyed as well.
“They encourage you to shoot them on site on your land,” Branca said. “The pythons are decimating the fur-bearing species. They are wiping out opossum, raccoons, bobcats, smaller alligators and deer. They are wiping out entire bird colonies.”
Bergeron said in one of his many educational videos that if the Everglades is to be saved, the pythons need to be hunted.
According to the FWC, the average Burmese Python is 12 feet in length and there are 100,000 in Florida. The average lifespan for the snake is 20 years. Each time a female lays eggs there can be an average of 36 to about 100.
The United States Geological Survey says there are tens of thousands of pythons in the Everglades. They say eradication is almost impossible but controlling numbers and preventing their spread may be possible. The Burmese python is one of the world’s largest snakes and has no natural predators in the ‘Glades.
The problem of pythons in the Everglades has been blamed on humans, which is true to an extent. Humans have been guilty of dumping snakes in the ‘Glades when the reptiles became too large for its owner. However, Mother Nature had a part in the snake’s introduction to the Glades also. Hurricane Andrew wiped out many exotic pet stores and wildlife refuges and a python breeding facility which snakesforpets.com said let over 100 snakes loose at once.
“Severe mammal declines have been linked to Burmese Pythons,” the USGS website says.
In efforts to control the snake numbers, The Python Challenge was started in 2013 with cash prizes going to the person with the most pythons and another for the largest.
The men will probably never forget the weekend but if they do, Bergeron’s people took video evidence of it for the documentary.
For more information on pythons or hunting them, visit myfwc.com.