Meet the Burmese python hunters of the Florida swamps

The Burmese python invasion is about to become entertainment.
The Burmese python invasion is about to become entertainment.
Image: Reuters/Joe Skipper
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Dusty “the Wildman” Crum is a freelance snake hunter in Florida. He tracks down and wrangles Burmese pythons, which can grow longer than 17 feet, wandering the mangroves barefoot because, Crum says, “If you have a rubber sole between foot and Earth, you can’t absorb what nature is telling you.”

Crum is the star of Guardians of the Glades, a new Discovery Channel reality TV series that begins airing May 28. The show promises all the drama of Keeping Up With the Kardashians but none of the guilt that might come from indulging. It’s about nature, and it is educational, highlighting the hidden environmental war that’s ravaging the swamplands of Florida.

Burmese pythons, an invasive nonvenomous species, dominate the Everglades. After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, captive snakes in a breeding facility escaped and made themselves at home in the wild, breeding quickly and eating their way through rabbit, raccoon, bobcat, bird, and deer populations. They even try to eat alligators. The serpents have decimated native wildlife, severely threatening populations that have long called the mangroves home.

It can pay to slay

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) pays people to track these snakes down in the hopes of limiting the ecological destruction. The agency has a few different programs for the public and professionals. One open to all, the Python Pickup Program, promises prizes. As the FWC website explains, “Remove and humanely kill pythons from private and participating public properties in Florida, and for each python submission you’ll have a chance to win a valuable prize! Anyone can participate!” Professionals can apply to become python removal contractors.

The problem is so pervasive that the South Florida Water Management District also has a snake-hunting program, Initiated in 2017, it has led to removal of more than 2,000 predatory Burmese pythons. As the agency puts it, “[T]he Python Elimination Program incentivizes a limited number of public-spirited individuals to humanely euthanize these destructive snakes, which have become an apex predator in the Everglades.”

Crum operates on another level

Not just any “public-spirited individual,” the “Wildman” is heading up a team of hunters that includes a beagle named Riley—the premiere “Python hunting Beagle in the state of Florida,” according to the Discovery Channel (not to be confused with the beagle Python Pete).

The show will follow Crum and crew “deep into the mangroves of the Everglades and beyond…and offers a thrillingly up-close look at what happens when the hunters become the hunted—complete with harrowing wrestling matches in the treacherous swamps,” the producers say.

Crum, the trusty Riley, and their reality-TV posse are not alone in their quest to clear the swamps. While drama lovers watch the Wildman hunt on TV in the evenings, Anne Gordon Vega, a 60-year-old mother, will be out rounding up pythons as a contractor for the FWC. She tells that her family finds her pastime strange: ”They’re absolutely shocked that this is what I do at night while they’re, you know, enjoying the comforts of air conditioning and Netflix, and I’m out here in the Everglades.”