Meet the Python Huntress defending the Everglades
Picturing a python hunter used to make me think of someone like Dog the Bounty Hunter or Hulk Hogan — a big dude with muscles comparable to the constrictors they wrangle.
- But it doesn't take machismo to catch a 20-foot python. It takes the kind of speed, care and agility that slim, 5-foot-4 Amy Siewe has.
What's happening: After I and my colleague Ben Montgomery tried our hand at the Florida Python Challenge this summer, I spent some time with one of the best python trackers in the game.
- We promised you pythons, and we tried our hardest. But I think the snakes must be afraid of me, because after nearly 12 hours trolling the Everglades with the experts last month, I still didn't catch one.
Yes, but: I spent that time getting to know Siewe, aka the Python Huntress. And her story is pretty damn incredible.
Siewe, 45, is one of 100 state-contracted snake hunters who catch and kill invasive Burmese pythons to prevent them from causing more harm to the Everglades.
By the numbers: She's one of only 15 women on the job.
- She has captured and killed 405 pythons in the last three years — the largest being 17-foot-3 and 110 pounds. She has caught 100 so far this year.
Why it matters: The python population in the Everglades has exploded. For every python you see, there could be up to 1,000 hiding in the wetlands, Everglades Foundation chief science officer Steve Davis told Newsweek.
- And those snakes are competing with other native animals — like the endangered Florida panther — for food, such as possums, raccoons and white-tailed deer.
- Each summer, mama pythons hatch 20-100 python eggs each and the snakes, which have no predators in the U.S., turn the Everglades into their all-you-can-eat buffet.
How she got here
"Snakes have been a part of my world for my whole life," Siewe told me as we rode down a levy in the bed of another tracker's pick-up truck, looking for pythons while dodging massive mosquitos and spiders.
- Growing up in Ohio, "my dad put me in a creek when I was little and taught me how to catch fish and crawdads and frogs and snakes," Siewe said. "And I just had this fascination with snakes."
- As an adult, Siewe became a snake breeder, led educational programs for kids and worked at an exotic pet store alongside a full-time job as a real estate broker in Indiana for 13 years.
- But a vacation in Florida in 2019 changed everything for her when another tracker, Donna Kalil, took her along on a python hunt.
Watching Kalil wrestle a snake, Siewe realized, "This is it. This is what I'm supposed to be doing."
- "For the first time I could actually make a difference with this passion I have and it's not just a hobby."
- Six weeks later, she gave up her real estate clients and moved into a room in Naples she found online. Two months after that, she was hired as one of the state's first 50 contractors since the program started in 2017.
How she does it
Most of a python tracker's job involves looking at the ground. While pythons can grow to enormous lengths and are destroying the local ecosystem, they're still sneaky snakes.
- Siewe's eye is trained to catch the blue reflection pythons give off when light hits them, or the white underbellies that show when they periscope (the snake version of standing upright) along the side of a levy or Highway 41. When they slither across the street, she calls that a "road gift."
- Sometimes she bags six or seven pythons in one night. It can take hours, and sometimes never happens. When she's alone during hunts, you might hear her blasting Whitney Houston, belting out the lyrics with her head out the window.
When the snakes do come out, she's ready to be as quick and fearless as they are.
- The trick is not getting bitten, usually by straddling the snake, grabbing its head and wrapping the python's jaws with electrical tape. Pythons aren't poisonous, but they do have two rows of teeth on their upper jaw that are so sharp, she says, "they go into your skin like a warm knife in butter."
- She insists it's "not that bad."
Thought bubble: While I didn't get to see Siewe capture a python, I can tell you she’s fast. If she thought she saw a snake, she would stop the truck and run into the brush before I even knew what was happening.
- She's posted hunt videos online so you can see her in action.
From predator to product
After Siewe catches pythons, she takes them to her condo, where she euthanizes them as quickly and as painlessly as possible, with a bolt gun. Then she sets up a Zoom call with state officials to measure the snakes so she can get paid.
- State-contracted python hunters make $13 an hour plus $50 for the first four feet of snake they catch. Each extra foot is another $25.
- Siewe supplements her hunting income with a side hustle turning the snake skins into products for sale.
After she skins each snake (a 10-footer takes about 20 minutes), she salts, rolls and freezes the skin to preserve it. Once she has about 100 skins, she takes them to Sebring Custom Tanning to be processed.
- She contracts with a private label company to make products from the skins, like bracelets and Apple Watch bands, which she either sells or keeps for herself.
- She said she even took the meat once to a chef in Fort Meyers to experiment with. "He made four very, very good dishes, but it was just so chewy."
The big picture
More than 16,000 pythons have been captured in the Everglades and reported to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in the last 22 years.
- State contractors like Siewe were responsible for bagging 10,809 of those since the program started in 2017, according to FWC data.
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