What to Know
- Sometimes all a hunter will see is a small portion of the body, about the size of a baseball, peeking through the grasses.
A Burmese python nearly 12 feet long swims alongside a levee as Donna Kalil tries to coax it out of the water.
She squats at the edge of the gravel road with one boot in the water. The snake stops just short of her.
With smooth, quick movements, Kalil strikes first, grabbing the snake behind the head with one hand and the body with the other.
Kalil pulls as she stands, dragging the squirming snake onto dry land. She and her daughter, Deanna Kalil, stretch the snake across the levee for a quick size estimate.
It was her biggest catch of the night, and the third snake bagged within the four hours she had been hunting in the South Florida Water Management District’s lands in western Miami-Dade County.
The invasive predators are disrupting the natural food chain for native species, so state agencies have begun ramping up efforts to stop the snakes from spreading out of south Florida.
Donna, a full-time member of the district’s Python Elimination Program, is a formidable foe to the pythons that can grow up to 18 feet long. She is the only woman on the district’s team and also one of only three hunters contracted with both the district and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Donna's passion for snake hunting is apparent even before meeting her face to face.
“This is my calling,” she said. “I feel like a kid again and I’m feeling like I’m making a difference.”
Donna said she has pulled between 260 to 270 pythons since she began hunting them. Of those, 191 have come from her work under the district's team.
She even has her own T-shirts, Everglades Avengers: Python Elimination Team with around 200 supporters. She’s given a speech on her python hunting experiences and does outreach for schools.
When the district takes on new contractors, they look for the best of the best, said Mike Kirkland. Kirkland has managed the district's python elimination program from the beginning.
"We pick people who know what they‘re doing right off the bat," he said. "That’s been a big component of our success."
Donna is in her element and it shows.
She was in the real estate business in the 80s and now she hunts pythons full-time.
She said she used to feel like a bit of an outcast. Seeking and collecting reptiles and snakes must not have been a popular pastime with other Realtors, but now she proudly calls herself a Herper. Herpers get their name from herpetology, or the study of amphibians, and Kalil is full-bore.
Donna has fellow herper friends from around the world come out into the Everglades with her, not only to hunt, but to spot unique species of snake.
"It's kind of like birding," she said. "If you've ever met a birder, they like to travel the world to see what kind of birds they can check off their list. Well, people do the same things with reptiles, which I think is pretty cool."
Donna said her favorite snake is the one that she finds right then. But she remembers the yellow rat snakes from her childhood and a particular mud snake that lacked normal red pigmentation.
Donna and her daughter pulled up outside their preferred python hunting grounds just after sunset in late October. Light bars fastened to a kind of crow’s nest atop her forest green Ford Expedition illuminate the road ahead. The vanity plate reads: SNAKER.
Before the official hunt even began, a nearly 7-foot python slithered across a rural road at the edge of the Everglades in southwest Miami-Dade County. The snake burrowed and hid itself in grass no taller than a freshly mown lawn.
Donna and Deanna jumped out of the SUV ready to catch and bag the snake. As they approached, the python seemed almost docile. That changed in an instant as Donna and Deanna moved in and started to pull the snake from the grass. It immediately squirmed to escape Donna’s grasp.
As the snake flailed in Donna’s hands, Deanna opened a white sack. The python started to calm after Donna lowered it in.
The snake’s appearance outside the district’s lands worried Donna.
“They’re moving out of the wild areas into people’s yards," she said. "It’s unfortunate and happening everywhere.”
A python caught in Hendry County was the district's northernmost capture, Kirkland said. The climate and habitat north of Lake Okeechobee are not favorable to Burmese pythons.
Donna hunts at night during the warmer months and will hunt during the day come wintertime. Snakes are always regulating body temperature, so they can be found out in the sun warming up in the cooler seasons.
During the late October hunt, wearing her pink Everglades Avenger shirt with tan camouflage pants, she drove the SUV barely above 5 mph, sometimes opening the driver-side door and standing up — with one foot on the running board and the other on the gas pedal — to get a better look. Her wide-brimmed fedora was wrapped in python skin.
Sometimes all a hunter will see is a small portion of the body, about the size of a baseball, peeking through the grasses. Even with the bright light bars illuminating the area, a snake is hard to spot.
From her position in the light perch atop the SUV, Deanna periodically shouted down, “Stop!” Donna would pump the brake and reverse back to where Deanna thought she saw something. Sometimes it's for a closer look at a green tree frog, an odd eel or even a soft-shell turtle.
A rat, though, those are unexpected.
“Normally you don’t get excited to see rats, but it’s cool when you do out here,” Deanna said.
Donna grew up in South Florida, and rabbits, opossums and raccoons were commonplace. Now, as her daughter says, mammals are scarce where pythons are prevalent.
Donna said she’s certain she’s driven past many pythons.
“They're so stealthy,” she said. "You generally can't see them move."
As she and Deanna drove the levees, they relied on each other to spot the snakes.
Pythons are known to decimate small mammal populations. A 2015 study on the effects of pythons on the marsh rabbit population in the Everglades had a dismal outlook.
The snakes pose a great risk to the overall ecology of the Everglades, the study says. Researchers concluded that of the total number of marsh rabbits tracked for the experiment, 77% were killed by pythons.
Breeders and owners introduced pythons to the Everglades by dumping the unwanted snakes into the wild.
“These snakes are beautiful and really cool and they’re great while in a native habitat,” Deanna said. “Here, they’re just one more pressure on an already fragile ecosystem and it just can’t handle it.”
During the hunt, Donna and Deanna captured three pythons ranging from 7 feet 1 inch to 11 feet 8 inches.
Some nights, Donna said, she'll go out and not see anything. She said she recently drove about 150 miles on a hunt and came home empty handed. Her biggest night was capturing five pythons during a hunt.
"We’re out here trying to figure out the snake’s modus operandi," she said. "Do they hunt at the same time of night? In the same area?"
In the two and a half years the district's python team has been operational, they've pulled 2,688 invasive pythons from the ecosystem, Kirkland said.
"If you factor in that half the snakes have been females of reproductive age and consider the amount of prevented births, that becomes an exponential number (of pythons) removed," he said.
The district is currently in the process of bolstering the number of hunters under its program. There are around 26 now, and Kirkland said they are trying to get that number up to 50.
Running parallel with the district's program is FWC's Python Action Team. Combined, the teams have pulled more than 3,700 snakes from the ecosystem, he said.
The district plans to further fund research and development in the program. Kirkland said they are looking into everything from detection dogs to genetic studies.
Because the district and FWC's missions align, the two agencies work together to fund different research to avoid redundancies. And even though the agencies are separate, both are working toward the same goal.
"There's two teams out here," Donna said, "the hunters and the pythons."