Vets Versus Deadly Pythons: Battle for Everglades Supremacy

Wednesday, June 11, 2014
In the Florida Everglades now, it's vets-versus-pythons, as survivors of U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wrestle with a different kind of foe: lethal Burmese pythons.

While Everglades National Park does not permit hunting, it has authorized some 30 agents--mostly private individuals--to find and remove pythons, park spokesperson Linda Friar tells ABC News. The snakes, which are not native to the park, are rapidly gobbling up small mammals, thereby reducing the number of species present, say wildlife experts.

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One agent, says Friar, is Tom Rahill, 57, a U.S. vet who six years ago founded Swamp Apes, an outfit dedicated to helping other vets get over their residual war trauma by spending time in the wild. Members of the group, he tells ABC News, volunteer to remove trash and invasive species from the park. Those species range from plants (for example, poisonwood, which Rahill likens to "poison ivy on steroids") to animals, including water moccasins and pygmy rattle snakes. By far the biggest prey they capture, he says, are Burmese pythons, which now are locked in a death-struggle with native Florida alligators to see who will be king of the food chain.

Nor are the snakes content to stay put in the park.

Oscar Corral, founder and president of Explica Media, which is making a documentary, "The Python Invasion," scheduled to be released this fall, tells ABC News that in September 2013, a python slithered into West Kendall, Florida, and killed a dog.

Says Rahill, "There's concern about what will happen if more of them get into suburban areas and attack children or pets. It's rare, but it's happened. These are incredibly powerful animals, up to 11 for 12 feet long. They could kill me, if I didn't handle them right, let alone a little kid in some back yard."

Experts estimate that some 100,000 pythons may be living in the Everglades. Last year, the Park permitted a special month-long hunt, the Python Challenge. Some 1,500 volunteers captured only 68 snakes.

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Rahill tells ABC News that his group, since 2008, has captured 150 snakes. Its goal, he says, is to bag at least 200 next year.

Why do the Swamp Apes succeed where other hunters have failed? Rahill thinks it has to do with two things: first, his volunteers all have military training. They are, he says, aware, focused and battle-hardened, comfortable with keeping their wits even in extreme conditions. Second, he says, those who suffer from PTSD find the disorder works to their advantage. "One characteristic of PTSD is hyper-vigilance. Being vigilant is good in the Everglades."

The men work up to python-hunting by small degrees, he says. "There's lots of less-dangerous invasive species. We start with chameleon-hunting, then hunting tegus (lizards that feed on crocodile eggs)." Eventually, they become qualified to deal with pythons.

Not only does the park benefit, he says, but the Apes do, too. There's a body of evidence, including a 2013 study published in the journal "Military Medicine," that suggests time spent in the wild helps victims of PTSD surmount their trauma. Further, hunting pythons gives back to vets something that Rahill says many crave: a mission, a sense of purpose. "These are men who were told to defend the U.S. against all enemies," he says. "When they get back home, a need for a mission is still ingrained in them, but they don't have one."

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In the Apes, he says, they recapture their sense of purpose. "When one of them tells me, 'I don't have nightmares any more, Tom,' I get tears in my eyes," says Rahill.

Asked if he or any of his men get paid, Rahill says no. All are unpaid volunteers, Friar confirms. The Apes' expenses now run about $20,000 a year for equipment, gasoline and other necessities, says Rahill: "It's all out-of-pocket for me. It's grown to a point where I can't afford it."

He's in the course of getting the Apes registered as a 5013c, so they can accept charitable donations.

What becomes of the pythons? Friar says that snakes captured in the park cannot be removed from the park; agents must turn all of them over to park wildlife biologists, who then euthanize them, perform necropsies and dispose of the remains.

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