IN THE FLORIDA EVERGLADES (AP) - Florida is paying $8.10 an hour to hunt invasive Burmese pythons in the Everglades, but Brian Hargrove says he'd work for free.
He's enjoying special access to state-owned wetlands and reliving his teenage years, when catching snakes gave him something better to do than join a Miami gang. It's the best job ever for a man with a cobra tattooed over his heart.
"I feel like I won the lottery, and I make minimum wage," Hargrove said.
But he must kill the pythons he finds.
"The last thing I ever want to do is kill a snake," he said. "I love snakes. It's not their fault."
There's a long list of reasons why the pythons must die: all the animals they've eaten. It's estimated 90 percent of many native mammals have ended up in pythons' stomachs - they had never faced such a voracious predator before pet pythons escaped or were dumped into the Everglades.
Hargrove, of Cutler Bay, is one of 25 hunters selected to kill pythons through June 1 for the South Florida Water Management District, the state agency overseeing Everglades restoration. Traps, snake-sniffing dogs, radio-tracking implants, occasional cold snaps and two public roundups so far have failed to significantly reduce the population of the giant constrictors. Florida's wildlife commission announced Monday new prizes and plans to hire additional contractors to boost python removals from state-managed lands.
"We're trying to save the deer, the alligator, the rabbits, the rat snakes, the rattlesnakes - everything is slowly but surely disappearing," Hargrove said.
As a teen, he never thought twice about scooping up racers and rat snakes to take home. Now the 45-year-old takes only photographs. Native snakes have become scarce - and skinny, because they have less to eat.
"Thirty years ago, this place was swamped with life," Hargrove said. "Even a raccoon is a 'wow' experience now."
About a mile from Everglades National Park, Hargrove found droppings he knew were from a python. The size of chicken eggs, they were bigger than any droppings from native Florida snakes like rattlesnakes or water moccasins.
Walking through shoulder-high grass, Hargrove shrugged off the threat of being bitten by hidden venomous snakes.
Tan-and-brown pythons are particularly good at hiding. Anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 pythons could be in the Everglades, said district spokesman Randy Smith, but they're difficult to find unless they stretch across a road or levee.
The evidence of their infestation is the apparent absence of anything else.
According to the district, a python growing to 13 feet typically eats in five to seven years one raccoon, one possum, four 5-foot alligators, 10 squirrels, 15 rabbits, 30 cotton rats, 72 mice and about three dozen birds. Those birds include struggling wading birds also threatened by rising sea levels and lengthy delays in Everglades restoration projects.
Larger pythons consume larger animals - the remains of three deer were found inside one 15-foot-6-inch python last year.
The district also pays $50 per snake, plus $25-a-foot bonuses for snakes longer than 4 feet. Rather than collect the bounties, Hargrove would rather ship the pythons back to their native Asia.
A resurgence of pythons might delight the Irula tribesmen from southern India who visited Florida this year to teach their snake hunting traditions to researchers and wildlife officials. Pythons now are rare in that region, and the visitors had never caught that species in the wild until they came to the Everglades, said University of Florida wildlife ecologist Frank Mazzotti.
Snake-hunting skills honed for generations helped them catch 15 pythons in their first 14 days. They found snake tunnels through the sawgrass, even determining whether they were chasing a male or female python, Mazzotti said.
"The most effective tool we have right now is people who know how to, and like to, catch snakes," he said.
Hargrove encountered his first wild Burmese python 10 years ago, at night in the national park. He saw something in the road too big to steer around, but he didn't realize it was a snake until his tires clipped it.
A reticulated python swallowed a man whole in Indonesia last month, but python attacks on humans are so rare that Hargrove's biggest concern while hunting was poisonwood, whose sap causes blistering rashes.
As of Tuesday, 50 pythons have been killed by the district's hunters. When Hargrove submitted his first catch April 6, he couldn't smile about his trophy: an 8-foot, 13-pound male.
Dreading that kill, he had been hunting with a friend who would pull the trigger for him. But he was driving alone near a canal when he spotted the snake's tail in the grass, so it was up to him to shoot it once in the brain with a BB gun.
"It sucks to play God. I get no joy or satisfaction out of killing it," he said. "Maybe I'm saving a roseate spoonbill, maybe a scarlet ibis, or a bobcat - I can't remember the last time I've seen one."