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Florida real estate agent hunts pythons in the Everglades

July 29, 2018
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ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY JULY 29 2018 AND THEREAFTER Donna Kalil prepares to hunt for Burmese pythons in the Everglades in Miami-Dade County, July 19, 2018. Kalil is the only female python hunter employed by the SFWMD. She has caught more than 60 pythons to date since she started working for the district and FWC last March. Kalil is one of the top hunters for the district in a male-dominated industry. (Jim Rassol/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)

EVERGLADES CITY, Fla. (AP) — “Python!”

Donna Kalil, seated in a homemade tower atop her 1998 Ford Explorer, yelled the golden word after spotting a familiar black and brown pattern among the grassy brush of the Everglades.

The car stopped, and Kalil barreled towards the water’s edge with one goal in mind: catching the 10-foot Burmese python lying on the bank.

Kalil snatched the snake by the head, and its long, muscly body wrapped around her arm. It was Thursday night, and this was the third python Kalil had caught in two days.

Kalil, 56, is the only female python hunter employed by the South Florida Water Management District. She has a profound love for snakes but a keen understanding of the damage invasive pythons are doing to her home state’s environment.

Every weeknight, she rides atop the Explorer while her best friend, Renee Yousefi, drives. Huge LED lights lead the way, illuminating the Everglades and the red eyes of animals peering from the darkness. Kalil’s own hawklike eyes scan the grasses, looking for anything that resembles the skin of a football.

A real-estate agent by trade, Kalil said she met Yousefi more than 20 years ago through her daughter’s school. Now, they’re best friends and hunt pythons together. On Thursday, they worked in sync and shared beaming smiles as they held their latest catch.

Kalil’s weapon of choice? Her hands.

Pythons are strong, but wrestling them is less about strength and more about finesse.

“I prefer to grab them by the head. It helps me get better control from the start,” Kalil said. “I can handle the first 12 feet, but I might need some help after that.”

Her largest catch was more than 12 feet long.

The Burmese python is native to Southeast Asia and was introduced to Florida in the 1990s, when people released their overgrown pets into the wild and damage from Hurricane Andrew allowed some snakes to escape from captivity. Florida’s warm, subtropical climate and the Everglades’ abundance of edible wildlife provided a perfect environment for the snakes to flourish.

In the wild, pythons can grow to about 23 feet long. They eat nearly everything, and have decimated the native small-mammal population of the Everglades by nearly 99 percent, according to scientists.

Because the ecosystem was suffering, conservationists began to urge residents to kill pythons upon sight. Kalil started working as a volunteer in 2013 after being inspired by other python hunters. Since then, she has removed more than 60 invasive snakes from Florida’s wetlands.

She was one of 25 contractors hired in March 2017 by the water-management district’s Python Elimination Program. In only three days, the district received 1,000 applications. From a pool of 90 percent men, Kalil was the sole woman chosen.

Hunters are paid $8.25 an hour and receive $50 per python, plus an extra $25 for each foot measured above 4 feet. They aren’t reimbursed for gas, and they use their own vehicles and equipment. After five hours of hunting on Thursday night, and with just one python caught, Kalil made about $240.

As of early July, 1,142 pythons had been removed under the elimination program, totaling a length of 8,000 feet and 18,000 pounds, according to Mike Kirkland, an invasive-species biologist at the water-management district.

While the average hunter has captured about 25 pythons, Kalil has caught 50 for the district, Kirkland said. “Donna is one of our top hunters.”

Considering a single female python can lay up to 100 eggs, Kirkland said it is difficult to measure the effectiveness of the elimination program. “There has not been a drop-off in the number of python catches since the hunt started, and there is no way for us to know how many snakes are actually out there,” he said.

No research on Everglades mammal populations has been conducted since the hunts began, but Kalil said that she thinks the hunts have made a difference. She said that last year she only saw one rabbit and so far this year has seen about five. She’s spotting more mice and armadillos, and even a possum and a raccoon here and there.

Kalil isn’t the only woman on the frontlines in the war against pythons. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission sponsors a program that employs eight women, including Kalil. It has removed 146 pythons since starting the program in April 2017, a spokeswoman said.

The women often have “girls’ nights out” and go hunting together.

Kalil sees no difference between her and her male counterparts. “Everyone’s got their egos, including myself,” she said. “Some guys might see a woman doing the work better than them as diminishing, but I guess they better get used to it.”

Kalil’s love for snakes began at a young age. Her father was in the Air Force, and after the family moved to Venezuela when she was 5, Kalil said she watched her brothers catch snakes, venomous and nonvenomous alike, in the country’s wilderness. At 7, she moved with her family to Florida. She has lived here ever since and is now married with a daughter, 27, and son, 29, who sometimes hunt with her.

Today, she says the worst part of her job is killing the pythons she catches. “When we learned we had to euthanize them ourselves, I didn’t know if I could do it,” she admitted.

“I cried the first few times I had to do it. Now, I don’t look in their eyes so I don’t get attached to them,” she said. But she knows it has to be done.

Kalil’s apprecation for wildlife was obvious during her most recent hunt. When the truck came across native corn, ribbon and water snakes, Kalil jumped down to shoo them from the path. “Didn’t your mother ever teach you not to play in the road?” she yelled as the snakes slithered off to safety.

“When I’m out there, I just do what I do because I love it,” Kalil said. “I don’t really think about how crazy it looks, or how dangerous it can be until after the fact.”

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Information from: Sun Sentinel , http://www.sun-sentinel.com/

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