The Misunderstood Python Hunters Saving the Everglades

Night had fallen over the Everglades, but Donna Kalil kept driving. She leaned out the window of her Ford Expedition as it followed the rutted levee road and peered across the saw grass as far as the stark glare of her floodlights would reach. Kalil was determined to catch a Burmese python.

It was Saturday, January 11, the second night of Florida’s Python Bowl, a ten-day state-sponsored hunting competition designed to raise awareness of the invasive species eating its way through the Everglades’ fragile ecosystem. The first Python Challenge, as the event used to be called, was held in 2013, and it brought in just 68 snakes. This year’s contest will ultimately net a total of 80. So far, Kalil, 57, a python elimination specialist for the South Florida Water Management District, had only caught one. Her pride as a professional python hunter was on the line.

Kalil scanned the grass more desperately, begging the darkness to give up the telltale shimmer of scales. She took her foot off the brake, and the truck sped up. She listened for the spotters who stood on the python perch, a platform atop Kalil’s SUV equipped with floodlights and padded handrails that hunters can hold on to as they search for hints of their prey. All she heard from above was weary silence. The chirp and click of the glades’ night chorus rose up to fill the void.

It was after 7 P.M. and time to head in. Kalil turned around and started for the main road. But a minute away from their exit, her daughter, Deanna, 29, called out from the roof. She wasn’t sure—you can never be sure in python hunting, until the snake is in your grasp—but she thought she saw something move in the water. Kalil stopped the truck, and they shined high-powered flashlights over a canal. The beams skimmed, murky and yellow, over the black water, before lighting on a familiar glimmer.

The sparkling tan and brown puzzle-piece pattern curved and dipped out of the light. Before any of the hunters could speak, Kevin Pavlidis, 23, a part-time alligator wrestler and python hunter who is a family friend of the Kalils, dove into the water with a splash. His cowboy hat floated on the surface in his wake. Kalil’s flashlight beam darted back and forth over the water to find him, and a moment later, Pavlidis emerged from the depths with a gasp, raising the captured snake over his head like a trophy. He laughed. But the celebration was short-lived.

Transporting pythons live without a permit is illegal in Florida, but as a python elimination specialist, Kalil can bring snakes in live because she works for the state. Since both amateur hunters and professionals like herself compete in the Python Bowl, the event rules state that captured pythons must be killed humanely before they’re brought into game checkpoints. According to Kalil, the most humane way to kill a python is with a shot to the brain or blunt-force trauma to the head.

With the triumph of the moment waning, Pavlidis handed the python over to Kalil. She grasped the snake behind its head, and it squirmed, twitching back and forth. Fort Lauderdale’s lights glowed on the horizon. Frogs croaked in the grass, and tiny flecks of stars hovered in the vast dome of the Everglades sky.

Kalil removed her glove and stroked the snake’s head with her bare finger. Its scales were smooth and cool. Burmese pythons are beautiful creatures. Kalil has always loved them and snakes in general. She even has a pet ball python named Benny that she found abandoned in the glades. 

Stopping the Burmese pythons and their takeover of the Everglades is an ecological trolley problem: To save the Everglades and all of the animals in it, could Kalil kill the invasive snakes she loved? At the end of the day, she would take out her .22 pistol from its holster and do what she had to do. 

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