“I stick up for snakes,” says a soft-spoken female of slim build and medium stature. A cheerful, freckled face peers out from underneath a weathered, wide-brimmed hat wrapped in a band of python skin. Clad in lightweight camouflage pants, hiking boots, and a bright-pink long sleeve T-shirt identifying her as a member of the Everglades Avengers, a python elimination team, Donna Kalil is ready to set out on an evening hunt as a paid exterminator of the very creatures she loves.
An Unusual Career
Born in Georgia to a father serving in the air force, Kalil, who now resides in the Miami area, enjoyed a childhood filled with nature and adventure. The family lived in Venezuela during her preschool years, and Kalil remembers snorkeling, diving, and playing with snakes. When she was 7 years old, they moved to North Miami, settling in Aventura. Weekends were spent tagging along with her dad and two older brothers, fishing and exploring. “The ocean was my front yard and the Everglades my backyard,” she proclaims.
Kalil, who embraced snakes from a young age, refers to herself as a herper, one who searches for amphibians or reptiles as a hobby. If she was ever afraid of them, she does not remember, stating that “finding and playing with snakes has always put a smile on my face.” Six years ago, Kalil went through an unconventional midlife career change, trading buying and selling real estate for python hunting.
The Burmese python (Python bivittatus), native to Southeast Asia, is believed to have slithered into South Florida more than 40 years ago, a result of the then-burgeoning and largely unregulated exotic pet business. Most of the unwelcome creatures that escape or that are released to the wild do not successfully establish a reproductive population. The legless and carnivorous Burmese pythons, however, felt perfectly at home in this region’s subtropical climate and began rapidly reproducing. Although they pose a minimal risk to human safety, pythons have become a major menace to the bioregion, depleting native wildlife populations by chomping down untold numbers of mammals and birds every day.
In response, state governmental agencies began responding to this threat. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is tasked with ensuring healthy populations of all native wildlife and their habitats statewide. In the spring of 2017, FWC launched a Python Action Team Removing Invasive Constrictors (PATRIC) as part of its mission to manage nonnative species and to bring balance back to the Everglades. In the same year, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) started a Python Elimination Program. The two organizations work in tandem.
Carli Segelson, public information director, Division of Habitat and Species Conservation at FWC, reports that “Burmese pythons are currently considered established from just south of Lake Okeechobee to Key Largo and from western Broward County west to Collier County.” Segelson reports that “the low detection rates and harsh and difficult-to-access habitat have challenged public land managers’ ability to assess population and apply control methods across the landscape.”
Michael Kirkland, senior invasive animal biologist for SFWMD, believes that pythons now exist across more than 5,000 square miles of South Florida. When asked how many pythons are living in the Everglades, Kirkland responds: “Due to the cryptic nature of this species coupled with the vastness and relative inaccessibility of the Everglades, we cannot perform a conventional population estimate.” The real answer, he says, is: “We simply don’t know.” He does, however, consider the python invasion a “very unique and significant problem that has garnered sustained international media attention,” considering it “the flagship for invasive species management around the world.”
After becoming aware of the python problem, Kalil started volunteering with Florida State Parks; she was then employed by both FWC and SFWMD as one of the original 25 python hunters and according to Kirkland was “the first contracted female python hunter for the state.” (Both organizations now retain a total of 50 contracted python hunters.) At present, Kalil works solely with SFWMD, getting paid for doing what she loves in a role she describes as “protecting the native snakes of Florida.”
On the Hunt
Recently, Naples Illustrated was invited to tag along with Kalil on an evening hunt. We traveled to mile marker 28 off US 41 (between Naples and Miami), where we meet Kalil and fellow python hunter Mark Rodriguez. The pair arrive in a well-equipped green-and-beige 1998 Ford Explorer sporting a fitting license plate: SNAKER. Kalil and her snakemobile are tight companions, having logged more than 300,000 miles in the Everglades together.
We don bright yellow vests—mandated by SFWMD—and generously spray ourselves with mosquito repellent before climbing aboard. Two of us perch on the SUV’s rooftop outfitted with high-intensity lights, while the remainder of the group climbs in the cab. We crane our necks out the window and scan the environment, remaining on high alert for the frequently well-camouflaged predator.
When Kalil is asked how many pythons live in the Everglades, she answers: “Maybe tens of thousands—or maybe hundreds of thousands.” While she explains we don’t know exact numbers, we can approximate based on land mass and estimates of mammals still living, such as rabbits and racoons. Kalil reports there is still no measurable difference in the python population, explaining that they are increasing their territory and noting they were “once sighted north to US 41” but are now “seen north to I-75.” She prefers to remain optimistic, however, and guesses that the actual number is probably more like tens of thousands. To date, she has personally captured close to 800.
“This is the speed I like to hunt at,” says Kalil, as we bump along at 8 mph. It’s a seasonal job and during the nesting months of May and June, Kalil heads out for at least six hours, both during the day and in the evening, five or six days a week. The females are fervently seeking high and dry ground to lay their eggs, which must gestate for 45 days, according to Kalil. She explains that python eggs will not incubate if they get wet.
The night of our hunt, five pairs of eyes are searching in earnest for a python. If we spot one, we are cautioned to follow Kalil, walking slowly and quietly from behind. Kalil likes to catch a snake gently, explaining there is no need for speed: “Be respectful to the animal,” she says. “And be careful not to leave a shadow.”
Kalil prefers to grab the snake behind the head. Every snake has a distinct personality, she reports. “Some are fighters; sometimes you have to talk to them and calm them down.” If they do start constricting, Kalil says you can let them go, and they will quickly depart the scene. She works with one gloved hand, coming face to face with the snake—a method practiced by her idol, the late William Haast, former director of Miami Serpentarium Laboratories, a snake venom production facility near Punta Gorda, Florida.
Has Kalil been bitten? “Oh yes,” she admits. “Pythons will and do bite.” She explains that their teeth are razor-sharp—with four rows of teeth on top and two rows on the bottom. Musk—an oily substance with a nasty odor—sprayed by the snakes, is another defense mechanism.
Once she calms the snake, Kalil places it in a pillowcase. How does a petite woman wrangle a snake that is potentially 90 pounds and 14 feet long into a pillowcase? She prefers to hunt with a partner. She has lost her grip on a few snakes during her hunting tenure, all while wrestling in the water. “There,” she confirms, “you have to be quick.”
After Kalil secures the snake in the pillowcase, she then places it in a locked box in the back of her SUV. Her next task is logging the point of capture’s coordinates in an app (designed by FWC), recording the exact location where the snake was found. She sends this information to Kirkland—no matter the time of day or night.
In her contracted position, Kalil is responsible for documenting the weight, length, and sex of each snake she captures. She is allowed to keep the skin. “I skin it and freeze it,” she says, eventually sending it to a tanner. While the pythons are humanely euthanized, Kalil does not like to discuss details. After the skin is removed, Kalil disposes of the rest of the snake as she sees fit. When it comes to the python eggs, “There is a hawk at a nearby research center who enjoys [them],” she remarks.
What is the toughest part of her job? “Spotting one!” exclaims Kalil, even though she has keen eyesight and has honed her ocular skills over the years. During our hunt, Kalil frequently stops to reverse the truck for a second look at an area. “Don’t blink,” she cautions, confessing: “I have missed a snake.”
Under a darkening sky we continue our trek, creeping through 15 miles on the levee. An eerie silence pervades the atmosphere. At times, we hear frogs chirping and owls hooting, but other times, we hear nothing. After noting evidence of wild boars alongside the road, we finally spy one zigzagging through the woods. When we pull up next to the occasional large body of water, we shine the flashlight over the surface and see numerous sets of orange eyes belonging to the alligators, also apex predators. “They go head-to-head,” remarks Kalil, and tells of an alligator gulped whole by a ravenous python.
As of January 2023, FWC reports more than 18,000 pythons in Florida have been removed; paid contractors with FWC’s PATRIC and SFWMD’s Python Elimination Program are responsible for removing approximately 11,000 of them.
Our hunt this evening is unsuccessful. We depart at 2 a.m. with cricks in our necks, desirous of our beds. Rodriguez, Kalil’s longtime friend and frequent hunting partner, summarizes hunting pythons with a fitting refrain: “They are everywhere, anywhere, and yet sometimes nowhere.”
Ever hopeful, Kalil reminds us that she has found pythons crawling around near the entrance to the levee or alongside the road on the drive home; she calls these finds “gimmes.” She decides to take us to one last spot along US 41, a location she successfully captured a female the previous year. We park and though exhausted follow her once again into the swamp. We come up with a mere consolation prize: the remains of last year’s hatched eggshells.
Determined to keep a smile on her face and ever optimistic, Kalil, a true nature lover, sums up her evening: “If I don’t catch a python, at least I’ve caught a sunset.”
Protecting the Home Turf
The Burmese python continues to expand its territory in South Florida, creeping closer to the Southwest coast. In 2013, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, founded in 1964, established a python research program to better understand the ecological impacts of the snake and to reduce the long-term effects this unwelcome visitor wreaks on the unique local natural environment.
Ian Bartoszek, wildlife biologist and environmental science project manager for the Conservancy, considers the Burmese python a “wildlife issue of our time.” He explains the Conservancy employs a research-based approach to remove the snakes, using radio transmitters implanted in male scout snakes to understand python movement, breeding behaviors, and habitat use. Ultimately, these devices are designed to lead biologists to the reproductive females.
Although the Conservancy collaborates with governmental organizations, Bartoszek reports that a small team of two biologists, accompanied by two interns, has done most of the heavy lifting in a removal footprint approximately 150 square miles in size within the Picayune Strand State Forest, located east of Naples.
In June 2023, the team wrapped up a record removal period, “capturing 5,000 pounds of python since November 2022,” reports Bartoszek. In the past 10 years in Southwest Florida, the team has removed more than 1,000 pythons containing over 10,000 eggs and weighing over 30,000 pounds.
These findings beg the question: How much native wildlife did the pythons consume to reach these numbers, size, and weight? “We need to know the enemy we are dealing with,” says Bartoszek, who is always amazed at what the team learns from a necropsy. “It’s like a CSI crime scene.” Their findings underline how essential their work is in waging war against the invasive constrictors suffocating our ecosystem.