The Florida Python Challenge
The Python Challenge has the official goal of encouraging conservation efforts in the Florida Everglades, which is certainly a positive choice for the planet. The methods used, however, are debatable, both in terms of effectiveness and ethics. In 2020, the event includes the Super Bowl Host Committee, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and the South Florida Water Management District.
The Python Removal Competition
The focal point of the Florida Python Challenge is the Python Removal Competition. During the competition, people remove Burmese pythons that they find in participating areas. There are categories for Rookies and Pros with prizes for the heaviest, longest, and the largest number of pythons.
Pythons Do Pose a Problem
Most people are in agreement that pythons pose a problem in the Florida Everglades. They are an invasive species that are hard to spot and reproduce very quickly. Some estimates indicate that there may be 300,000 Burmese pythons in the Everglades and that a single female can lay 100 eggs each year. The python problem arose from irresponsible pet owners releasing their pets combined with Hurricane Andrew. And while everyone agrees that the Burmese pythons are an invasive species that pose a threat to the fragile ecosystem in Florida, not everyone agrees that the Python Challenge is the best way to tackle the problem.
Many people are surprised to learn the extent to which pythons are a threat to the ecosystem. Back in 2011, a study found that in the Everglades National Park, bobcats, white-tailed deer, opossums, and raccoons all experienced sharp declines in their population (87 to 99 percent). These are all food sources for the pythons that were previously prominent throughout the area.
Ever since the first Python Challenge, the event has faced criticism from PETA and other organizations dedicated to animal welfare. The concerns cited are usually the same ones, which the organizers of the Python Challenge have made no attempt to correct. The first challenge was in 2013 and there has always been some criticism.
The Criticism is Not New
It Glorifies Killing Pythons
As mentioned, one of the biggest arguments against the Florida Python Challenge is that it glorifies the killing of these snakes. As they are a living thing, those who are in favor of animal rights or simply treating all creatures humanely find this to be a strong negative point.
The Python Skin Football
There is particular offense taken from the snakeskin footballs that are made from Python skin. Some of these appeared in promotional photos for the event and several were also given out at the most recent Challenge.
Some people see using the snakeskin to make a football as being disrespectful of the creature and minimizing its death. Others argue that it is no different than using pigskin to make footballs.
Participants May Not Kill Humanely
The biggest issue for many people in regards to the Florida Python Challenge is the methods used to kill the pythons. Since the competition invites professionals as well as rookies, there is no need for participants to have any experience killing pythons in a humane manner. The training that is part of the competition is incredibly minimal.
The 2019 guidelines from the American Veterinary Medical Association on the Depopulation of Animals outline some of the preferred methods of killing pythons. These include:
- double pithing (destroying the brain and severing the spinal cord)
- blunt brain trauma (accompanied by double pithing)
Compared with Permit Requirements
The lack of experience needed to participate in the Florida Python Challenge contrasts sharply with the strict requirements that applicants for a python removal permit must usually obtain. Outside of this competition, those permits are required for anyone to remove pythons. To get that permit, people must have experience with aggressive snakes, experience working in areas that are remote, and experience catching wild snakes.
If the Florida government is not willing to let people without experience or training remove pythons throughout most of the year, there is no good reason to relax the restrictions for a few days. After all, those requirements to obtain the permit are designed to maximize safety for humans and snakes.
Training is Brief
The competition does require all participants to take a training course, but this is not enough to ensure the pythons are killed humanely. The training is online, so there are no practical applications or demonstrations, and it only takes about half an hour. That is simply not enough time to teach and reinforce concepts.
Pythons are hard to kill
It is also very challenging to quickly and humanely kill pythons, meaning that it is unlikely that the rookies who participate in the event will manage to do so. This likely results in agonizing deaths for the pythons.
Even Decapitated Pythons Live for Hours
When discussing the difficulty in humanely killing pythons, it is smart to point out that these snakes can live for at least several hours without their heads. In other words, even if the head is hacked off, the python will stay alive and just continue to writhe in agony. The only way to avoid that is by immediately destroying the brains.
Aim may be poor
The most humane methods of killing pythons require a great deal of precision. This is particularly challenging when faced with a moving snake that may be getting ready to attack. After all, pythons typically do not attack humans unless provoked, but attacking them is more than enough provocation.
Allowing inexperienced participants to hunt the pythons means that they will not necessarily have good aim. Even those with experience hunting other animals with guns will not necessarily kill the snake on their first try since they are unfamiliar with the movements and habits of snakes.
The Risk of Injury
Because no experience is necessary to participate in the Florida Python Challenge, this opens the competition up to higher chances of injury. If someone has never approached a python before and is suddenly confronted with a snake that is longer than they are tall, they are likely to feel overwhelmed. Training and experience are required at this point to remain calm and composed. Without experience, however, it is harder for the participants to stay calm. Furthermore, their training is so minimal that there is no chance of killing or catching the snake from muscle memory.
Participants in this situation could find themselves with injuries from constriction or bites. While pythons are not venomous, their bites can still be deep and produce blood or lead to infections. Those injuries may not be minor, putting the participants at serious risk.
To illustrate the potential for injuries from the Florida Python Challenge, consider the largest pythons caught in 2020. The longest was 17 feet and 7.3 inches and the heaviest was 62 pounds. A snake with either of those figures could easily overpower a human, especially one without experience handling them.
Injuries for the Pythons
Building on the earlier point, the lack of experience of participants in the Florida Python Challenge also increases the chances that they will not be able to effectively or humanely kill the snakes. This increases the chances of injury to the snakes, which is unethical and should not be part of the process. The goal should always be to kill the snakes humanely and quickly, which inexperienced participants will not be able to do.
Regardless of the method used to kill the snake, if someone is not confident and misses the ideal spot, this prolongs the suffering of the snake. As living creatures, snakes deserve to have humane deaths that are quick and as painless as possible.
It Is Not the Fault of the Pythons
Some people who oppose the Florida Python Challenge also do so because the snakes are not to blame for the situation. They likely developed into a serious problem because humans kept getting them as pets – frequently illegally – then just releasing them. These snakes did not choose to create problems and are simply doing the best they can to survive in an environment they are not used to.
It would be wrong to punish the snakes for the problems humans created. For many, this factor makes it particularly important to use humane methods of euthanasia when killing the snakes. Because they are not to blame, they should not have to suffer and should be taken care of humanely.
Inappropriate Bounties and Awards
Some feel that the Florida Python Challenge is unethical due to the prizes that participants receive. The top prizes are cash and two vehicles, but there are also bounties for snakes caught. There are multiple issues with this strategy, which are discussed below.
It Encourages the Snake Problem to Continue
If there is a reward for killing pythons, then people will not want the species to completely disappear, as this reward will no longer be available. This could potentially encourage people to release more pythons into the wild or take other steps to encourage the species’ continuation in the wild.
It Encourages All Skill Levels
The other major problem with a bounty or monetary award for killing pythons is that it encourages everyone to participate, regardless of their reflexes, knowledge, or experience. Because pythons are so hard to kill, this task should be left to professionals. The average person cannot safely and humanely kill a python, at least not without training and practice.
The Challenge is Ineffective
If you look at the figures of participants in the Florida Python Challenge, it may seem to be reasonably effective at first glance. But when you take a closer look at the numbers, it becomes clear that this challenge barely makes a dent in the python population.
Figures from 2020
The 2020 Python Challenge took place in mid-January. It lasted ten days, during which 750 people came from 20 states to remove the Burmese pythons. In addition to those participants, 550 others took the training on safe capture. Even with all of the participation, only 80 pythons were removed.
Figures from 2013
There were similar figures from 2013, which was when the first Florida Python Challenge took place, although fewer were caught. In 2013, 1,600 people signed up to participate, more than in 2020. Despite this, they only caught 68 pythons.
impact of Florida Python Challenge on overall python population
A Tiny Fraction
Given that estimates of the python population in the Everglades were at 150,000 in 2013 and are closer to 300,000 today, it is clear that the event only removes a tiny fraction of the pythons. Catching just 80 pythons from an estimated 300,000 means that the competition only removed around 0.027% of the pythons. That is far from any figure that experts would consider a success.
an Unethical, Ineffective Program
It should seem fairly obvious that given that the Florida Python Challenge is unethical and ineffective, there is no reason to continue it. Given the extent of the python problem in Florida, there could be some arguments for it to continue with adjustments if it was at least effective, but that is not even the case.
Why It Does Not Work
The lack of experience of the participants is the source of many problems with the Florida Python Challenge, including why it is not effective.
Lack of Experience
Most of the people who participate in the competition have no experience with pythons. Because of this, they do not know where to look for the snakes. Additionally, they may not spot signs of the python or even the python itself when they get close to one, since they do not know what they are looking for. This is compounded by the fact that not every encounter with a python will result in the python being killed.
The fact that the challenge limits the areas in which participants can hunt for the pythons also leads to lower numbers. There are some areas, like the Everglades, that likely have higher concentrations of pythons but are not part of the challenge. Reasons for certain areas being excluded vary, with the potential impact on their fragile ecosystem frequently being a primary concern.
While the Python Challenge itself is ineffective and unethical, it has one positive point, which is its ability to raise awareness. It gets people involved in their community with conservation efforts. It also helps spread knowledge about the problems pythons pose. Remember that 550 people attended the training in 2020, despite not participating in the removal challenge. This is several hundred more than would not have otherwise known as much about pythons.
Benefits of the Challenge
It Provides Some Data
The challenge does also provide a bit of data regarding the pythons in the area, although not enough to be truly useful. With so few pythons caught, despite the large number of participants, it is clear that not everyone knew how to spot pythons.
At the very least, however, knowing where most pythons were found gives professional python removers an idea of where to start. Due to the low numbers and lack of training and experience among participants, however, it is safe to assume that rookies likely passed at least hundreds of pythons without noticing. As such, any data that the challenge brings in should be considered with extreme caveats.
Instead of using this competition to remove pythons from Florida, other measures should be taken. These can range from educating the public and harvesting more data, to training more professionals to take care of the problem.
Instead of encouraging locals to participate in the challenge and kill pythons, it would make more sense to hire professionals to complete the job. Since the requirements for a python removal permit are greater than those needed to participate in the challenge, only using those with a permit would be a good place to start.
Train More Professionals
Hiring professionals to remove the pythons is not enough, since there are a limited number of people with the appropriate experience to take on the role. Because of this, there must also be training for more professionals. It would need to be in-depth and provide experience, so the professionals can proceed with confidence. Proper training is necessary to be able to humanely and successfully kill pythons.
Since most of the populations were pets (or their ancestors were), the problem’s solution should involve educating the public about why pythons are not pets and what to do with them instead of releasing them into the wild. Hopefully, if people were fully aware of the negative impact that pythons have on the Florida ecosystem, they would be more hesitant to release former pets or to even get a python as a pet.
Getting More Data
Florida also needs to work on gathering more data related to the pythons. To truly be able to tackle the problem, they need to have a better idea of how many of these snakes there actually are and what areas they live in. Professionals will need to take care of this python-tracking, since they are more likely to spot the snakes than the average person.
Some organizations in Florida have already begun taking steps to track the pythons and gain more knowledge about their movements. When the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, for example, finds a male python, it will implant a radio transmitter into the animal. It then checks this transmitter every two weeks in search of females.
The Florida Python Challenge is part of the lead up to the Super Bowl and encourages participants to kill pythons, which are an invasive species in the area. This challenge is ineffective due to the incredibly small number of pythons caught each year. Additionally, it encourages average people to participate with just 30 minutes of training, regardless of past experience. This puts people at risk of snake injuries and increases the chances that the snakes will die an inhumane death filled with pain and suffering.
It Will Take Time
Resolving the python problem in Florida in a way that is humane to the snakes and does not further disrupt the ecosystem will be an incredible challenge. As there are not even clear estimates as to how many pythons are in the area, it is challenging to track progress and create a strategy.
Everyone Should Report Pythons
In the meantime, anyone in Florida who spots a python in the wild should report it to the proper agency. This will give the agency additional data and potentially allow them to catch the python, either to humanely kill it or to implant a tracker for further insight.