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Commentary: That's one way to kill an Everglades python

"I like to grab their tails," says Joe Wasilewski.

He's talking about the humongous pythons that have famously invaded South Florida.

"You gotta jump 'em right away," the biologist explains, "and get 'em out in the open."

We're driving along a canal bank in deep southwest Miami-Dade. Wasilewski, an old friend and skilled snake catcher, is discussing the technique of capturing Burmese pythons by hand.

The trick is to take their minds off escape.

"Once it focuses on trying to bite you," he says cheerfully, "you're home free."

Like many reptile experts, Wasilewski has been recruited to the front lines of Florida's war on pythons. The snakes are not generally viewed as a boon to tourism (or indigenous wildlife), and eradication is a government priority.

Special licenses have been issued to prospective python assassins. Bounties have been debated. Scientists have implanted transponders inside female snakes in the hopes of luring randy males that could be rounded up.

A biologist in Everglades National Park has even tried to train a beagle to sniff out the huge constrictors, without much luck.

Wasilewski has been following the furor with a mix of amusement and concern. He has spent a lifetime among formidable critters. His company, Natural Selections, provides cooperative reptiles for movies, TV programs and nature documentaries.

"Pythons," he says with a laugh, "are not going to chase you and your children down."

For three years, Wasilewski had always given the same reply when pressed for a solution to the python explosion.

"A big freeze," he said.

It wasn't a very exotic answer, so it didn't appear in many news reports. But now, after Florida's coldest winter in recorded history, there's evidence that Wasilewski and others have been proved right.

Nine of the 10 pythons carrying transmitters died during the frigid blast. Soon after the weather broke, Wasilewski and a team of searchers found 14 others along a canal bank -- and seven of them were already dead.

The day he invited me to tag along, the sun was bright and conditions were ideal. We searched between 10 and 15 miles of prime snake habitat and didn't find a single Burmese, dead or alive.

It was the third consecutive trip in which Wasilewski had come up empty-handed.

His last catch had occurred on Feb. 27, a 13-foot female that wasn't pregnant (unusual for mature pythons, which mate exuberantly and often).

Still, nobody is ready to declare victory.

While the pythons took a major hit from the freeze, they definitely weren't wiped out. Teams led by Frank Mazzotti from the University of Florida found numerous live specimens during the weeks after the cold snap.

In reality, nobody has a clue how many were out there before the temperature plummeted. Nobody has a clue how many survived.

This summer will be instructive. Hot weather makes the snakes hungry and active.

Ironically, those who are best qualified to find and catch pythons are the least enthusiastic about killing them. Good snake hunters tend to be snake lovers.

Wasilewski keeps a 12-foot Burmese as a pet. When he started hunting pythons for the state, he was told to destroy the ones he caught.

Beheading was the suggested method.

He still can't bring himself to do it. "I take them to a vet I know," he says. "He euthanizes them."

Reptile traders say the freeze killed so many snakes that the government should stop worrying about it.

The Interior Department wants to ban the importation and interstate sale of Burmese pythons and other big constrictors, including boas and anacondas. State lawmakers appear poised to pass a law that would go even further, outlawing most commerce in non-native reptiles.

Wasilewski has mixed feelings about the proposed regulations. He agrees that pythons are bad news for the Everglades ecosystem. "Eating machines," he says.

But he also worries that if breeders are banned from selling their snakes, they'll simply drive out to Krome Avenue and turn them all loose.

"This is so new," Wasilewski says of the python plague, "nobody knows what the hell to do."

Except to keep looking.

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