She emerged from her leathery egg wet, hungry and eighteen inches long. Her first home was a small plastic bin stacked between hundreds of others at the reptile farm. After her first several meals of pinkie mice the breeder deemed her a healthy commodity and peddled her and several other hatchlings to a pet store on Florida‘s west coast. She spent a few weeks in a 10 gallon tank and then became the ill-informed but well meaning purchase by the parents of a sixth grade boy.
Her new home, at 30 gallon tank complete with plastic rocks, trees and a heat lamp, was comfortable and allowed her to fully stretch her ever expanding length. Over the next several months the food kept coming and the voracious appetite of a young snake kept her eating. And growing. Her living quarters graduated to a 50 gallon tank and she was now consuming adult rats weekly.
By the time she reached her first year she was over nine feet long. The weekly rats barely satiated a hunger that demanded meals the size of a small rabbit. Her glass prison felt cramped and she frequently took test pushes on the lid of her tank that was firmly held in place by four clamps and two concrete blocks.
Her internal clock always told her it was feed day. On this day, she sensed the blocks being slid away and her tank lid lifted. But instead of getting the rat, she felt rough hands grab her by the neck and mid-body and stuff her in a pillowcase. Being a snake she was unable to hear so she could only sense the vibrations of car tires on pavement and then later felt herself being lifted once again. Her next sensation was the cold water of the canal. Although she had never swum in her life, instinct guided her to the surface then into the cattails at the water’s edge.
Amazingly, she survived her abandonment in an alien world. She first learned that the holes left from uprooted trees and palmetto thickets were good places to hide. She also learned that the open prairies of muhly grass were good places to bask in the sun while still remaining hidden. Deprived of her weekly rodent feedings the snake became a hunter. Young opossum and raccoons, frogs, cotton rats, birds, and once another invader species, a green iguana, all died in her coils.
Nine years later….
The python was now fully grown at 16 feet long. For the past few years her growth had slowed decreasing her appetite somewhat but when she killed her meals were large, and if needed, could last her metabolism for months at a time. She had taken fully grown raccoons, otters, deer fawns, a bobcat and once had consumed a litter of three unprotected panther cubs.
It was a warm, humid day in late spring and the python lay near the edge of a thicket of palmetto, pine and myrtle trees. This was a proven spot where she had ambushed food before. As she rested, partially concealed by overhanging saw palmetto fronds, both her jawbone and inner ear detected approaching vibrations on the ground. Now alert, her tongue flicked once, twice, and then again tasting the air. This was something new, something different she had never scented before but the heat pits on her upper lip told her this was large, warm blooded prey. Her last meal was small, an armadillo a month back, she was hungry and she struck.
Peyton Fuller was a birder and southwest Florida was her paradise. She reveled in the seasons that signaled the changes in bird behaviors and migrations. Peyton especially loved the springtime weather in the Big Cypress and relished the fact that all the hunting seasons were over and the camo clad, buggy driving hordes had retreated until next fall. Peyton was unaware that their hunting license fees protected more habitat than the few dollars she annually sent to several eco-groups ever would.
Peyton’s mission on this day was simple. She had a brand new pair of 10 x 42 binoculars to try out and knew just the snag in Bear Island that the pileated woodpeckers found especially attractive for feeding and nesting.
She parked the hybrid, slid the insect repellent and a bottle of water into her camera vest, smeared on some sunscreen and hiked in. The water from last summer’s rains had finally receded to the flag ponds and cypress domes and made the walking easy. Peyton knew this area well and found her snag in short time. With her new binoculars she searched the flatwoods for the woodpeckers. If one didn’t show up now, it soon would.
The day began to warm and she reached inside a vest pocket for the water bottle. The searing pain on her lower left calf came simultaneously with being yanked off her feet. The back of Peyton’s head smacked a small chunk of caprock and she lost consciousness.
When the big female python lunged with a strike of over five feet a hundred sharp, recurved teeth dug into flesh. Before the body hit the ground one full coil had already wrapped both of the prey’s legs. Instinct told the reptile to wrap and crush until her sensitive skin told her the prey’s heart had quit beating.
Peyton Fuller gained consciousness briefly and instantly felt the overwhelming pressure of being trapped in a giant vise. Her arms were helplessly pinned to her sides. She opened her mouth and screamed. If not for the relentless traffic on the interstate the two fishermen on the canal might have heard her.
The python eventually relaxed after she felt ribs crack and the heart stop. She unwound her entire length, rested briefly and then attempted to feed as she had always done, head first. But this prey was different, it was wider and unmanageable behind the head. Exhausted from the effort she backed off and crawled deep into the palmetto head.
The boar hog was born with seven others under a clump of saw palmetto on the edge of farm land just east of Sunniland. This litter had the unfortunate luck to be born in the heart of panther territory. Further north or south many would have had a chance to survive, but not here. Before the pigs were six months old five had been taken by the big cats. Another was grabbed by a big bull gator and the seventh was hit by a truck on State Route 29.
It was by simple luck that the pig had lived to adulthood but now the big boar hog had survived five years only by the wits developed over time that allowed it to avoid cars, gators, and hunters. Now at over three hundred pounds only the most desperate panther would attack him. Three of the cats bore the scars of his tusks that protruded 3 inches past his upper jaws.
On this day he roamed further south than he ever had before. His nostrils detected decaying flesh. As an omnivore he had many times before eaten other animals he found dead in the woods. His nose led him directly to the source of the smell.
The big boar charged in, scattering the vultures and began to feed on what was left of Peyton Fuller.