COLLIER COUNTY — It could easily have been an April Fools’ prank.
The thing is, nobody was fooling.
An eight-foot Burmese python was rescued from the rafters of a Marco Island Executive Airport hangar Thursday, a couple of days after first being spotted on April Fools’ Day.
The rescue was a collaborative effort between the Civil Air Patrol, the Marco Island and Isles of Capri fire departments and an animal rescue team from the nonprofit Everglades Outpost.
The snake was spotted Tuesday by a youth cadet of the Marco Island Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol. It was curled up 30 feet into the rafters of the hangar.
On that stormy April Fools’ night, cadets were practicing their drills at the Marco Island Executive Airport. Because of the rain, the cadets worked inside the hangar instead of on the airport’s tarmac.
Aidan Brennan, 12, was credited with identifying the mysterious shape in the rafters as a snake.
“My friend Ian spotted something but wasn’t sure what it was,” Aidan said. “They turned on the lights and I could see it was a snake.”
Word of the uninvited house guest quickly spread through the squadron, and Capt. Mike Levine took charge of dealing with the snake’s removal.
His first concern, he said, was for the animal’s safety.
“I’ve always felt close to animals,” said Levine, whose wife works with a cat rescue shelter on Marco called For the Love of Cats.
Levine said his wife told him about Bob Freer, whom she had seen profiled on the television network Animal Planet. She knew Freer was based out of Florida City and encouraged her husband to contact him.
Next, Levine drew on the resources of the Isles of Capri and Marco fire departments. The Isles of Capri department holds jurisdiction over the airport, but lacked a truck with an elevation platform. That’s where the Marco Island Fire Rescue Department stepped in.
Marco fire Engineer Dustin Beatty said the collaboration with the fire squad from Isles of Capri is common.
But this joint effort was an unusual assignment.
“Cats in a tree, I’ve heard of that,” said Lt. Steve Donovan of the Isles of Capri fire department, “But snakes out of a hangar, that’s a new one.”
Beatty dealt with a reptile on one other occasion, but the elevation of the snake’s hiding place was a little different.
“We’ve had a snake in a manhole, but not a snake in an airplane hangar,” said Beatty.
When the rescue crew finally arrived, they were received like the home team entering the stadium.
Freer came clad in a floppy fisherman’s hat and a gray t-shirt. The rest of rescue squad arrived in black sleeveless T-shirts that read “Everglades Outpost” and pictured a yellow cobra.
Beatty and the three-person team climbed onto the Marco fire truck and rode up the elevated platform. As the team got closer to the snake, Everglades Outpost member Joe Wasilewski remarked that the snake was not that big.
Burmese pythons can grow up to 20 feet at their largest.
Freer, Wasilewski and Mario Aldecoa, the team’s third member, climbed off the truck’s platform and onto the retracted hangar door, which served as a scaffold for the men to reach the snake.
The team had to be careful to stay on the door’s metal trusses. A false step onto the panels would have meant crashing to the floor.
Wasilewski reached the dormant snake first. He poked at the python, trying to reach its head.
The snake stirred and tried to escape Wasilewski’s grasp, but Freer and Aldecoa arrived in time to grab hold of its sinuous body before it could slither away.
The three men wrestled the python for several minutes — passing the head to one another to avoid a bite — before finally getting a secure grip.
Freer and Wasilewski carefully walked back to the truck’s platform, the snake still struggling in their hands.
They passed the snake to Aldecoa, who had climbed back onto the truck’s platform for the hand-off.
The team descended with their cargo still snapping its jaws with a threatening ferocity.
“He ain’t happy,” Wasilewski said.
Down below, the observing crowd cheered the heroes.
Once off the truck, Freer and Wasilewski held the snake for the onlookers to touch. Many stood back and took pictures with cell phone cameras.
Freer, holding the snake over his head with one hand around the neck, estimated the snake was 8 feet long and determined it was a female.
The Civil Air Patrol elected to name her Lt. Bernice and make her an honorary member of the squadron.
For Freer and his crew, dealing with snakes is nothing new.
“We’re on calls two, three times a week,” said Freer. “People just have [Burmese pythons] as pets and when they get big, they just release them or they escape.”
Though snake handling is nothing new to Freer, he admitted that this adventure was his first time climbing into an airport hangar’s rafters to retrieve a snake.
“Even though it’s stuff we do all of the time, it was a new situation in the hangar. And all of the people being around us excited was nice,” said Freer.
For the crowd it was an especially new experience.
“Everybody’s smiling. Everybody’s happy,” Levine said. “The snake is safe. Everything’s great.”
Freer said Lt. Bernice would be taken back to Everglades Outpost. Because Burmese pythons are considered exotic, invasive animals, Bernice will not be released back into the wild.
Instead she will be displayed for educational purposes and given a comfortable home to live out the rest of her days.
Staff writer Leslie Williams contributed to this report.