The great hunt: Father and son say 'not a python problem, it's man's problem'

William DeShazer/Staff
Alex Geffre, 16, of Naples, left, walks with his father, Warren Geffre, while python hunting in Big Cypress National Preserve on Saturday Jan. 19, 2013.

Photo by WILLIAM DESHAZER // Buy this photo

William DeShazer/Staff Alex Geffre, 16, of Naples, left, walks with his father, Warren Geffre, while python hunting in Big Cypress National Preserve on Saturday Jan. 19, 2013.

— Warren Geffre kneels in grass on the side of a trail and holds a disposable lighter to the end of a neatly tied bunch of sage until it starts to smolder. His teenage son watches.

"It's just important to make an offering," said Geffre, a Native American Blackfoot from Aberdeen, S.D., who now lives in North Naples. "We're taking a life. We need to give something back."

Geffre fans the bundle with a black and white feather, lifting the smoke to his face and brushing it down toward his feet. He does the same for his son, Alex.

Kneeling together, the two clasp hands while Geffre whispers a blessing, asking for protection and guidance. They stand up, smudge the sage out in a shell and leave behind a small pile of tobacco emptied from a pair of cigarettes.

Now the python hunt can begin.

* * * * *

When he heard that Florida was sponsoring a hunt for Burmese pythons that are threatening to upend the Everglades ecosystem, Geffre knew what he had to do.

He signed up. He got a second job stocking shelves at Publix to pay for snake hunting supplies. He pored over maps to pinpoint spots where pythons might like to hang out.

"They're doing exactly what The Creator intended they do, which is procreate. It's not a python problem. It's man's problem."

Warren Geffre

Geffre hunted deer, pheasant and geese to feed his family when they lived in South Dakota, but he knew nothing about bagging a python in South Florida.

He isn't really in it for the $1,500 prize for killing the most pythons or the $1,000 bounty for killing the longest one. To him, it's personal.

He sees the hunt as a chance to heal Mother Earth and to teach Alex about what it means to take a life — even if scientists say South Florida would be better off without the slithering menace.

"We're put here for a reason," said Geffre, 48, standing with Alex, 16, in a stuffy classroom waiting to hear the rules for the hunt on the Saturday it kicked off last month. "Maybe this is ours."

Florida has never had a hunt like its python-palooza, but then again it has never faced an environmental threat quite like the python. More than 1,500 amateur python trackers from across the country have caught 41 pythons in the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission month-long hunt that ends Feb. 10.

Scientists say the non-native snakes are throwing the South Florida ecosystem out of whack as they do what comes naturally: squeezing the life out of native wading birds, raccoons, foxes, bobcats, rabbits, alligators and deer, and then swallowing them whole.

Pythons have spread far from their home base in Everglades National Park, where they first got established around 2000 after escaping breeding facilities or getting turned loose by disenchanted pet owners. Educated guesses put the size of the population from the tens of thousands to more than 100,000.

Tucker Hanks

Tucker Hanks

Their long lifespans and rapid reproduction rate make them formidable foes. They can live between 15 and 20 years and lay up to 100 eggs every time they nest. Their size can be daunting, too, growing to 20 feet and requiring several men to hoist into the air for a trophy picture.

And then there's their biggest leg up: built-in camouflage of brown and yellow splotches that makes them as hard to spot as a black cat in a coal mine.

"This is like finding a needle in a haystack," Alex said as his father used a computer to research new hunting spots from their hotel lobby.

Alex said his friends were incredulous when he told them he was going python hunting. He admits he thought his father was joking and a little crazy when he first told him about signing up for the hunt.

"Nobody really wakes up and says we're going out to hunt snakes," Alex said.

Geffre never would have considered it. Killing animals is serious business to him because of his belief in the interconnected nature of life, and he admits to having mixed feelings about putting a bullet through a python's brain for no other reason than to kill it.

Doug Stamm

Doug Stamm

"They're doing exactly what The Creator intended they do, which is procreate," Geffre said. "It's not a python problem. It's man's problem."

That means it's man's problem to fix — with humility and respect, Geffre said.

Geffre had an inkling that pulling a python out of the brush would be nothing like picking off prairie dogs on the plains, but the hunch hardened into truth as he stood on an Everglades levee watching the sun set over the marsh on Day 1.

The two had spent the late afternoon hopping on and off mountain bikes on top of the levee, peering into the brush below, looking for movement or a ripple in the barely moving water. Other hunters ambled up and down the levee. Airboats rumbled in the distance.

Geffre, who works at the National Park Service land acquisition office in Naples, carries a makeshift array of snake-hunting tools. One pole has a fork-like attachment on the end. Another has a spring-loaded grabber similar to what he used to use to catch fish, he said. He found a shiny new snake handler's hook and a good machete online.

He packs bottled water, potato chips and saltines, a log of summer sausage he cuts with a hunting knife and a Ziploc bag full of ham-and-cheese sandwiches along with his Ruger .380, a .40-caliber Smith and Wesson, a well-worn .22-caliber rifle and a 12-gauge Remington shotgun.

Geffre wears a turtle shell, representing life and death, on a leather cord around his neck. He and Alex wear the same Native Pride baseball caps with a coiled snake on the front and identical camouflage boots and snake bite protection shields around their shins.

Native American ceremonial songs play softly on the speakers of his Chevy Traverse crossover as he drives from spot to spot. He carries a folder of maps marked with Xs to show where pythons have been caught before and the paperwork he will need to fill out if he nabs one. By the size of the stack, Geffre plans on catching more than one. He is relentlessly optimistic.

Tom Mooney

Tom Mooney

At promising spots along the way, the python hunters swing open their car doors, jump out and explore, crouching down for a better look up a canal and poking their sticks under rocks and into culverts. It is quiet enough to hear a cloud of chirping sparrows flit across the road. Bees buzz as they hop from one wildflower to another.

Alex shouts: "Oh! Snake, snake, snake! It's under this rock here!"

He saw it lying in the grass just before it slid away. He can tell from the tail sticking out that it's not a python.

"I can't imagine where a python would be," Alex says.Geffre reassures: "They're here. They're definitely here."

One day they're using a borrowed boat to access airboat trails through the marshes north of Everglades National Park (the park is off-limits for the hunt). The next day they are using their own four feet to roam back roads and trails in the Big Cypress National Preserve.

They crunch across burned-out grasses and spongy, ash-covered ground to see what a prescribed burn along the Tamiami Trail canal might hold. They pass a still-smoldering tree trunk, a charred snake skeleton and a pile of hatched eggs. Alligator or python? They couldn't say.

At night, Geffre hopes his headlights will fall on a python fending off the cool night by soaking up what's left of the heat off a road. He and Alex each shine a flashlight out of their car window, throwing shadows across trees on both sides of the road. Glowing pairs of alligator eyes look back at them from the dark swamp.

After six days over two weeks, the father-son team has seen wading birds, deer, a black bear munching on berries hanging from a Brazilian pepper bush, big gators and plenty of native snakes, but no pythons.

They plan to keep looking, and when they find one, Geffre already knows what will happen next.

Alex will be the one to pull the trigger, Geffre says.

It will be his first kill, and it will be a noble one.

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