As state's python bowl nears, Bonita Springs residents prepare for the challenge

Chad Gillis
Fort Myers News-Press

Bonnie Kearns stepped up to a white bag filled with a Burmese python near the tennis courts at the Citrus Park community in Bonita Springs on Thursday. 

The snake slid out of the bag and started to slither toward a nearby crowd.

Kearns circled the snake like a hawk, looking intently at her target and positioning herself for the ambush.  

With a snake hook in her right hand, she lowered her self to the ground, pounced on the 8-footer and held on while it wrangled and tried to wrap around her arm.

Not too bad for a first-time python hunter.

Actually, she's never been on an actual hunt.

'This is my calling.':Everglades python hunter brings her passion to bear in fight against invasive species

More:State wants to expand Burmese python hunting program, double the number of hunters

This training was part of a class to teach a few dozen people how to track down and capture one of the Sunshine State’s most damaging invasives.

"It’s really cool," Kearns said after the catch. "They’re beautiful snakes. It’s a shame we have to kill them, but they’re not native. That’s the sad part, but I understand." 

These wild burmese pythons were used for a training session on how to capture pythons in the wild. The session is held by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at Citrus Park in Bonita Springs. Several residents from the park are going on a hunt Friday to kick off the 2020 python bowl. The invasive species are taking over the everglades and efforts are underway to eradicate them.

Kearns is one of eight Citrus Park residents who plan to go to the historic Everglades Friday and hunt as a part of the Python Bowl — a snake-catching competition hosted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the state agency charged with controlling exotic species. 

More:What is the Python Bowl?

The full name is the Florida Python Challenge 2020 Python Bowl and it's expected to attract hundreds of first-time and seasoned hunters. 

It was put together by FWC, the South Florida Water Management District and the Miami Super Bowl Host Committee.

FWC has held several public snake hunts in the past and hires contractors, along with the water district, to hunt down these imported ambush predators. 

Burmese pythons are native to Southeast Asia but have been a part of the South Florida landscape since the late 1970s. 

"Anecdotally, a lot of people seem to think pythons came onto the scene after Hurricane Andrew, but there is evidence they were in the Everglades before that," said Daniel Quinn, an FWC python expert who taught Thursday's class. "(Hurricane) Andrew probably didn’t help much, but they were already out there." 

These wild burmese pythons were used for a training session on how to capture pythons in the wild on Thursday Jan. 9. 2020. The session is held by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at Citrus Park in Bonita Springs. Several residents from the park are going on a hunt Friday to kick off the 2020 python bowl. The invasive species are taking over the everglades and efforts are underway to eradicate them.

The thinking is that Burmese pythons had already established themselves in the Everglades by 1979. Andrew hit in 1992 and devastated the coastal area, smashing several pet stores that, at the time, carried and sold Burmese pythons. 

Read:Florida sets new record for manatee boat kills, Lee County leads state

Snakes released in the wake of Hurricane Andrew reinforced the already-growing population, and by that point, the species was already entrenched and virtually impossible to remove from Florida. 

Hunts like the Python Bowl started in 2013 and were held again in 2016. 

The first hunt was like a camouflaged circus of people with experience that ranged from hunting local deer and alligators to, well, nothing. 

Deloris Hansen a resident of Citrus Park in Bonita Springs wrangles a burmese python during a training session on how to capture pythons in the wild on Thursday Jan 9, 2020. The session is held by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Several residents from the park are going on a hunt Friday to kick off the 2020 python bowl. The invasive species are taking over the everglades and efforts are underway to eradicate them.

Hundreds of people roamed the woods with machetes, pistols and snake hooks. One man in Miami used a cordless drill to "scramble their brains." 

The 2016 hunt didn't draw international media attention, but it was popular with hunters. 

Since then, hundreds more hunters have taken to designated parts of the historic Everglades to snuff out these damaging snakes. 

Pythons have been documenting eating everything from large wading birds like blue-green herons to deer and even adult alligators. 

Read:Florida panther road kills, overall deaths down in 2019

The first Burmese python located in the Florida Keys was found by accident, Quinn said. 

These wild burmese pythons were used for a training session on how to capture pythons in the wild. The session is held by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at Citrus Park in Bonita Springs. Several residents from the park are going on a hunt Friday to kick off the 2020 python bowl. The invasive species are taking over the everglades and efforts are underway to eradicate them.

"The way they found it is there was a radio signal coming from the snake," Quinn explained to the group. "A researcher was researching the endangered Key Largo rat and she was tracking that rat and it didn’t move for a few days, and apparently that’s not common for that species. They did get the radio back, but it was too late for the mouse."

Lee Friend is a Citrus Park resident who will be hunting Friday. 

She said her heart was filled with adrenaline after wrestling with a big snake. 

"It kind of pooped on my gloves and pants, but I’m really excited," she said. "It will be good for my Facebook page." 

Connect with this reporter: @ChadGillisNP on Twitter.