by TOBY BENOIT
During our last trip to the Everglades, my best hunting buddy, Meghan Bailes and I joined The Wildman, Dusty Crum, his long-time girlfriend Natalee Mckinney and fellow member of the South Florida Water Management District’s, Python Eradication Team, Greg Morris, for a night’s hunt, searching for wild Burmese pythons. I had the pleasure of interviewing them about the plight of the Everglades and it’s native wildlife.
While bumping down a desolate levy in the Wildman’s customized hunting truck, I asked the star of Discovery’s new hit series, Guardian’s Of The Glades, about how such a humble country boy became the top python slayer in America? He good-naturedly shrugged and answered, “I’d been doing a lot of hog hunting and entering big pig contests. We were winning quite regularly and then the South Florida Water Management District began hosting python hunting competitions. I signed up and soon became a top competitor.
“It turns out I really have a knack for finding them. But, the python competitions didn’t work so well for the SFWMD as they just weren’t getting the numbers. They tried a lot of programs, to try to get a handle on these things. Some deeply based on scientific research with tracking devices and such. But when it all comes down to it, the least funded and most effective program they came up with is the current Python Eradication Program, of hiring us as bounty hunters to go out full time and capture as many as we can.”
Curious to know more about it, I asked how many hunters are currently on staff with the SFWMD. “There’s twenty-five of us and the Florida Wildlife Commission employs an additional twenty-five, all of us independent contractors with one goal. Catch and kill as many of these invasive pythons as possible.”
A bit after midnight, Greg spotted a beautifully bright colored male python and once again I witnessed the Wildman do his thing, assisted by Miss Natalee. She had no hesitation about jumping in and handling that big snake alongside of Dusty and together, they made quite a team with a quick and safe capture and another Everglades invader was slipped into a bag, stowed away and ready for processing.
I asked him to tell me more about the hit show on Discovery. “I’ve always wanted to do something like this and now I have this great platform to show what we do, in order to tell the real story of what’s going on in the Glades. Since ’92 when Hurricane Andrew rolled in leveling a big reptile sanctuary, the pythons have been taking over. There are a lot of big reptiles out here that we try to remove from the wilds, but it’s the Burmese pythons that are doing by far the greatest amount of destruction to the Everglades.”
So, what is the end game out of all of this? “Ultimately, I really want to get the word out. Not just to highlight the hunting, but for folks to see how real the damage is that these pythons are doing. The Python Eradication Program is on a small budget. It’s my hope that enough people across the nation get fired up about the situation that we might begin to draw some federal funding to expand the program and allow us to have an even greater impact on the python population.”
Later in the night I asked, what it is that he does with the pythons once they are properly reported. “Rather than let them go to waste, we’ve developed a line of products from wallets and purses to belts and grab bags from their skins. We now have a few online outlets, such as PythonWildman.com and FloridaEvergladesCollection.com.”
I’m looking forward to another trip to the Glades to once again see the barefooted Wildman in action. That’s right, barefooted…. The Wildman was once asked why he chooses not to wear shoes on the hunt, “When you have a rubber sole between your foot and the earth, you can’t feel what nature is trying to tell you.”
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