The Everglades are losing life due to invasive Burmese pythons. They are being fought by an unusual sisterhood of the marsh.
This is how it works for Beth Koehler and Peggy Van Gorder: They operate their St. Petersburg, Florida, dog grooming salon, Hair of the Dog, three days a week.
Then they close up shop, load up their camper, and travel to the Everglades where they spend the next three nights searching for Burmese pythons—strong constrictors that suffocate their prey.
They spend hours carefully driving along gravel back roads in pursuit of the elusive invading reptiles each night of the hunt.
They turn on the enormous lights atop their Jeep, making the night as bright as day. A muted symphony of hoots and ribbits fills the muggy air.
While Koehler, the more concentrated of the two, stands with her head through the sunroof and scans the area in front of her for any indication of a snake, the younger, more athletic Van Gorder drives, seldom exceeding around 6 mph.
When they bagged the 500th python to be caught by hunters working for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in 2019, the couple, known to their fellow python hunters as PegBeth, gained some notoriety on a regional level.
They aren’t doing it for the money because finding the slithery invaders isn’t very profitable. The salary for the position is $8.46 per hour plus $50 for each snake, plus a further $25 extra for snakes longer than four feet. The pair occasionally runs out of money, so their pay is almost minimum wage.
No, it’s not for financial gain. It is being done to protect Florida’s wildlife. Koehler, 61, claims, ‘I grew up here. ‘I have observed the changes that have occurred. And all you’ll see from here on out will be snakes, gators, and rats. They must therefore be removed because of this.
Koehler and Van Gorder prefer to hand-capture the snakes and load them into huge sacks rather than using firearms to kill them like some hunters do. Van Gorder, an Army brat who moved around a lot as a child, claims that she enjoys the adrenaline rush that comes from squaring off against a large, hissing snake.
She once suffered a hand bite from a snake that was in struggle. Months passed with the snake’s tooth still in her finger. Her zeal for the hunt was unaffected.
The 55-year-old states, ‘We want to begin our experience right away. «When I’m old, I can sit on a cruise ship.’
Sometimes Gorden-Vega would allow a local hunter or a friend to go along with her while she goes hunting. Sometimes she leaves her spouse, an AT&T service technician, at home while she ventures out alone to cruise the levees.
She travels in a 2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 that has four-wheel drive and brilliant LED lighting on the top. She refers to the truck’s odometer reading as ‘99,000 python miles’.
She uses a lot of gas while spending half the night guarding the levees. She uses audiobooks to fill the void, preferring ‘historical literature, anything about Florida, bizarre stuff.’ Being outside in the Glades and hearing tales of the Everglades is enjoyable.
The element of surprise, according to Gorden-Vega, is her strongest tool for capturing snakes. She takes one of the pythons by the head, but because they are accustomed to being the top predators, the snake is too stun to retaliate. That provides her the opportunity to put it in a bag.
The wrestling match typically lasts 15 minutes, but it can last up to an hour if it puts up a fight. She simply lies down on the snake, presses her elbows in, and exhausts it.
The pythons might sometimes respond by peeing and pooping on her in a very messy manner. She explains, ‘We call that the sweet smell of success because when you get one, you smell that way.’