Burmese pythons have become their own kind of South Florida celebrity since the South Florida Water Management District began its python control program in March.
Since its inception, celebrity-chef Gordon Ramsay has participated in a hunt, cooking up a snake on site after it was caught.
And over the summer, legendary rocker Ozzy Osbourne and his son Jack were taken on a snake hunt for the show “Ozzy & Jack’s World Detour.”
The senior Osbourne’s recollection of the excursion in a Rolling Stone article is laced with characteristic obscenities, but the so-called Prince of Darkness said he didn’t think it was “very cool” to be in a boat surrounded by snakes and alligators, and that it was not his “cup of tea.”
“There’s snakes on the land and there’s (expletive) alligators in the water.’ I wasn’t the ol’ Prince of darkness then, I was (expletive) scared (expletive)less,” Osbourne told Rolling Stone.
Osbourne’s tour guides included Dusty “Wildman” Crum, a contract worker for the South Florida Water Management District who hunts invasive pythons when he’s not doing his day job as an orchid designer.
The 37-year-old, who hunts barefoot, may be one of the more eccentric bounty hunters roaming South Florida these days in an effort to rid the Everglades of the invasive and voracious Burmese python.
The cadre of hired killers — a blend of eco-warriors, swamp scamps and a former political activist — began their landmark mission in March, earning minimum wage as contract workers, plus bonuses based on snake size.
They have killed 788 snakes as of Wednesday, including females with dozens of eggs, and one massive 17-footer that weighed 130 pounds.
“This is a historic effort,” said Crum, who lives in Myakka City east of Sarasota and deals in orchids when he’s not hunting pythons. “We’re out there at least a few days a week putting it to them.”
The program began as an experiment by the South Florida Water Management District. It was set up with a $175,000-budget and a sunset date of June 1. When money remained at the scheduled end date, it was extended, and then extended again with another $125,000 approved this month by the district’s board. The Dec. 14 vote also expanded the program to Palm Beach County.
It is the most successful python removal initiative Florida has tried, said University of Florida wildlife ecology professor Frank Mazotti, and not just because of the numbers of snakes removed.
A clutch of celebrity tourists and politicians have joined in hunts, ginning up a South Florida sensation that has gained international interest.
“I think putting boots on the ground, and the right boots on the ground, has been part of the success,” Mazotti said about the program and the 50 hunters hired by the district. “But one of the best things is the attention it has brought to the problem.”