It had been a long, exciting night in Everglades National Park. Road cruising had been good to us that evening – nearly every afternoon for the past two months had been mired in rain, which is oftentimes a kiss-of-death for roadcruising in southern Florida. This night, however, was dry, warm and of overcast skies to obscure a big moon. I surmised that it should be a great night, and it was: so far we were at 22 snakes, including one hatchling Python – fresh out of the egg caught down near Flamingo. Tom, Dermot, Eric and I were crammed into my car and neither Dermot nor Eric had the pleasure of cruising up and laying hands on a wild python, so it was a fun and exciting night already.
So we were continuing on, noticing a set of taillights up ahead. Typical etiquette in ENP in the depths of a summer night is to stop and talk to any other herpers you see (and trust me, if someone’s there braving the mosquitoes between July and September it’s probably a herper.) Well, consequently the taillights turned into break lights, so we drove up to say hello and see if they’d turned up something interesting. As we rolled up, I noticed there were two vehicles off to the side, and a small gaggle of people in the road. One of them appeared to have a snake in his hand, but I couldn’t yet see what species it was as the scene was bathed in headlights from vehicles and my eyes hadn’t adjusted. Naturally though I assumed it was a python since that is the only snake species that a lot of people have Letters of Authorization to search for in the Everglades. True, one can obtain a permit to study any other species occurring in the park if they have a legitimate study need and do the proper paperwork, but I know most of the other folks who have permits for that kind of stuff, and these folks were certainly not any of them. So, the gentleman with the snake walked closer to the window, and as my eyes finally adjusted I saw that he did not have a python in his hands. Not even close: his fingers were wrapped around the neck and head of a two foot Florida Cottonmouth.
In my mind, I was running through a mental checklist of everything that was wrong with this situation:
Handling wildlife in the park: Illegal without a permit…
Possessing a venomous snake in Florida: Illegal without a permit…
Handling a venomous snake by pinning the head: Irresponsible, both in terms of the likelihood that he’ll get bitten and the fact that the cottonmouth looks like its head might pop off at any minute.
But, fortunately, I’ve been blessed with the ability to carry on a conversation while completely distracted.
“How’s it going?” I asked.
“Oh doing ok, are you guys out looking for snakes?”
“Nice, any luck?”
“A little bit, 22 snakes so far.”
A dismayed look came over his face, “Really? Man, we’ve only found three Cottonmouths tonight, no non-venomous at all.”
A wave of incredulous bewilderment came over me. If this was their third Moccasin of the night and this fellow was squeezing its head like the last bit of toothpaste in the tube; what horrors had the first two been subject to?
Oh well, the matter at hand: “Well, if you didn’t pick up every Cottonmouth you saw, you might get a chance to see some of those non-venomous snakes on the road.”
Snickers from girls with him. I try my best not to be a jerk to people, but in the current situation my comment was really the least of the options running through my head.
“No, no,” he pleaded, “I’ve been doing this all my life, I have a lot of experience working with venomous snakes.” He looked about 25 or 30.
“You don’t say.”
“Yeah… Have you guys seen any pythons tonight?”
“Yeah, one hatchling.”
I know the frustration of being out in the Everglades and not turning up the target python, so I offered to show it to the group, despite my misgivings about the ringleader.
We threw on our caution flashers, got out of the car and walked to the back, where I grabbed the bagged up python and got it out.
“Yeah,” said the one with the Cottonmouth, “my friend and I are out here showing ‘the Adventure Girls’ some of the Everglades’ snakes, we’re hoping to see some nonvenomous.”
It was only then that I noticed the assortment of folk that were standing in the road. Initially there were only 3 or 4 of them, but now they emerged from the two vehicles that had evidently been crammed full as clown cars: ten, twelve people now stood around us in a clumped gaggle. The group, I noticed, looked like they’d just emerged from an 80s rock music video: the Cottonmouth wrangler had acid wash jeans, a beater shirt with armholes going down to his waist and forearm tattoos that the fog of war has since scoured from my memory. The “Adventure Girls” had a diverse wardrobe – many wore tights: some pink, some giraffe print; and at least one wore a rag of an open-sided Whitesnake t-shirt (appropriate, I guess?), and a bikini underneath. The clouds of mosquitoes around us had me thinking that either they were all doused in enough DEET to kill a man, or the huge quantities of exposed skin among the group was going to be red and welted ere long.
Master Moccasin told his group how Pythons were an invasive species, etc., and all while the Cottonmouth was in his clutches, and we were about ready to depart. But before we did, he had some more questions for us:
“Hey, do you know Cobra Carl?”
Inaudible groan from me.
“No, ‘fraid not: I know Boomslang Bobby and Rattlesnake Rachel though.” Ok, maybe I shouldn’t have said that…
“No, he’s a legitimate herpetologist.”
Ok, joking aside, “ahh, no sorry, I usually don’t hang out with people with snake names in front of their names.”
By this time, the poor Adventure Girls even saw the danger both the snake and the guy were in because of his irresponsible handling, so we decided that was a good opportunity to mosey.
“Anyways, good luck, have a good evening.”
The group thanked us for the close-ups of the python and we hopped in the car. We slid away, and were silent for 3 or 4 seconds of deep contemplation… and then an eruption of laughter.
“Did that really just happen?” someone said. I wasn’t quite certain myself, it was a surreal moment. I considered calling the Park Service, but I was pretty sure they weren’t collecting anything, so there’d be no evidence of his lawbreaking. We slid down the lonely road, finally exiting the park where a lone, big Cottonmouth was crossing. I looked back and saw familiar headlights coming fast. I jumped out of the car, snake hook in hand, and flung the snake as far as I could off the road: somewhat crude methodology, and I’d have chastised myself in any other situation for such flippancy with a snake. But those headlights were coming on quick. If the snake knew, he would have thanked me.
This hatchling Burmese python was the least strange sight of the night.