DR. PETER WEISS: Python Hunting In the Everglades – A ‘Wellness’ Experience
By Peter Weiss, MD // January 28, 2016
Burmese Python Removal Competition
ABOVE VIDEO: FOX News’ Phil Keating reports from the Everglades on the 2016 Florida Python Challenge in which hundreds of people head out to hunt a menace in the Florida Everglades. In the 1.5 million acre Everglades national park, pythons are a dangerous non-indigenous species known for their big appetites and are natural predators that feast on raccoons, rabbits, deer and even an occasional alligator.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Florida Everglades is an extraordinary ecosystem, unlike any other in the world! It is home to a variety of rare and unique wildlife including native birds, mammals, fish and reptiles. However, some reptiles do not belong there and pose a threat to native wildlife.
To address this, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) have teamed up with the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida to bring back the Python Challenge in January 2016, along with a Burmese Python Removal Competition that runs from January 16 through February 14 in south Florida. This exciting conservation effort helps protect the rare Everglades ecosystem and the animals that live there from these invasive, nonnative snakes.
We are delighted to welcome guest columnist Dr. Pete Weiss to share his personal experience living the Python Challenge. This article was originally posted on his blog, HealthDiscipleship.com, which is focused on “Grace Based Wellness.” Dr. Weiss said that the three days spent in the south Florida wilderness with his son and good friends was a unique experience that, in fact, encompassed uplifting aspects enhancing the “wellness” of mind, spirit and body.
— Dr. Jim Palermo, Editor-in-Chief
No doubt you’ve heard about the 2016 Python Challenge, in which crazy amateur snake hunters hit the everglades to capture or kill the mammoth constrictors.
Depending on who you’re talking to, it’s either a nice way to attack the problem of invasive species in south Florida or a publicity stunt inviting unhinged participants to get in touch with their inner rednecks. Perhaps it’s both. In any event, when I heard about it last fall I excitedly posed this question to my male brethren, “Guys, why wouldn’t we do this?!” Well, lots of reasons apparently – fear of snakes, work, other priorities – you know how it goes.
Happily, I had three takers – my son, Kevin; my brother-in-law, Doug; and my close friend, Lynn. Based on vacation time availability we scheduled our trip for the first weekend of the Challenge deciding to stay in Chokoloskee at the edge of the Ten Thousand Islands, and began looking forward to a fun and safe time.
Though none of us had any fear of pythons, other more significant threats did cause some concern, especially poisonous snakes and alligators. Traffic and firearms were things we wanted to be careful about too. Eventually we settled the logistics, became expert python trappers (based on online training supplemented with you-tube videos), got our python permits (team name: “Pete’s Python Posse”) and hit the road.
Arriving at Chokoloskee Island Park we were greeted by nice people, a beautiful
sunset and a good omen in the form of a conversation with the manager. As we were checking in she asked, “Are you guys here to fish?” “No, to hunt snakes,” I replied. “Pythons?” “Yes.” “Oh, someone caught a 10-footer around here just the other day and brought it by in a cooler,” she said.
“Woo Hoo!, we’re in the right place,” I thought. Our rental unit was a fixed mobile home, very nice for four guys on a “camping” trip. It had a full kitchen, bathroom, A/C, heat and cable TV.
Yet we still felt “isolated” in the “wilderness” as the park’s Wi-Fi didn’t reach that far and cell coverage was poor to negligible. After unloading we were off to the Camellia Street Grill in Everglades City for burgers. This is my kind of camping!
Saturday we were up early for a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon and pancakes cooked by Lynn and then off to Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve for a morning of snake hunting. The theme for Rookery Bay was mud, and we spent several hours mudding around in the woods only to come up snakeless. Although snakes were our target, we enjoyed spotting the wildlife in general and ran across a few turtles, various birds and we heard, but did not see, wild hogs close by.
After a lunch break we hit Collier Seminole State Park where two extremely friendly park rangers gave us some tips and suggested a few trails. Here we saw a 2 inch diameter reddish snake, clearly not a python, but we couldn’t tell exactly what it was as we could only see part of its body in the thick mangroves and grass. Later we were excited when Doug rounded a bend and spotted a Florida panther in open ground.
After staring at Doug for a second the panther made for the woods. When one of the rangers came down to check on our progress they told us there were several known to live in that area and we showed him the tracks.
Eventually we packed it in and headed back to Chokoloskee to get cleaned up and enjoy a home cooked dinner and sunset at the marina. It was a good day.
Overnight I awoke to the sounds of a fierce storm – wind, thunder and pelting rain. Thunderstorms, even severe ones, don’t usually cause me concern, but I’m not usually living in a trailer either.
The storm lasted all night and power to the whole island went down at about 6:00 AM. As the sun came up Sunday morning we found extensive flooding covering some local roads, and some minor damage to the marina docks. (As I learned after our trip, there were deadly tornadoes associated with this storm as well as a meteotsunami that caused the flooding.)
So our morning was a little bit delayed. Very fortunately the friendly staff at Chokoloskee’s Havana Cafe opened for breakfast despite the power outage (cooking with gas) serving a menu limited to scrambled eggs, home made potato chips and chorizo or bacon. It was delicious.
With cool temperatures, clear skies and full bellies, our spirits were high as we lit out for Big Cypress Wildlife Management Area. Big Cypress is an extensive tract and we searched a bit before finding a nice place to walk into the marsh. Just before heading off road a couple of Florida Fish and Wildlife Officers pulled up.
Their friendly greeting, “You all look like snake hunters,” granted us legitimacy and filled us with confidence. “Why yes, yes we are.” Seriously, they were very nice and gave us some advice on finding pythons and avoiding poisonous snakes and alligators.
If the theme for Rookery Bay was mud, the theme for Big Cypress was clarity. The air was clear. The flowing water was crystal clear. The terrain was more open, providing clearer views.
Rookery Bay had been interesting but Big Cypress was much more beautiful and we spent several hours walking and enjoying the wilderness. We saw all kinds of birds, including the unusual roseate spoonbill, several deer, alligators, and fish. Everything but snakes. Nevertheless it was another great day.
The next morning we packed up and came home. We had accomplished our primary objective, to have fun and stay safe, and the lack of snakes was a minor detail. I had a very nice time and learned a lot about the everglades. My feeling about the Python Challenge is, yeah, it’s more sizzle than steak (but perhaps that’s just sour grapes since we didn’t find any).
One month of hunting every three years is not going to clear the snakes. Maybe it’s just all about bringing more tourists to south Florida. If so, it’s working for us. We happily made our small contribution to the economies of Chokoloskee and Everglades City, discovered some new territory, and we’re all looking forward to going back again.
Now about the wellness angle, the trip was enjoyable and even rejuvenating. I felt happy and deeply contented the whole time. We all need a break from our work and home routines now and then, and it certainly was that, but it was more than just a break. It was almost a spiritual retreat.
I think many elements combined to make it an especially refreshing time for me, including bonding with my family and friends; being pretty disconnected from the internet, phone and text messaging; doing something adventurous, fun (and maybe a little crazy); learning new things; keeping it simple; contending (in a minor fashion) with the elements and adversity; getting physically active outside in nature; and eating great food.
Seriously, the weekend made a positive difference to my health and wellbeing. I’m thinking about how to do it a couple of times a year, not the snake hunting necessarily, but all the rest. I have another idea too. Maybe I could lead wellness retreats to the everglades, walking and talking about changing for the better. Anybody game?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Peter Weiss is a physician, healthcare executive, author, speaker and health coach with a passion for helping others to health and wellness. His book on personal health, More Health, Less Care, has drawn excellent reviews, and his newest book, The Love Fight, was released in November 2014. Formerly CEO of Health First Health Plans, Dr. Weiss currently serves as Senior Vice President at Florida Hospital in Orlando, part of the Adventist Health System. You can find him on the web at Healthdiscipleship.com