A night of no-kill python hunting in the Everglades with Tom Rahill, founder of the Swamp Apes—a volunteer group using wilderness therapy to aid military veterans dealing with PTSD.
It’s ten p.m. on a June night in Chekika—a vast swath of Everglades National Park (ENP) closed to the public, indefinitely, due to lack of park resources—and I’m road-cruising with Tom Rahill, ENP-sanctioned python-hunter-extraordinaire. Tom takes the curves in the road quickly, hoping to spot the periscope of a python’s head edging up from the grass at the side of the road. Chuck-will’s-widows dart in and out of our headlights, scooping cropfuls of mosquitoes from the air. A barn owl perches at the top of a poisonwood tree, its flat white face a fleeting mask in the dark. We slow as we reach a mile-long stretch of abandoned mango farm. Tom pops out a flashlight and scopes into the dark tangle of trees. “It’s like Mirkwood in there,” he says, “or no…more like Fangorn Forest.” He adjusts his wide-brimmed hat over a long ponytail and pulls at his beard. No snakes, so off we go again, chasing down this thin cut path through acres and acres of saw grass. Every day the afternoon rains inch the water a little higher, a little closer to the road.
Tom is a designated volunteer agent of the Everglades, given permission to live-capture invasive Burmese pythons. He takes his job seriously, sometimes cruising roads from eight p.m until dawn. During these hours the road surface is just hot enough, just cool enough, just quiet enough, to coax the massive reptiles out of their hiding places. Tom doesn’t always work alone. Six years ago he founded the Swamp Apes, a volunteer group that assists military veterans dealing with PTSD by taking them on no-kill snake hunts. Tom calls this “wilderness therapy.” This year alone, they’ve brought in 72 pythons to the park’s biologists. They hope to capture over 100 by the year’s end. At the Park, the pythons are necropsied, their stomach contents and reproductive organs examined and photographed. Burmese pythons have been established in and around the park since the year 2000, largely the result of pet owner releases. I wonder about the day they become an accepted part of the ecosystem. It’s this curiosity about invasive species—and our relationships with them—that puts me in a car with Tom.
It’s Friday the 13th and a full, honey-hued moon spotlights the Everglades. The last time a honey moon and a full moon coincided was on June 13, 1919. The next time it’ll happen is in 2098. We pull to a stop and step out of the car. “You have to see this,” Tom says. I tug my hat lower, roll down my sleeves, and use my hair as an extra shield against the droning mosquitoes. We’re at a lock-and-key gate. Spray-painted across the road in front of it are the words NO SHOOTING. Eastern narrowmouth toads—the same toads Tom swerved to dodge on the road—bay like sheep around us. Occasionally something rustles in the grass or flops in the water: a moccasin, maybe, or a rat. Possibly a gator. The huge moon hangs above us like an open mouth.
We duck under the gate, walking without flashlights. Hardwood hammocks are scattered shadow-lumps in the distance. Along the side of the road: a slew of empty shotgun shells, blue and red and yellow—bright pops of color nestled in the dirt. “Target practice,” Tom says. “People ignore the signs.”
Every once in awhile we pause at a shushing in the grass, flip on flashlights, and scan for snakes we don’t find.
Tom plucks leaves off a Southern Bayberry tree and hands them to me. I crumble them and hold them to my nose. The smell is sharp and clean and good.
We talk about faith, about fearlessness, about wilderness, and eventually Tom leads me to a patch of broken rock and fine gravel just off the main road. I duck under branches hung with poisonwood leaves, scuffing my boots along the weedy ground. People used to camp here. Recently a Nile crocodile showed up and Tom and his veterans were the ones to find it. I’m aware that any number of things could go wrong tonight—a copperhead could snag the skin above my hiking boot, we could startle up a gator or a poacher (my fiction-writer brain hatches a snake-poacher murder scenario—the body never found), but I am unafraid here under the moonlight in the sepia-dark. After five years in Iowa I finally feel at home again, swathed in humidity, mosquitoes buzzing, saw grass stretching and stretching beyond my line of vision.
Tom nudges me and points his flashlight to the ground. “Check it out, artist girl.” He’s grinning. Beneath our feet: a glittering spread of broken glass. Blues, greens, reds—like the shotgun shells—sparkle under our beams of light. An Everglades mosaic. Some of the pieces are sharp, new. Some are as worn as sea glass. People were here, they say. People are here, in this wild place. I surprise myself by finding the whole thing beautiful. This glass makes the dirt shine.
Eventually we find a water snake in the road, and a garter snake. They shimmy through our hands and we move them back into the grass. I get ahead of myself and miss this place even while I’m still in it. It’s late now, almost midnight, and I have a 45-minute drive ahead of me, so Tom and I shake hands and agree to meet again another night. He follows my car to the main road to make sure I find it, then turns back toward Chekika to search a little longer.
On my way back home to the main park, I follow a long road through acres of palm farms and roadside fruit stands, their ply board shelves empty this time of night. I crawl through old downtown Homestead even though I’m the only one on the road, admiring the green-yellow-red of the traffic lights, watching them light up my windshield. Mirrored windows skew my car into a shapeless thing, and me with it. I imagine the office building crumbling, the glass breaking in upon itself and becoming something new, something naturalized the way pythons might someday be, the way the shooters shot glass bottles into the earth, back into the meat of their beginnings.
The Artists in Residence in the Everglades program (AIRIE) aims to “inform, connect, and support artists, writers, and musicians who wish to be ambassadors for the Everglades by providing month-long residencies in the Park.