Jake Waleri and Stephen Gauta were out snake hunting about 1 a.m. on July 10 in South Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve when they made history. Big Cypress, which is south of Lake Okeechobee, is wild Everglades country. The preserve is jam-packed with invasive Burmese pythons that have devastated the state’s small mammal population in recent years.
Waleri and Gauta, better known as the “Glades Boys,” are veteran python catchers and hunting guides. They’ve captured dozens of snakes, some of them up to 18 feet long. But that night, they encountered their Holy Grail: a record-breaking 19-foot female with a bad attitude.
“It’s the only snake that scared me enough that I just didn’t know what to do,” Waleri, 22, said in a video recounting the experience. “We spotted it at 1 a.m., and thought it was a 10-footer. Then we realized it was an absolute monster.”
Capturing that monstrous snake was a chaotic mess, Waleri said.
“We tried to pin the head, but that wasn’t working,” the Ohio State University student explained. “So I just jumped on it. It was a real fight.”
Waleri says they tried to pin the snake with a net, and the reptile even struck at him. But eventually they subdued the python and killed it.
Knowing they had a huge python, Waleri and Gauta contacted the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. The environmental advocacy non-profit has been involved in python capture for years to help save the Everglades from the invasive snakes. They spoke to Conservancy biologist Ian Easterling and eventually brought the snake to the Conservancy in Naples for official measurements. The duo also made the decision to donate the python’s body to research.
Easterling measured the snake at 19 feet and 125 pounds. The previous Florida record Burmese python was 18 feet, 9 inches long and weighed 215 pounds. He says the 19-footer is the longest Bumese python ever recovered in Florida, and perhaps anywhere.
“We had a feeling these snakes get this big and now we have clear evidence,” Easterling said. “Her genetic material may prove valuable for an eventual understanding of the founding population of South Florida. We will be collecting measurements and samples that will be distributed to our research collaborators.”
Easterling said the 19-foot snake had likely recently laid a hundred or more eggs and was searching for its next meal.
“They’re getting huge while eating our native wildlife,” Easterling said. “The bonus is that these guys … brought it to us for the official measurements, so we’ll be collecting the genetic information and the diet information and other data.”
Gauta is seeing more small mammals in areas where they have been removing snakes from the Everglades and believes python hunters are having an impact on the invasive predator snake population.
“It’s pretty terrifying that these animals are so destructive to our ecosystem, but knowing we can take monsters [like this snake] out of the Everglades makes you feel good,” Gauta said. “The more people we get involved in these efforts [removing pythons] the more benefits we’ll see.”