2013 Python Challenge: Few Reptiles, Many TV Crews

Knee-deep in muddy water, Jimmy Ferguson swings a homemade piece of bent metal through the depths. With the midday sun beating down, the gangly ginger is sweating through his camo shirt and matching safari hat. He carefully scans the surface, reading twitches in the current for signs of life slithering below. With schools of fish darting through the pool, he knows he's standing in the middle of a natural habitat for predators.

After a few minutes in the water, though, Ferguson hoists himself onshore, empty-handed yet again. Grinning and gripping a Budweiser, he turns to the TV camera and asks, "Should I come back out of the water like I've been bit by something?"

Nick Mosher, a reality-TV production vet sweating puddles under a black T-shirt, shrugs. "I have the fake blood, so it's up to you."

Ferguson and Mosher were just two of 800-plus people stomping through the Everglades last Saturday, the first day of the 2013 Python Challenge, a made-for-reality-TV state-sponsored contest that's drawn media coverage from Moscow to London to Paris.

The rubbernecking is understandable. In an idea straight out of the hormone-addled mind of a 14-year-old who plays too many first-person shooters, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) agreed to allow anyone who spent five minutes reading an online training PDF to hunt deadly invasive reptiles in the Everglades. Proponents promised a pile of dead snakes. Critics predicted the only casualties would be weekend warriors knocked out by dehydration and flying shrapnel.

Sadly, the outcome was much less dramatic than either side had forecast. The hundreds of hunters on the scene Saturday reported exactly zero dead pythons, mainlining serious doubt into FWC's claims that the contest would turn the tide on the reptile invasion. That doesn't mean the day was a total bust, though. An army of TV cameras and reality-TV entrepreneurs got reams of footage, whether staged or not.

"One of the best hunters around says that on average, it takes more than 100 hours to get one snake," Ferguson says. "It's not just something that happens overnight."

No one is quite sure when or how Burmese pythons, which are indigenous to Southeast Asia, found their way into the Everglades. Some observers say thoughtless owners dumped the creatures in the swamps; others believe Hurricane Andrew might have released a large number from pet shops into the wild. Either way, just more than a decade ago, these pythons began wreaking havoc on the local ecosystem.

The snakes average 16 feet in length and will eat virtually anything. Last January, a report by the U.S. Geological Survey showed pythons had dropped raccoon and opossum populations by 99 percent in the park. There were no rabbits or foxes left in the area. Without any natural predators, meanwhile, the snake's population has ballooned; the latest estimates put the number at 100,000 slithering in the park.

Enter the 2013 Python Challenge. Between January 12 and February 10, the state has thrown open the gates of the Everglades to anyone with $25 and a jones for python hunting. When the last whistle blows, the hunter with the most notches in his or her belt lands $1,500. The largest python wins its executor $1,000.

Ferguson is exactly the kind of character the state wants. Born in Key Biscayne, he grew up hunting and fishing in the Everglades. Hanging from the walls of his home in Pembroke Pines are mounted catches and pictures of Ferguson working in the bush; shark jaws dangle inside his truck cabin. When he's not on his day job as an electrician, Ferguson is out in the River of Grass, usually accompanied by his 18-year-old daughter, Jennifer, a freckle-faced West Broward High senior.

About eight months ago, the father-daughter pair became interested in python hunting. Ferguson got a permit from the state, slapped an official "FWC Python Agent" sticker on the side of his truck, and began shaking down the bush. They've snagged only one in all of that time: a ten-footer Ferguson says he wrangled with his hands.

"It's not fun if you don't catch it by hand," he twangs before dissolving into a slightly cracked giggle. "They rear their heads up about nut-high, so you have to be careful."

On the Saturday the challenge begins, the Fergusons pull up to the contest's kickoff event in Davie. It's love at first sight for Chuck Ardezzone. A bald, gym-swollen barrel of a guy with Prada shades and an iPhone case shaped like a giant pair of brass knuckles, the Naples native is on hand to cast a reality-TV show. All morning, he'd been coaching hunters as they delivered their game plans into his camera.

"It has everything for the makings of a reality-TV show," Ardezzone says of the challenge. "It has interesting, larger-than-life characters. There's high stakes, you've got prizes at the end, and there's only 30 days to do it. And you have danger."

Ardezzone has sunk $15,000 of his own money into a seven-man crew to trail his handpicked hunters for the day. The Fergusons are perfect: a redneck father-daughter duo straight out of central casting. They're also an easy sell. "I want to see myself on Netflix," Jennifer says. Jimmy is blunter: "I wanna make some money, man."

After the Fergusons hastily sign a release to film their hunt, Ardezzone pairs them with Mosher. Around 1:30 p.m., the Fergusons and the cameraman roll out with an assortment of gear straight from the gladiator pit. Scoffing at the snake sticks on sale for $90 a pop, Ferguson jury-rigged his own out of a bent piece of conduit and a fishing-rod grip. His back is strapped with a custom-made Manny "Sharkman" Puig knife. For snakes measuring more than 12 feet, he's got a Taurus revolver that fires shotgun shells and can take off a python's head with a single trigger pull.

Most important, his cooler is stocked with Bud. "You ain't going to be jumping on no python without that," he laughs.

With Mosher running his camera, the father and daughter hit the bush around North Okeechobee Road, kicking at the shade under coco plum plants, sawgrass bushes, and other pieces of prime python real estate.

"See how the grass is all pushed down," Ferguson coaches his daughter for the camera, his voice hitched up into a prime-time decibel. "That's what you have to look for, the signs. An animal has been hanging around this tree." A suspenseful pause. "Hopefully, it's a python."

As the truck bed rattles with empty beer cans, Ferguson pulls in at Mack's Fish Camp, a weekend getaway sitting on a slim canal where two gators dubbed Elvis and Sneaky Pete coast upstream. The father and daughter are regulars, and Ferguson has come with some insider info. The camp once had a 14-foot pet python named Speed Bump. It got away three years ago, and Ferguson figures it might be hanging out in the nearby marshes.

Thirty minutes later, the hunt adds up to nothing. With the afternoon winding down, Ferguson and Mosher figure it might be time to throw some fiction into the mix. They're tapping into the first rule of reality TV: When reality doesn't cooperate, fake it.

After details are stage-managed over some more gulps of beer, everyone settles on the abandoned camper at the edge of the lot, a forgotten piece of Eisenhower-era ordinance sprouting sawgrass. It's the perfect hiding spot for pythons and other snakes, except Ferguson already gave the building the all-clear an hour earlier.

But now, with the handheld high-def camera rolling, the Fergusons again walk through the trashed interior. The father sends up a B-movie bark of horror. A few quick squirts of costume blood finish off the effect.

"OK, maybe one more. Little louder. That was good," Mosher says. "It's always good to have a couple of takes."

"Like you really got hurt," Jennifer deadpans to her dad.

After a second go at staging a bite, Ferguson decides to call it a day. All over the Glades, TV crews and newspaper reporters tailing would-be python slayers file reports that no snakes have been caught. (By Monday afternoon, however, FWC reported 11 had been captured.)

Before the pair makes it to the end of a dirt road leading back to civilization, though, a car heading the other way screeches to a halt and a guy in skinny jeans and a Gilligan hat jumps out, camera in hand, asking Ferguson if he's seen any pythons. When he spots the driver's hand, he asks what happened.

"Bit by a python," the hunter replies straight-facedly.

The photographer, who says he's working for Vice Magazine, snaps shots of the fake blood caking Ferguson's fingers: It's another successful quarry for the real hunters at this Everglades contest.

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Kyle Swenson

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