Americans’ interest in exotic animals such as lizards, snakes, and birds has created a multibillion-dollar industry. There might be no region where the exotic-pet industry has had as much of an environmental impact as it has in South Florida, where many exotic pets that have been released (or have escaped) into the wild thrive in warm habitats such as the humid, marshy Everglades. The Burmese python has become particularly problematic, as the snake can grow up to 18 feet in the wild, and in recent years has been devouring native Florida species such as the white-tailed deer and the endangered Key Largo wood rat. In at least one case, a python burst after trying to eat an entire alligator.
For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Jenny Novak, a wildlife biologist at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission who oversees the state’s Python Patrol program. As part of her work, Novak has trained hundreds of Floridians to capture Burmese pythons in the Everglades with a special permit. She told me what it is like to get regular citizens involved in wildlife management and some of the challenges that have come up in her job. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Alexia Fernández Campbell: How did you get involved with pythons?
Jenny Novak: The agency had actually just created the Exotic Species section in 2005, and they ended up creating a position for a biologist in Tallahassee to oversee a lot of special projects for exotic species. I heard about the position, and I thought it was very, very interesting. I have always liked exotic animals. Having volunteered at a museum, I had dealt with some exotics back then. I had some exotic pets while I was in college and graduate school, so I was familiar with exotics on my own level.
Campbell: What kind of exotic animals did you have in college?
Novak: I've had various different snakes. I've had things like an African house snake, ball pythons, and giant African millipedes. I've had a variety of exotic fish. I've had a hedgehog. I’ve also had, over the years, various other different animals that have just come my way here and there. For a while, I fostered native possums.
Campbell: In Florida, pythons are considered an invasive and undesirable species. I know they’re known to have caused a lot of damage to the environment. Could you talk more about that dynamic?
Novak: Here's the thing: When you think about exotic pets, they can actually be great. They're low-maintenance pets, and great for teaching people, especially children, about compassion, about responsibility, about the natural world. There's also the bad portions, where you want to teach people the difference between exotic and native animals and to not release exotic animals if they can't keep them anymore. When we think about exotic animals and the environment here in Florida, some of them are what we call “invasive,” and that means they can have a negative impact on our native species, or they can cause economic damage, or they pose a health threat to people.
There are a lot of exotics out there that don't have a tremendous negative impact. We still don't desire them [in the state], but our focus in terms of control, management, and prevention is not always focused on those particular species that are not as detrimental as, say, the Burmese pythons, and the monitor lizards, and the tegus.
Campbell: Can you tell me a bit about the history of the Burmese pythons in South Florida and what they've done to the environment?
Novak: Our earliest records of Burmese pythons go back to about 1979. We don't have data to show this, but it does seem like the population has been increasing a little bit since about 2000. They can be eaten by other things when they're small. It's when they get to be adults that they become more of a top predator, and then they don't really have anything that will bother them except sometimes alligators and humans. They are carnivorous. They do eat other animals, so yes, they have an impact on our native species. They eat other exotic species. They will eat black rats. They will eat Norway rats, but they'll also eat natives, and that becomes an issue when they start to prey upon our native species.
In captivity, they have the potential to reach over 20 feet. That's a really, really large python. In the wild, what we see coming out of the Everglades on average is about maybe six to 11 feet in length. The maximum that we've seen so far is 18 feet, eight inches.
Campbell: Had you ever held a Burmese python before you started the job?
Novak: Yes, but it was not a wild Burmese python. It was a captive pet Burmese python at the museum in Charlotte that I worked at. We had two large Burmese pythons. They were probably in the 11-to-14-foot category.
Campbell: Tell me a bit more about the Python Patrol program that you coordinate. How often are you in the field looking for pythons or training regular citizens to capture pythons?
Novak: Sadly, I haven't spent a whole lot of time in the field looking for pythons. Our trainings take place in a more controlled environment. I’ve probably trained over a thousand people over the last couple of years in how to safely capture and remove Burmese pythons. We do our trainings at places like state parks, at nature centers, at museums, and at government centers.
We began operating the program in 2013, and I have been leading it since then. When we started out, we were training natural-resource workers, first responders, field workers—people whose jobs might put them in contact with Burmese pythons. One thing I wanted to change was opening this up to the general public. There was quite an interest from the people of Florida who were concerned about pythons, concerned about their impact on native species, and who wanted to get involved.
Campbell: That surprises me. Just the thought of coming across a Burmese python in the wild on purpose—why would anyone want to do that?
Novak: You'd be surprised at how many people really are concerned and are willing to go out there and try their best to do what they can. I wanted to open this program up to the general public because pythons, they do grow large and they can have the potential to be dangerous.
It's always advisable if you're out looking for pythons not to do it alone, to have a partner with you, and to know how to do it safely, humanely, and responsibly, so that you limit your risk of injury while working with these animals. That's what Python Patrol is about. It’s giving people this introduction to working with these animals hands-on.
Campbell: Can you describe what you tell people about how to capture a python?
Novak: I tell them that when you come across a python, you want to get it out in the open. You want to make sure you know what you're dealing with. There are several steps you have to take before you're ready to approach the animal to see how it's behaving, but if the snake is just wanting to get away from you and go hide, that's what we call “flight mode,” and that's when you can safely approach the animal from behind.
We use a snake hook. We use the rubber handle of the snake hook, not the hook end. We do pin the animal quickly at the base of the head, and then we show people how to, with the other hand, put their fingers around the neck of the snake and to hold it. It doesn't take a strong hold. It's just a very gentle almost loose hold around the neck to keep those animals under control and to keep them close to the ground. We show them with their free hand then to take the snake bag and get that bag worked over the snake. It's surprisingly an easy process to do. We've trained adults. We've even trained younger children to do this.
Campbell: When you're training them, do you have a real python to show them how to do that?
Novak: Yes. We do work with wild-caught pythons. We have anywhere between 10 and 20 pythons in our training arsenal that we bring to trainings. Each person that wants to complete the class and do the hands-on can, but we don't require everyone to do that. Some people change their minds and aren't quite ready to put their hands on a python, but those that are will be able to work with that python hands-on, and we'll work with them closely to make sure they do it correctly.
Campbell: Was it hard for you to get comfortable handling pythons?
Novak: No, I've never really been afraid of snakes. I don't care to get bitten by snakes, but it's not the end of the world if that happens. I was only bitten once on my shoe, so it didn't break the skin.
Campbell: Is the public very successful in helping you capture pythons?
Novak: The thing is, detection rates for pythons are extraordinarily low. I tell folks it's not easy to find pythons. They don't sit out in the open. They're very well camouflaged. I tell people, “You just have to get out in the field and look and look and look, and don't be discouraged if you go out multiple times and you don't find anything.” That's just the way that it is. Interest in the program has always been very high; I can't offer enough trainings.
Campbell: What do people do with the pythons once they catch them?
Novak: You can catch pythons in Florida under a hunting license or under a python-removal permit. For our properties, and a few other properties out there, as a hunter, if you have a hunting license, they have to be killed onsite. The hunter has the option to keep the carcass if they want to. They don't have to. If you're removing pythons under one of our permits, all pythons get turned in to our staff. We euthanize all pythons, unless we need it for our training program. We do take data on those animals, and if the permit holder wants the carcass, we do arrange for them to pick the carcass up.
Campbell: You used to have snakes as pets. Seeing them get euthanized, does it make you sad that they have to be killed?
Novak: It's not the snake's fault that they are here, but they are here. They are a threat to our native species. There's really no place for us to send them, so we have no other options, really, but to euthanize the ones that come out of the Everglades. What I tell people is that these snakes that are coming out of the Everglades don't make good pets. They're wild-born, wild-living snakes. They're very, very different from snakes that are captive-bred and sold in the pet trade.
Campbell: What motivates you to come to work every day?
Novak: I really like teaching people about Florida's environments, Florida's species, the issues that Florida's natural resources face every day. It's always rewarding for me to go to a training, to meet people, and to have them come up to me afterwards and say how interesting it was, how much they learned, things like that. I ask people a lot of times before a training starts how many are going to think about getting a permit, and then I ask them after the class is over, and usually I see more hands, and I see a lot of very eager people who are ready to get their permit and go out into the Everglades and try their hand at this to see what they can do. Getting the public involved in wildlife management like this is really exciting.
Campbell: What would you say are some of the biggest challenges of your job?
Novak: There's a lot of logistical planning, getting everything done correctly, but also helping to take people to that next step. When you talk about the trainings that we do, they are just an introduction. Going out into the wild and capturing a python in the wild is a whole different thing. We're not able to go out and lead field trips with people, but what we're working on right now is a new incentive program to help and maybe reward them for looking for pythons. It's not anything that's going to pay the bills, but just our way of recognizing people's efforts.
Campbell: What would you say is one of the craziest things that's ever happened to you on the job?
Novak: I've had some very interesting experiences. I was able to canoe down the Silver River and view the rhesus macaques in the trees, which to me was just very interesting. You're sitting there in Florida, and you're looking up, and there are monkeys in the trees. Even though we do have several populations of primates around the state, a lot of people don't realize we have those because they're fairly secretive animals or they're in areas where most people wouldn't go to. To canoe down a river, to me, and to look up and to see primates in the trees is just amazing.
This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a train conductor, a convenience store owner, and a lobster fisherman.