DAVIE, Fla. - 12 Jan 2013

1. Wide of instructor opening bag containing Burmese python before entrants in the contest.

2. Medium of python moving on grass

3. Medium of contestants walking past sign.

4. SOUNDBITE: Nick Wiley /Executive Director, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

"The big reason is to get people involved because we need help. This is not a small problem that we can solve just with what we're doing. So, we want to get more help in there, we want to get people understanding the problem.

5. Cutaway of contestants

6. Medium of table with poisonous Florida snakes, pull out to instructor

7. Pan of clothing and accessories made from python skin.

8. NATS: Chris Wood /Trapper

"If you hold up those pants, those are pants made of python skin"



14. Wide of Burd and Keenan walking into Everglades.

15. SOUNDBITE: Dan Keenan:

"You know, you never know where a snake might be. Venomous or not, so you want to make sure you're looking all over the place."

16. SOUNDBITE: Dan Keenan:

"Now if I was a snake, this is where I'd would like to be. See, there's a nest right up here.

17. SOUNDBITE: Steffani Burd and Dan Keenan:

"That's cool!"

"That's creepy. Those are some big claws right there. That's a little bigger than I'd like to see right there. You see that? Four claws.

18. SOUNDBITE: Steffani Burd and Dan Keenan:

"I'm at one. "

Wow, that's a, you are. That's a big handed creature there."

19. Medium of Burd and Keenan moving through dense growth.

20. Close-up of Burd ducking under tree limb.

21. Burd on other side of limb

22. SOUNDBITE: Steffani Burd:

"By us walking around here, regular people, trying to crawl through all this and seeing what the environment is like -- we just saw those bromeliads that are gorgeous. I spent years trying to grow something. It's just growing there. So, for me, I take back to my friends and my community that there's a beautiful environment out here. So, it's like opening the picture from just the python issue to the larger issue of how do we protect our environment. "

23. SOUNDBITE: Dan Keenan:

"I think it's going to be a good thing. And just regular people. I mean, regular people make the world go round. So, I don't see any reason why regular people can't come in and look for a reptile and have a good time in the woods at the same time. As long as they're safe and look out for each other

24. Medium of Burd and Keenan exiting Everglades


BC-US-ODD--Python Challenge,2nd Ld-Writethru/713

Eds: Clarifies that hunt took place at various locations in Everglades. With AP Photos. For global distribution.

Florida 'python challenge' draws about 800 hunters

JENNIFER KAY,Associated Press

BIG CYPRESS NATIONAL PRESERVE, Florida (AP) - An armed mob set out into the Florida Everglades on Saturday to flush out a scaly invader.

It sounds like the second act of a science-fiction horror film, but, really, it's pretty much Florida's plan for dealing with an infestation of Burmese pythons that are eating their way through a fragile ecosystem.

Nearly 800 people signed up for the month-long "Python Challenge" that started Saturday afternoon. The vast majority - 749 - are members of the general public who lack the permits usually required to harvest pythons on public lands.

"We feel like anybody can get out in the Everglades and figure out how to try and find these things," said Nick Wiley, executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "It's very safe, getting out in the Everglades. People do it all the time."

Twenty-eight python permit holders also joined the hunt at various locations in the Everglades. The state is offering cash prizes to whoever brings in the longest python and whoever bags the most pythons by the time the competition ends at midnight Feb. 10.

Dozens of would-be python hunters showed up for some last-minute training in snake handling Saturday morning at the University of Florida Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center in Davie.

The training came down to common sense: Drink water, wear sunscreen, don't get bitten by anything and don't shoot anyone.

Many of the onlookers dressed in camouflage, though they probably didn't have to worry about spooking the snakes. They would have a much harder time spotting the splotchy, tan pythons in the long green grasses and woody brush of the Everglades.

"It's advantage-snake," mechanical engineer Dan Keenan concluded after slashing his way through a quarter-mile (400 meters) of scratchy sawgrass, dried leaves and woody overgrowth near a campsite in the Big Cypress National Preserve.

Keenan, of Merritt Island, and friend Steffani Burd, of Melbourne, a statistician in computer security, holstered large knives and pistols on their hips, so they'd be ready for any python that crossed their path. The snakes can grow to more than 20 feet (six meters) in length.

The most useful tool they had, though, was the key fob to their car. Burd wanted to know that they hadn't wandered too far into the wilderness, so Keenan clicked the fob until a reassuring beep from their car chirped softly through the brush.

The recommended method for killing pythons is the same for killing zombies: a gunshot to the brain, or decapitation to reduce the threat. (The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals doesn't approve of the latter method, though.)

Pythons are kind of the zombies of the Everglades, though their infestation is less deadly to humans. The snakes have no natural predators, they can eat anything in their way, they can reproduce in large numbers and they don't belong here.

Florida currently prohibits possession or sale of the pythons for use as pets, and federal law bans the importation and interstate sale of the species.

Wildlife experts say pythons are just the tip of the invasive species iceberg. Florida is home to more exotic species of amphibians and reptiles than anywhere else in the world, said John Hayes, dean of research for the University of Florida's Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Roughly 2,050 pythons have been harvested in Florida since 2000, according to the conservation commission. It's unknown exactly how many are slithering through the wetlands.

Officials hope the competition will help rid the Everglades of the invaders while raising awareness about the risks that exotic species pose to Florida's native wildlife.

Keenan and Burd emerged from the Everglades empty-handed Saturday, but they planned to return Sunday, hoping for cooler temperatures that would drive heat-seeking snakes into sunny patches along roads and levees.

Burd still deemed the hunt a success. "For me, I take back to my friends and community that there is a beautiful environment out here. It's opening the picture from just the python issue to the issue of how do we protect our environment," she said.