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On The Hunt: Python Challenge About More Than Enormous Snakes

Kate Stein
Donna Kalil shows off the skin of a python she found in the Florida Keys.


Donna Kalil has been capturing snakes for nearly 50 years.

"Where I grew up in North Miami -- where Aventura is now -- those were great places to hunt," she says. "Yellow rat snakes, corn snakes, indigos. Every kind of snake you could think of."

So naturally, when she heard about the Python Challenge, Kalil signed up for the chance to capture Burmese pythons in the Everglades.

Pythons are “bigger than any snakes I’ve caught before,” Kalil said. For her and other hunters in the Challenge, that’s appealing.

The Python Challenge began Jan. 16 and runs through 7 p.m. this Sunday. Individuals and teams pay a registration fee and take an online training course to participate. They trek through the Everglades, competing to capture the most and the biggest pythons. Winners get prizes of up to $5,000.

For Kalil, the challenge of catching pythons is part of the contest’s appeal. The snakes are typically anywhere from six to 12 feet long and are capable of eating alligators and deer. And they’re elusive. Kalil has hunted nearly every day of the contest, but hadn’t caught a python as of Wednesday night.

The Python Challenge also gives Kalil a way to help preserve and protect the Everglades, where as a kid she caught snakes and fished for bass. Burmese pythons are an invasive species, and ever since they entered the park in the late 1970s, they’ve decimated the park’s populations of native birds, reptiles and mammals.

“They eat anything and everything they can get their mouths around,” Kalil said. “So if I can remove a couple of snakes and save a few birds and other animals, that’d be a good thing.”

Beyond the snakes, though, the Challenge appeals to Kalil because it gives her the chance to get out and explore the park with other people who are passionate about South Florida’s wildlife. She frequently hunts with her husband, Craig, and their friend Marc Rodriguez; she’s also brought her nephew, her neighbor and her best friend.

And this past Christmas Day, Donna and Craig and their two adult children caught a 12-foot, 7-inch python weighing 45 pounds. They had gone out hunting for three hours after Christmas dinner and were heading home on Tamiami Trail when they ran over the snake, which was stretched across the road in the dark.

“We couldn’t have avoided it,” Donna Kalil said. “We drove over, we turned around. It was already making its way off the side of the street. I ran over there, grabbed it by the tail and brought it back out into the road, and it was trying to strike me. It was if we didn’t hit it.”

The python succumbed to its injuries the next day and was captured outside of the time period for the contest. So it doesn’t count towards the contest total -- 95 snakes, as of Tuesday night.

That’s OK with Donna, who says she’s basically stopped working at her real estate business for the month of the contest. She’s been hunting five or six days a week, often with Craig and Marc, and says she appreciates the chance to get out and enjoy the Everglades.

And, of course, to pursue some enormous snakes.