Bill Nelson didn’t kill any pythons in the Everglades.
But Florida’s senior senator bagged something bigger Thursday: the rapt attention of the news media.
With a Florida Wildlife commissioner who goes by "Alligator Ron" Bergeron and snake hunters — including one wrangler called "Python Dave" — Nelson and a team of biologists and naturalists roamed the River of Grass to raise awareness about the invasive snakes that are gobbling up the creatures of the Everglades.
The wildlife commission has launched a “Python Challenge” cash-prize contest, which began last Saturday, to get more people to kill more of the snakes.
"These pythons eat everything in the Everglades: bobcats, deer, even alligator and maybe endangered Florida panther," Nelson said.
"These snakes are dangerous. There was a child killed in Central Florida by one of these kept as pets," he said. "The pythons don’t belong here."
But Nelson does.
The Everglades is a piece of Florida history and a place for threatened and endangered species. And Nelson, the only statewide elected Florida Democrat, has been a threatened political species since he first won his Senate seat in 2000.
Nelson, 70, has endured and thrived in a state dominated by elected Republicans. And Thursday’s excursion showed why. Nelson champions and raises awareness of popular causes and knows how to attract press on issues of the day — from the Gulf oil spill to high gas prices to the threat of Chinese drywall to the proliferation of Burmese pythons.
"He has a gift. He knows the value of media exposure and he can earn it," said Rick Wilson, a veteran Republican strategist in Florida who briefly helped run a campaign against Nelson last year.
"Where else but in Florida do you have a U.S. Senator going out to hunt an invasive exotic species that eats alligators and strangles children in their cribs?" Wilson laughed.
Wilson said that, in some ways, Nelson is like the old-time politicians of Florida, a “character” like former Democratic Gov. “Walkin Lawton” Chiles. During his Thursday excursion, some wondered what Nelson’s nickname should be.
Papa Gator? The He-Snake? The King Snake? Python Bill?
“The Last Panther,” said Dan McLaughlin, Nelson’s longtime aide.
“Senator Python,” said Bergeron.
Nelson’s day began as he and Bergeron, a developer and Davie-born Florida cracker, disembarked from the commissioner’s black-and-gold H2 emblazoned with “Alligator Ron” logos.
As cameras clicked and whirred at a dock off Alligator Alley, Nelson held a brief press conference with Bergeron, who held the head of a live 13-foot python while three others kept it from constricting him. The snake had been captured in a Palmetto Bay swimming pool and was brought to the boat-launch as an example of what they hoped to catch and kill.
“These snakes can actually eat an alligator up to about eight feet,” Bergeron said, tightly gripping the python as its tongue occasionally slithered out to taste the air
A TV reporter soon did a stand-up with the snake, warning of the spread of the menace.
But though pythons appear to be spreading at an alarming rate, finding them on a warm day like Thursday is a needle-in-the-haystack exercise.
There could be more than 150,000 pythons in the Everglades and Big Cypress ecosystems that originally covered 4 million acres. So, if the weather isn’t cold and the pythons aren’t sunning themselves on land, they’re almost impossible to find in the shallow, flat expanse of the Everglades, where the snakes blend into the sawgrass and murky water.