Python-sized problem: Wrong winner named in Florida Everglades hunt

A mistake made by a professor led to the wrong person being named winner in the longest-snake-captured category of the heavily publicized Florida’s Python Challenge.

Once the error was discovered, the real winners were announced Sunday in the permit-holder category: Blake Russ, 24, and Devin Belliston, 26, from Miami, who bagged an 11 foot, 1 inch Burmese python. It was six inches longer than the one netted by the announced winner, Ruben Ramirez, whose snake measured 10 feet, 7 inches.

Ramirez should have placed second, not first.

But as cameras rolled Saturday at the Zoo Miami awards presentation, Ramirez received all the media attention.

An embarrassed Frank Mazzotti, professor of wildlife at the University of Florida, who worked with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to design the challenge and help determine the winner, announced his error Sunday and apologized profusely to the real winners, whose snake was not killed but released back to the wild with a tracking device attached to it.

“I am the one who made the mistake that prevented Blake and Devin from getting the recognition they deserved,” Mazzotti wrote in an email to The Miami Herald, which he also posted on Russ’ Facebook page. “I know how important, and rightfully so, the recognition of who got the longest was.”

More than 1,600 people — with or without permits — took part in the month-long hunt in the Florida Everglades, which attracted national media attention. The hunters were vying for cash prizes for catching the largest Burmese python and the most pythons. The invasive species is eating away at South Florida’s ecosystem.

“It’s pretty exciting,” said newly named winner Belliston, a science teacher at Miami Edison Senior High School.

“The mix-up might have come up because that was the python that we didn’t euthanize so that scientists could place a radio transmitter in it,” Belliston said.

Ramirez, Russ and Belliston are members of a team called the Florida Python Hunters. Russ and Bellinston will share a $1,000 prize for the longest catch. Ramirez will not have to return the prize money he received.

Aside from the longest catch, Ramirez was the first-place winner of the most catches in the permit category competition, collecting 18 pythons.

Three Fort Myers buddies won the top general categories in the challenge: Paul Shannon, Jake Carner and Brian Barrows won $1,000 for their 14-foot, 3-inch python and Barrows was awarded $1,500 for catching the most pythons — six — both in the general, non-permit category.

In all, 68 pythons were killed or captured during the Python Challenge.

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