Two years ago, Blake Russ and Devin Bellison made an unlikely discovery about each other: their mutual fascination with catching snakes.
Not just any slithery serpent. They have a penchant for hunting massive, deadly Burmese pythons, with their bare hands. At night.
How two young Mormons came together in their 20s to become front line soldiers in the war to keep invasive species from destroying the Everglades is a lesson in destiny. They met through their wives, at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Miami, Belliston said.
A year later, they were champions of a state-sponsored competition to catch pythons over a one-month stretch. They caught the biggest one, upstaging skilled competitors and Gladesmen who had been at it for far more years.
The snake-catchers’ tale is featured in the third installment of The Python Invasion project, outtakes from production shoots of a documentary featured on MiamiHerald.com. The documentary will broadcast on WPBT2 later in the year.
In the snippet, Belliston, a biology teacher at Miami’s Edison High School, says his secret is cruising the Everglades roadways, keeping an eye out for pythons warming up on the asphalt or rocks.
One recent rainy night hunt, Belliston steered his economical Chevy Cruze down a dirt road, scoping the embankment. His front spoiler rubbed the rocks underneath on steep grades. Who says you need a 4 x 4 to hunt in the Everglades?
Russ, a construction management major student at the University of Florida, lives in Gainesville, but he had driven down for the weekend for a night hunt.
The friends have had their best luck creeping along Everglades roads at night, looking out for anomalies in the bushes: a pattern slightly off, discoloration in the grass, a scaly glint. Sometimes, the pythons are out in the open and get run over.
They decide to go on by foot, climbing down a 15-foot road shoulder made of boulders, where creatures lurk in the crevices, masked by tall grass. The boulders lead down to a 20-foot wide flat bank on the edge of a canal, where alligators nest in the reeds and grass.
The walk along the water’s edge in the dark, with the occasional sound of disturbances in underbrush, raises the question: are they hunting or being hunted?
They carry no weapons, no shotguns or machetes. Just sneakers, t-shirts, flashlights, and courage. They don’t kill the snakes. They jam them into pillowcases or other bags and hand them over to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, which regulates python hunting permits in Florida.
Like many hunters, Belliston and Russ express frustration with the overlapping regulatory policies of FWC, The Department of the Interior, South Florida Water Management, and Everglades National Park. They complain that they can’t hunt inside the national park, where the snakes are believed to be most prevalent, or in other areas where snakes are known to thrive. FWC also cut off access recently to the concrete embankments along many of the Glades waterways, where the snakes tan in winter.
To watch video snippets of The Python Invasion, go to MiamiHerald.com.
Oscar Corral is the founder and president of Explica Media, and the director and producer of The Python Invasion.