For war veterans, a python hunt can help fight PTSD

This Veterans Day, python hunter Tom Rahill will have a lot to celebrate.

Rahill is the force behind Swamp Apes, an organization that takes war veterans to the Everglades to catch pythons as a way to ease combat trauma.

He recently caught python number 1,000 in a program run by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to eliminate the invasive snakes from the Everglades., where they are ravaging native animal populations. Now, Rahill, who is not a veteran himself, is planning to use the skins of pythons caught by veterans to produce wallets, boots and other accessories. It will be a way to generate revenue for Swamp Apes and finance Rahill’s dream to offer therapy to vets who struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“This idea is in its initial stages, but it would be a way to celebrate the beauty of the python and to use the animal for a good cause, while helping to control populations in the Everglades,” said Rahill, who captured the milestone python last month in the Chekika region of Everglades National Park.

Though not terribly large — about 9 feet, compared with record-setting 18-foot snakes captured this year — it was a feisty male and a good candidate for tracking and hormone research currently underway to help control the infestation of the destructive reptile, he said.

The removal of 1,000 snakes by FWC’s Python Action Team in just under two years adds to the more than 2,600 pythons captured by the South Florida Water Management District’s Python Elimination Program, as wildlife managers step up the fight against the voracious exotic reptiles.

Burmese pythons are invasive and have decimated entire populations of small mammals in the Everglades. Tom Rahill

Burmese pythons pose a huge threat to the Everglades ecosystem, as they can easily move around the marshes and tree islands, gobbling up small mammals, wading-bird eggs and even small alligators. For nearly two decades pythons have been successful at reproducing in the wetlands because they have no predators. Females can lay up to 100 eggs a year.

Pythons first appeared in the Everglades in 1979, but the population only grew enough to become an issue in the early 2000s. Researchers believe that pythons that were kept as pets were released by frustrated owners and started breeding in the wild. Others speculate that the python’s spread into the Everglades began after Hurricane Andrew smashed into a breeding facility in 1992.

The slithery invaders’ numbers have grown exponentially ever since, to as many as an estimated 300,000. They are now considered the top predator in the Everglades, capable of devouring adult deer and blamed for nearly wiping out the population of small mammals at Everglades National Park.

For years, wildlife managers struggled to contain the snakes with traps and poisoned prey. Recently, state officials have organized python challenges and expanded the ranks of paid hunters, giving incentives according to the size of the snake and offering bonuses for egg-bearing females.

This year the state tripled its budget for python elimination to approximately $1 million and expanded snake hunting to more counties in addition to Miami-Dade and Broward: The program now also operates in Palm Beach, Hendry, Collier and Monroe.

The Water Management District is doubling its bounty hunters to 50, attracting candidates from as far as Spain and Iran. It’s also using detection dogs and GPS-tracked snakes, and soliciting ideas for innovative hunting techniques.

So far, the most successful elimination effort has been the army of licensed hunters who prowl the Everglades year round, cruising along the roads of Everglades National Park and other preserves looking for something glistening in the grass, slithering on the asphalt or wound up on a tree branch.

Tom Rahill founded Swamp Apes in 2008 to take veterans to capture pythons in the Everglades. Tom Rahill

“And what better python removal agents than highly trained veterans?” Rahill asks, his eyes smiling under the wide-brimmed bush hat he wears religiously. He wears olive green fatigues and a safari shirt with the Swamp Apes badge on the sleeve, a gorilla standing with its arms up holding a python, and the group motto: endure, evolve, achieve. Rahill was familiar with military life and skills through his brother-in-law and sister-in-law, both members of the Army, and thought that the skills they had - respect for a chain of command, a sense of mission target, situational awareness, self-reliance - fit the profile of a python removal agent.

The FWC needs skilled hunters who can help control the Burmese python infestation in the Everglades, and Rahill knows lots of them. He has taken hundreds of veterans on expeditions to look for pythons since starting the organization in 2008. The Swamp Apes have probably caught over 1,000 pythons but Rahill isn’t really counting.

The program is unstructured — veterans usually reach out to Rahill, who plans the outings and instructs the vets on snake-catching skills. Not that they need it: most Swamp Apes have top military skills, and use lessons from the battlefield in the fight against the top predator in the Everglades.

Air Force Lt. Col. Arnold T. Stocker, a certified registered nurse anesthetist and a longtime volunteer with the Swamp Apes, says most recruits who go to the Everglades in search of pythons feel more connected to nature, which helps them regain a deeper sense of purpose. Because the python hunt is an opportunity to use their skill set under completely different circumstances, vets feel valued after returning from war, said Stocker.

Rahill’s goal is to create a three-month program with a professional therapist who would join the hunts to provide more targeted help while vets are on the prowl for snakes.

A 2018 study by the College of Behavioral & Community Sciences at the University of South Florida showed that veterans had fewer nightmares and were more focused. Researchers interviewed 10 veterans and seven non-veterans, including family members and healthcare providers, to assess benefits, risks and potential for developing the Swamp Apes activities into a formal therapy program for veterans based on the American Therapeutic Recreation Association’s standards. The study said that the Everglades snake-finding missions reduced trauma symptoms, improved family relationships, eased the transition to civilian life, boosted the feeling of trust in team members and restored a sense of purpose.

The Swamp Apes activities, the study said, “appear to be a unique and promising alternative for veterans and others who have traumatogenic experiences, providing a meaningful escape that helps them regain their functioning while providing a service to communities.”

To join the Swamp Apes, send an email to swampapes@gmail.com

Follow Adriana Brasileiro on Twitter @AdriBras