Hunting massive pythons in the middle of the night doesn’t seem particularly relaxing.
But for a group of Florida veterans struggling with PTSD, it’s a form of therapy.
The Swamp Apes – an association of python hunters founded 15 years ago – are disappearing deep in the Florida Everglades every night.
They are looking for Burmese pythons – a invasive species which has devastated the fragile wetland ecosystem.
“The pythons left a big impact – negative impact – in the environment heresays Tom Rahill, python hunter and founder of Swamp Apes.
“Where there were once thousands of animals, now it’s eerily quiet. It’s like a ghost town. It is a desert.
How Are Burmese Pythons Damaging Florida’s Ecosystem?
Burmese pythons first arrived in Florida in the 1980s as a popular exotic pet.
But the snakes can reach up to five meters in length, prompting some overwhelmed owners to release their pets into the wild.
In 1992, dozens of snakes escaped into the glades after a destructive hurricane destroyed a local python breeding facility.
The invasive species has thrived in its adoptive home. Females can lay up to 100 eggs a year, and authorities estimate the snakes now number in the tens of thousands.
Without natural predators, Burmese pythons have devastated local animal populations. Between 1997 and 2012, Everglades raccoon and opossum populations declined by approximately 99 percent.
It’s a environmental “disaster” says Swamp Ape Enrique Galan.
“People think you can just release an animal that doesn’t belong somewhere and there will be no consequences,” he says.
“They think, ‘Oh what’s a snake going to do?’ But if a lot of people release their pet snakes, I mean you’ll just have a disaster.”
Who are the swamp monkeys?
Snakes are an intimidating adversary. But the locals are not giving up.
A Florida government program encourages snake hunting, offering a cash bounty for each dead snake. Over 6,000 snakes have been killed under the program.
Many volunteers also head to the clearings, including several with the Swamp Apes.
The hunters are mostly former soldiers, who say python hunting helps them cope with their PTSD.
“We use the trained skills of veterans…and apply them in the Everglades to capture pythons,” Rahill says.
For members like Rahm Levinson – an Iraqi war veteran and newly inducted Swamp Ape – the group is a godsend.
“It’s just a pleasure to hang out with these guys every day,” he says.
“It really helped me overcome a lot of things – difficulties at home, insomnia. I can’t sleep at night, so having someone to hang out with [with] at 12 o’clock, two o’clock in the morning to catch pythons, it’s something productive, good and it really helped me a lot.”