WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Burmese pythons may not be everyone’s first food of choice for festive holiday fare — or second, third or fourth either.
For starters, it’s snake. Plus, because of potentially high mercury levels, there’s still a lot of uncertainty over the health risks posed by eating South Florida’s most destructive invasive species.
But one South Florida python hunter has been experimenting with what some have dubbed “chicken of the Glades” — making meals, snacks and even sweets that could give the holidays that distinctive South Florida flavor. How about python jerky, a plate of constrictor and grits for breakfast or maybe a nice Christmas cookie whipped up with snake-yolk dough?
“I really like making jerky because it’s a great snack, but the meat is also good for pasta sauce and sliders, especially when mixed with some other meat like hog,” said Donna Kalil, a veteran python hunter who just bagged snake number 470 since she joined the python elimination program at the South Florida Water Management District when it started in 2017.
While on a hunt last week, Kalil shared some of her jerky, which she munches to help refuel during the often 10-hour days out in the Everglades looking for the stealthy snakes. A recent batch with her own secret barbecue sauce, which she has named Everglades Boys, turned out too hard. But a batch with mojo was spot on: chewy on the inside, slightly crispy on the outside.
Her top cooking tip: “Don’t overcook python. It’s really tricky to get it right. It takes practice.”
Her health advice: She uses a home testing kit to check mercury levels in the meat and cooks only small snakes, which are likely to have the lowest levels of the contaminant. That’s still a big snake as they can reach six feet or more in their first year.
Mercury occurs naturally in the earth but it can also build up in ocean waters and places like the Everglades, entering the atmosphere mostly through the burning of fossil fuels and mining and traveling long distances before settling. Once deposited, certain microorganisms can change mercury into more dangerous methylmercury, a highly toxic form that builds up in fish, shellfish and animals that eat fish, in a process known as bioaccumulation.
That’s why many coastal and freshwater fish in Florida, including the largemouth bass, already have recommended consumption limits by the Florida Department of Health.
But in general, the bigger the predator, the more mercury that is likely accumulated. And that makes pythons a problem, as they grow massive — some more than 18 feet and 100 pounds — and eat just about everything else in the Everglades, including the occasional alligator.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Florida Department of Health are conducting a joint study on mercury contamination in pythons that are caught by the state contractors in Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe, Collier, Palm Beach, Hendry, and Lee counties. The goal is to develop consumption advisories for Burmese pythons in South Florida, so the public can understand the risks before putting snakes on the plate.
Kalil doesn’t eat python on a daily basis because it’s still unclear how contaminated the snakes are. When she does, she likes to pressure cook the meat for a few minutes before using it in sautees or in pasta sauce.
When she is lucky enough to catch an egg-bearing female, she removes the eggs, which are a bit bigger than chicken eggs, and cooks them either hard-boiled with Sriracha sauce or in frittatas. Kalil also freezes the eggs, which she uses for cookies.
The soft and leathery eggs might turn off less adventurous foodies, but the gluten-free rocky road and sugar cookies she made last week to share with friends as pre-holiday treats were pretty delicious.
HUNTING FOR SNAKES
Just as achieving the right consistency for python meat dishes is a challenge, spotting and capturing the invaders in the Everglades is an art in itself. As a professional hunter, Kalil goes out almost every single day, combing the marshes that surround levees for the characteristic pattern: tan and light brown marked with dark brown and black blotches.
She slowly drives her 1997 Ford Expedition on the levees while a partner or volunteer stands on a custom-made perch she had installed on top of the car, like a tuna tower with powerful lights on all sides, for night hunts.
“You have to have a mix of expanded peripheral vision and moments of laser-sharp focus if that makes any sense,” she laughed while looking out the car window to the sloping grassy area between the levee and the shallow water.
From the perch, Kalil’s fellow hunter Amy Siewe focused on the other side of the levee, looking out at breathtaking views of cypress domes. They both sported pink T-shirts with the Everglades Avengers logo.
Siewe, a self-described herper — reptile and amphibian enthusiasts — moved from Indiana to South Florida to become a python hunter last year. “There could be dozens of pythons surrounding us right now but they are so good at occupying this habitat that we can’t see them,” said Siewe.
The giant snakes are everywhere in South Florida, devouring mammals in the Everglades and disrupting the natural balance of predator and prey. They are such a threat to the health of the fragile ecosystem that state wildlife managers have put a bounty on their heads and enlisted teams of hunters to track them down and take them out.
Pythons are believed to have appeared in the Everglades in the early 1980s, having been kept as pets and then released by frustrated owners who got tired of feeding them mice and other live meals. In the wild, they found perfect conditions: plenty of water in which to mate and abundant food. The invaders have no predators, which has led to high reproduction rates: females can lay up to 100 eggs a year.
In addition to the District’s paid python hunters, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also runs a python elimination program by employing contractors. This year was a record, with nearly 3,000 snakes removed by both teams. Since the start of the programs in 2017 nearly 6,300 pythons have been captured, said Eric Sutton, FWC’s executive director.
He said the state and federal governments are spending billions in Everglades restoration and that the python is a significant threat to the success of the programs.
“If you’re going to get the water right, you have to make sure the right ecosystem is there,” Sutton said.
Allowing the consumption of python meat might encourage more people to get involved in catching them, Kalil said.
“It’s a great source of protein, so if we can find a safe way to use the whole animal and not just the skin, it might encourage more people to get involved in saving the Everglades.”