15-foot python devours 76-pound deer: Is that normal?

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Graphic, yet riveting, images of a Burmese python in the Florida Everglades with a white-tailed deer still visible in its stomach have been circulating on the Internet. And when we say graphic, we mean graphic.

In the most disturbing picture, the state officials who killed the python have slit the snake open to reveal the 76-pound deer, coated in the snake’s digestive juices. A similarly graphic image was taken in 2005 — also in the Everglades — of a decomposing python that apparently died when it tried to eat an alligator, bursting itself. Both animals were dead in the photographs.

All this got us wondering, just what the heck is going on with these pythons in the Everglades?

To find out, we got Frank Mazzotti, professor of wildlife ecology and conservation at the University of Florida, on the phone. As it turns out, Mazzotti doubles as a python hunter.

Here’s an edited transcript of the conversation:

What is the story with those crazy pictures of a python that ate a deer, and that other one of the python that tried to eat an alligator? Is that normal in the Everglades?


I think it is fair to say there is nothing normal about Burmese pythons in the Florida Everglades. Let’s just start with that.

But is what we witnessed a common event? No. That snake that ate the white-tailed deer was 15 feet and 150 pounds. We have found large snakes before, but the vast percentage of snakes we find are less than 8 feet. So finding a snake that large is very unusual.

That is the second time we have found evidence of a white-tailed deer in a snake’s stomach. Last time we found hooves of a fawn that had not been digested.

How did Burmese pythons get into the Everglades in the first place?

This particular subspecies is — as its name suggests — from Burma and Southeast Asia. Burmese pythons have been imported very heavily by the pet trade. Now, how they were released in Florida is a matter of some debate: whether it was individuals releasing unwanted pets in the park, or whether they escaped from a pet facility during Hurricane Andrew.

Either way, the origins of the animals are from the pet trade.

So when did they get established there and how many do you think there are?

In the early part of the millennium -- around 2002, 2003, 2004 -- that’s when there was clear evidence they were established because hatchlings were found. But it is probable they were established before that.

I’m not going to give you a population estimate because we can’t. But since we started removing pythons, we’ve pulled 1,750 pythons from the Everglades and we probably didn’t catch even 10% of them.

Does the python population in the Everglades pose a danger to humans?

I thought Scott Hardin of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission put it best. He said something like, ‘I won’t tell you there’s zero danger, but the likelihood that anyone is going to encounter a Burmese python, where the animal will do to a person what it did to the deer, that is not going to happen.’

I’m more worried about what happens if someone in a Ford pickup hits a python going 80 miles an hour on a highway.

You say you’ve killed pythons. How does a person go about doing that?

Very carefully. We employ a number of techniques, but the single most common way is we go driving the roads at night when they are most active and then we chase them down and jump them and try to capture them before they bite.

Another thing we do is outfit male pythons with radio transmitters and then they do what boys are wont to do — they find girl pythons. That’s how we locate breeding females.


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--Deborah Netburn