Ankle-deep in mud, sweat dripping from his brow, Tom Rahill can’t help but smile.
For miles and miles, all Rahill sees is a vast swath of sawgrass. The straw-colored, waist-high blades envelop him in a sea of nature’s beauty. The air is warm, thick with humidity. The sound of chirping birds fills the air.
For Rahill, the Everglades is therapy. For Rahill, the Everglades is freedom. For Rahill, the Everglades is home.
By day, Rahill works in information technology for a major airline. But his true passion lies nestled deep within the swamp, hunting Burmese pythons in the Everglades.
Since he began hunting pythons in 2008, Rahill has caught more than 400 snakes. Only three have slipped out of his grip.
His longtime passion for the hunt has netted him a spot on the South Florida Water Management District’s python hunting roster this year. Thousands applied but only 25 hunters earned a coveted spot on the official team.
The group’s goal is simple: kill as many pythons as possible before June 1.
Rahill, known as the “python whisperer,” heads up the Swamp Apes, a group of hunters composed of newly-returned military veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq. They're still suffering from residual war trauma and many are victims of post-traumatic stress disorder.
They're home, on friendly soil, but with a sense of mission unaccomplished, they're doing a job few are prepared to do -- hunting down pythons in Everglades National Park.
The idea for the python hunting squad was borne from a serious concern for the Everglades ecosystem. Pythons, an invasive species, have reached a population estimated at more than 150,000 in the Glades.
One of the ecosystem’s biggest predators, Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission experts say the snakes threaten the area’s precious wildlife, consuming everything in sight and wreaking havoc on the region, one bite at a time.
To make a dent in the python population, the South Florida Water Management District has thrown $200,000 into the pilot program to pay hunters to eradicate the snakes from the Everglades.
Hunters like Rahill aren’t tempted by a fat paycheck, though -- because there isn’t one.
"[The salary] is a whopping $8.10 an hour,” he said. “The first 4 feet is $50. It's $25 for every additional foot.”
Instead of a chance to make money, Rahill sees each python hunt as an opportunity to find peace among nature in the largest wilderness east of the Mississippi River.
Rahill and the Swamp Apes frequently travel to the Everglades for their own version of therapy. Each hunt is a guiding light on the path back to normalcy for veterans who have seen both war and bloodshed.
The Swamp Apes’ military training, Rahill said, makes them more vigilant hunters than the average Joe. Because they are specially trained, they are able to focus in incredibly dire situations, similar to the harsh conditions of the Everglades, where the temperature frequently climbs to 90 degrees or higher.
Watching the military veterans concentrate on the hunt, Rahill said, helps them take their minds off their other stressors. Many vets have confessed the search for pythons has helped them overcome their traumas when nothing else would help.
“I get emotional just thinking about it,” Rahill said, tears filling his eyes.
Rahill has a special relationship with the pythons. They turn him into a bucket of emotions. He names each one. He sings to them. He jokes with them. Overall, Rahill respects the serpentine beasts which have now made the Everglades their home.
Other hunters agree.
"I learned a lot about snakes and gained a real respect for them,” said Swamp Ape Melanie Aycock. “I don't have a fear of them anymore. I respect them.”
Some days are better for hunting pythons than others. The ideal conditions include cold nights with misty mornings, forcing the cooled pythons to warm themselves by basking in the sun. On days like those, usually in January and February, hunters can usually drive down the road and nab snakes without even wading into the marsh.
Hunters are contributing to research regardless of whether a python hunt is successful. They strap on GPS modules for each search, which gives information about the whereabouts (or lack thereof) of pythons. This information gives SFWMD a better idea of where the snakes are so they can plan accordingly and send more hunters to specific areas to help nab snakes.
Rahill has grown to empathize with the pythons, but acknowledges they have to be killed for the good of the environment.
“It’s a bittersweet thing, but it has to be done,” he said. “The damage, left unchecked, could spread through the entire state of Florida.”
Each day brings a new challenge for the hunters. Some days they’re successful and bag several snakes in one go -- other days, the snakes play hide-and-seek with python hunters, burrowing away in grass near the river banks, waiting to be found.
But every time, Rahill says, is an opportunity to make a difference in the life of a suffering person -- all by being outside and hunting pythons.
"It evokes a lot of emotion in everyone when you catch a python,” he told Sunshine State News. “You have the opportunity to open up and bond with each other."