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Nancy Smith

Military Vets Hunt Everglades Pythons for Therapy and Country

June 16, 2014 - 6:00pm

A small but mighty human force in the Everglades is doing more for Florida with skilled hands and good will than all the misguided billionaires with their causes and cash poking into Florida's election business.

But wait! If a billionaire wants to redeem himself and make a real difference in Florida, read on. I'd like to introduce him to the Swamp Apes.

The Swamp Apes are newly returned military veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq. They're still suffering from residual war trauma. 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 Burmese pythons in Everglades National Park.

And, quite honestly, these veterans could use a benefactor. They could use a billionaire. A lowly millionaire, even -- somebody with a taste for philanthropy and a need to leave a legacy -- to support their important work. Right now they receive no money but supply all the equipment and resources they need themselves. Most of the money comes out of Tom Rahill's pocket.

Rahill, 57, founded the Swamp Apes six years ago. His idea was to help vets overcome their post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by enabling them to spend time in the wild. He's found a way to kill two birds with one stone -- provide vets the wilderness experience and help them complete a mission for the country they pledged to serve. Rahill finds it powerful medicine.

During an interview with ABC News, Rahill explained his theory of why the Swamp Apes succeed where other python hunters have failed. Two things, he said. It's their military training. They are focused, aware, comfortable keeping their wits even in extreme conditions. Also, it's the PTSD. It works to their advantage. One symptom of PTSD is hyper-vigilance. In the Everglades, where pythons blend like almost no other creature, vigilance is vital.

Rahill claims not only does the park benefit, but the veterans do, too. He claims there is a body of evidence, including a 2013 study published in the journal Military Medicine, that suggests time spent in the wild helps victims of PTSD surmount their trauma.

These are men who were told to defend the U.S. against all enemies. Need for a mission is still ingrained in them and the plight of the Everglades has given them one.

Right now the 30-or-so veterans who make up the Swamp Apes are all that stand between the certain death of native wildlife and the voracious Burmese python.

I know you know about this, I've written about it before and so have other Florida media. Burmese pythons, an estimated 100,000 of them in the park alone, are devouring every creature that moves, including native Florida alligators. This is no exaggeration. Racoons, opossums, bobcats, deer, great blue herons, wood storks all have disappeared -- really and truly disappeared, leaving behind an eerie and desolate ecosystem.

Everglades National Park spokesperson Linda Friar says the Swamp Apes are perfect for the job. Even though the park doesn't permit hunting, it has authorized the 30 "agents" -- all Swamp Apes -- to find and capture pythons. What makes the job so difficult is, snakes captured in the park have to be captured alive, can't be removed from the park and must be turned over to park biologists who euthanize them.

Frankly, I can't see why they shouldn't be killed on the spot jungle style -- a dart to the head. It's quick, humane and puts hunters in far less danger. But the bureaucratic nonsense in the federal government would stagger a billygoat, and nobody I can find is doing anything to get the rules changed. Rahill says since 2008, the team has captured 150 snakes. The goal next year is to bag at least 200.

Remember, we're talking about 100,000 pythons in Everglades National Park. Two hundred won't cut it.

Here's my point. If federal rules on python kills aren't going to change, if the feds insist on the laborious practice of bringing 'em back alive -- then we need to quadruple the number of "agents." We need to expand the Swamp Apes severally.

To cut the python population so that Everglades wildlife has a chance to survive, the park is going to have to give the Swamp Apes a department of their own. This is where a benefactor comes in -- someone who can set up a trust to keep a program of 120 to 200 hunters funded.

Rahill told ABC News his expenses now run about $20,000 a year for equipment, gas and other necessities. "It's all out of pocket for me," he said. "It's grown to a point where I can't afford it." Rahill is in the process of getting the Swamp Apes registered as a 501c3, in order to accept charitable donations.

Situations like this, a decimation of precious Florida wildlife by an exotic species left to overrun and destroy the Everglades ... this is what drives me so crazy. I think aboutthe amount of money we spend to do things in the Everglades that do little more than appease politicians preening for votes and shut up enivornmentalists with huge egos and an army of litigators.I remember all themoney Florida spent on bad land deals and repeated studies and torn-down-then-rebuilt reservoirs. Isee money pouring in from as far away as California to affect elections and ballot issues -- millions of dollars every week.

And now I'm thinking about Amendment 1, the Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative. If itpasses, we will pay hundreds of millions each year for more land, a phenomenal amount of land, to leave unattended.

Ridding our national park of Burmese pythons, thousands of the creatures in a year, not hundreds of them, maybe that's a do-able goal. Maybe with the help of a benefactor -- a Tom Steyer, a Paul Tudor Jones, a Sheldon Adelson to the rescue -- we could make a statement, and do this comparatively small thing with the big result and save one of our greatest natural treasures.

You want to get a more personal feel for the Swamp Apes? They have a Facebook page.

Reach Nancy Smith at or at 228-282-2423.

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