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Python hunter

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  • | 8:19 a.m. May 31, 2013
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Executive: Tom Mooney

Title: Founder

Company: Street Media Partners, Naples

Age: 47

Out of the office: Hunts python snakes in the Everglades.

Why he does it: An avid hunter when he was young, Mooney says he drives into the Everglades to hunt pythons for stress relief. “It really gets me away from corporate life,” he says. Burmese pythons are non-venomous constrictor snakes that are not native to the Everglades and are considered threats to local wildlife.

How he got started: Mooney enjoys hiking in the Everglades and is fascinated with the animal life there. When he travels to Miami for business, he prefers taking the more scenic U.S. 41 instead of Interstate 75. “I started seeing road-kill pythons,” he says. “It piqued my interest.”

One day, while he was driving on U.S. 41, he pulled over on a dirt road near the Dade County line for a break and saw a 20-foot python moving slowly into a canal. “It was bigger than any I'd ever seen,” he says. An airboat captain who happened to drive by on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle stopped to marvel at the snake, and Mooney persuaded him to help bag it. “I'll grab the head and you grab the tail,” Mooney told him. They stuffed the snake in a burlap bag Mooney always carries in the trunk of his car and they took it to a nearby Miccosukee Indian village, where the villagers built a special cage for it. “It was several hundred pounds,” Mooney says. “There was some fear there.”

The challenge: Pythons are elusive creatures that blend in perfectly with their surroundings. “I've seen two [python] snakes within Big Cypress, and I go out once a week,” Mooney says. To spot them, Mooney climbs on top of his Toyota FJ Cruiser and uses high-powered binoculars. Pythons frequent the canals, lying along the banks to catch their prey. Mooney or his hunting partner David Ghales will walk along the ridge of the canal while the other kayaks quietly below. “I didn't catch any this year,” he grumbles. Mooney wonders whether the state's estimate of 200,000 pythons in the Everglades is accurate. “There's not 200,000 pythons this side of Miami,” he says.

Weapons and snares: Mooney arms himself with a shotgun and two pistols. He figures he can whip out the pistols in a hurry if a creature such as an alligator or wild boar attacks him suddenly. To catch the snake alive and protect himself from a toothy python bite, Mooney developed a snare that is a long steel pipe with clamps that control a cable. At the end of the cable is a rubber-covered loop that tightens around the snake's head. Mooney calls his contraption the Python Eradication Unit. “It took me 50 hours to develop,” he says.

Protective gear: Mooney wears $250 waders made of a material like Kevlar that reach his hips. “I wasn't happy with snake boots up to my knees,” he says. His emergency kit includes peroxide, gauze and needles to lance a poisonous-snake bite.

Technology: To find his way, Mooney uses the GPS tracker on his Droid phone. To communicate with his hunting partner, Mooney uses two-way radios. Cell-phone service is sketchy; still, he doesn't travel with a satellite phone.

Souped-up wheels: Mooney's custom-designed Toyota FJ Cruiser cost $40,000, but Mooney estimates he's added another $40,000 to equip and customize it. “My bumpers are made out of steel,” he says. “It's a tank.”

Some of the vehicle's features include a 9,000-pound winch that can be operated from inside and can pull twice the weight of the vehicle. The FJ Cruiser's suspension has been lifted so it can travel through the muck. “I've been in water up to my hood,” he says.

Mooney built a wooden platform on the roof rack that folds out into a camping pad with attached seats like those you might find on a flats-fishing boat. “The seats are higher than the swamp buggies,” he chuckles, noting it's much safer to camp on top of his vehicle than on the ground where critters crawl.

Permits: Hunting for pythons is limited to the annual Python Challenge, a month-long period starting in late January when the state allows hunting of Burmese pythons in Florida. “Now, I'm out doing recon,” says Mooney. This year, the permit for the Python Challenge cost $25. In addition, Mooney needs an off-road-vehicle permit from the state that allows him to drive through the locked gates into remote areas of the Everglades. The Everglades' Big Cypress off-road-vehicle permit costs $50, for example.


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