Florida’s most famous snake hunter battles Burmese pythons barehanded on TV
Florida got its first official glimpse of a wild Burmese python on Oct. 24, 1979. Nobody knew where it came from. Maybe it had escaped its owner, a reptile fetishist, perhaps. Maybe it marked the first of countless intentional snake dumps into the Everglades by exotic pet owners who had no idea what they were getting into.
Floridians got a horrific wake-up call in 2009 when an 8-foot 6-inch “Burm” escaped its cage inside a Sumter County home and devoured a 2-year-old girl as she lay sleeping in her crib. Testimony indicated the snake had gotten loose 10 times before the fatal attack.
The most popular chaos theory dates to August 1992, when Hurricane Andrew unleashed a Category 5 catastrophe across South Florida. Amid the wreckage was an imported-reptile breeding facility on the edge of the Everglades, where as many as 1,000 of the carnivorous constrictors reportedly went missing.
Whatever the gateway, more than 40 years after the Asian native first surfaced, its successors have swept like a plague the length of the peninsula. Migrating in every direction from Florida’s sheltering “River of Grass,” following storm floodwaters to higher ground, the Burms have fanned out into Central Florida and beyond, with reports rolling in from as far north as Jacksonville and Chipley in the Panhandle.
Arrayed against the impossible numbers of these prolific breeders — 300,000, by some estimates — stand 25 state-contracted bounty hunters. Only one has a reality TV show. His name is Dusty Crum. Crum’s nickname is “Wildman.” Wildman chases after the gargantuan invaders with nothing but his bare hands and bare feet.
“I’m the baddest-ass python hunter in the world, son!” declares the Myakka City resident in self-impersonation, repeating a war cry becoming famous with growing Discovery Channel audiences. “WOOO!”
But this is no game. The one that almost crushed him to death was caught on video by Discovery. It’s been nearly a year now and Crum’s girlfriend still can’t watch it.
This isn’t the encounter that nearly killed him, but it is equally memorable:
A moonless night, 11 p.m., somewhere along a levee in Big Cypress National Preserve, 2018. Crum’s flashlight scans the black water and reptile hide glints back. Crum splashes in, knee deep, higher, grabs the beast by the tail, but he loses both the snake and the light during the tussle.
“I had a guy on the bank who was videoing and I said I lost it, and he said, well, Dusty, it went down right in front of you. So I go down in the water, I can’t see what I’m doing, and I scoop it off the bottom, but I can’t hold it — the thing is steadily pulling out of my arms.
“I tried scooping the snake up and got him in an armlock, like this, and I tried wrapping him around a cypress tree to create a stopping point, but he’s pulling away to where I’m gonna lose him again. And when you’re getting your butt whipped in a fight, desperation sets in, right, and all I could think to do was, I bit down on the tail.
“And through my neck muscles and everything, I could feel it start to stop, and I’m like, OK, I’m getting somewhere, and I float in the water and I wrap my legs around this thing in a leglock, and I’m saying, OK guys, I’ve got it, now you need to put the camera down and help me get this snake.”
The U.S. prohibited the import of Burmese pythons in 2012, but by then it was too late by decades.
Credited with, or blamed for, the disappearance of more than 95 percent of the Everglades’ native mammals, the nonvenomous pythons have been challenging alligators for primacy atop the South Florida food chain ever since. Photos and videos from those clashes look like “Lost World” outtakes.
The epic nature of that conflict went viral in 2005, when National Park Service rangers returned from the field with postmortem pictures of what happened after a 13-foot Burm attempted to engorge itself on a 6-foot gator. Both died after the swallowed alligator ripped open the stomach of the snake.
The largest alligator on record in Florida measured 15 feet, 9 inches. It was caught in 2016 and weighed 780 pounds. The longest Burmese python bagged in Florida was an 18-foot 8-inch female weighing 128 pounds, in 2012.
“My legs are wrapped around the snake and he’s still trying to get away but I’m anchored on him. So Kyle, he’s a big boy, he puts the camera down, he comes in behind me and he’s holding the tail with me. And it’s still pulling both of us, and we’re big guys.”
Dusty Crum weighs 220.
“So I yell at my other guy, Greg, I said hey man, you gotta find the head of this thing and get it under control. So foot by foot, he’s grabbing my ankles and I’m like no, this thing is huge, follow the body, follow the body, and he keeps going and going and when he gets close to the bitin’ end it comes up through the branches and tries to strike him. He was able to get the head but in the meantime he traps himself in the branches.
“OK, so he’s got the head, and I said Kyle, let go, go help Greg with the head, and when Kyle lets go, I’m on the back of this thing and it starts flinging me around like a doll and I’m just holding on for dear life. So they said OK, we got it, we got the head, and I let go and went up there and got the head, too, and by that time the snake’s exhausted and we’re all tired and breathing real heavy, but we’re OK, we got it, let’s take a break and see where we’re at.
“I’m looking around and I don’t even know where we are. Then I could see the truck lights way off in the distance, he had drug the three of us that far into the swamp. I would say at least 500 yards.”
In January 2010, a historic freeze punished Florida with its longest cold snap since World War II. With temperatures plunging into the 20s, the arctic blast produced 12 days of record sustained lows, created power outages and destroyed $500 million worth of Florida crops. It also took a massive toll on invasive species, including the pythons.
Something extremely weird occurred, too. But it took years for analysts to make sure what they were seeing was real. The journal “Molecular Ecology” broke the news in 2018.
In an article titled “Novel ecological and climatic conditions drive rapid adaptation in invasive Florida Burmese Pythons,” a collaboration of 15 scientists reported that the snakes who survived 2010 had passed along genes that tended to make their progeny cold hardy, distinct from their forebears in the Asian tropics.
“Florida pythons,” the authors noted, “appear to have adapted to regulating their digestive physiology to more efficiently eat prey constantly.”
That might explain an unprecedented discovery Florida biologists made in 2013. A 15-foot, 6-inch female Burm was caught with the remains of three deer in its belly, identified by undigested hooves, bones and teeth. The evidence suggested the snake had consumed the deer — which included two fawns — over a mere three months.
“I said OK guys, let’s just get this thing out of the water and onto the shore. So we start busting through the branches — it was thick stuff — but the snake’s still trying to fight us, and I’ve got its head and it’s wearing us out. I mean, it was a female and she was out of control.
“You don’t want to kill it right away, you want to wait until the hunt’s over, and we didn’t have any ice. But it was so big, it wouldn’t even fit in the bag, and we’d been going at it for half an hour or more. And it wasn’t quitting and we were exhausted.
“So I ended up just shooting it; I had to kill it.”
At 16 feet, 11 inches, it was a monster, the biggest serpent Wildman Crum had ever encountered. He dispatched it with a single .22 round to a “dime-sized” kill spot atop its skull.
“If you don’t scramble that brain, if you don’t hit that spot, the snake’s not gonna die, it’s gonna jump in the water and be gone,” he says. “That’s what happens with a lot of other hunters that are not as comfortable handling these big constrictors like I am.
“They’ll go and shoot ’em in the face with a .45 or a shotgun and the snake will simply dive in the water and disappear. I’ve got skins where you can see they’ve been shotgunned, there’s scars all through the skins, there’s embedded fragments and they’re tough as nails.
“I got a big 450 work truck with a 12-foot utility box that I hunt with. And I’ve run over ’em with all six tires on Highway 41 where they’ve been stretched across the middle of the road. You slam the brakes, spin around and they’re gone.
“This one snake I caught, the 16-10” — 16 feet, 10 inches — “it had two identical scars on it about this far apart.” Crum spreads his arms. “I talked to some campers down the road from where I caught it and they said yeah, we ran over a huge snake a couple weeks ago and when we turned around it was gone.
“I said well, I just found it, because it had two tire tracks on it this far apart. It healed itself up and came right back.”
But it was a 16-foot, 6-inch reptile that came within moments of killing him.
What’s left of the 16-11 behemoth is spread flat and horizontal just below the ceiling of Orchid Envy, a 1,400-square-foot shop Crum and longtime girlfriend Natalee McKinney operate in Venice. A one-way drive from Myakka City can take up to 90 minutes, but it’s hard to beat this ideal, traffic-heavy location off Venice Avenue.
Dazzling orchids in eclectic displays are clearly the top draw, but a small nook reserved for Crum’s python-hide inventory — wallets, purses, belts, bracelets and jewelry, up to $1,100 on the high end — indicate there’s money in snake retail if you’ve got the chops for it. (More frugal fans might opt for the “Wildman” T-shirts.)
The South Florida Water Management District pays a $50 bounty for pythons up to four feet, plus $25 for each additional foot thereafter. Crum reckons the Burms he catches average 10 feet. Do the math. For starters.
He also harvests the meat (“It’s good and lean, and tastes like alligator, without the fishy taste”) from snakes under 10 feet because they’ve ingested less mercury, and he has a Cambodian connection that converts the guts into “traditional medicine” and oils.
All told, Crum can wring more than four figures worth of product from each catch, depending on size. But even the small ones would scare the bejeebers out of most mortals.
Mouth and tongue packed with heat sensors and chemical receptors, armed with hinged jaws that can flare 180 degrees wide and consume prey five times their size, Burms sport four rows of razor-like upper teeth and two rows on the bottom, more than 100 total, all curved backwards, toward the stomach.
Unmistakable in his trademark “Don’t Tread On Me” baseball cap, drooping hawk-quill feathers, and tusk necklace, Crum grew up chasing critters in the woods off rural Fruitville Road. He was lucky enough to have a tolerant biology teacher at Sarasota Christian School who let him keep a docile six-inch ringneck named William in his shirt pocket during class.
The first Burm he went after was nothing like William:
Winter, 2013, Big Cypress, the first-ever state-sponsored Python Challenge, face to face with a 12-footer that hissed loudly and swelled up and lunged at the camera and “started throwing coils at me — it was an adrenaline rush I could’ve never imagined. I was hooked immediately.”
Bitten “hundreds” of times since — a brown water snake packs a harder hurt than a python, he insists — Wildman has endured all manner of resistance, most reliably getting splattered by green “Exorcist”-looking goo, a musk discharged when grabbed by the tail.
“It’s the nastiest stuff you could ever want to smell. It’s not bile,” he says, “it’s a pheromone, a real oily kinda stuff. You can’t really wash it off with soap. You’ve got to use something to cut it, like grease. It’s kinda like skunk with a more rotten-egg smell.”
The last snake Crum caught during January’s 2020 Python Bowl, where more than 750 hunters from across 20 states caught 80 pythons in one week, puked up a wood stork.
The South Florida Water Management District and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission declared open season on Burms in 2017. Since then, bounty hunters have killed more than 2,800 of the invaders wreaking havoc on managed lands.
For Seth Sherman, producer of Discovery’s “Guardians of the Glades,” Florida’s python epidemic was a revelation. When he asked around, all roads seemed to lead to Dusty Crum.
Crum doesn’t claim to be the most prolific hunter — he says he’s caught more than 200 snakes, but concedes that Miami’s Brian Hargrove has bagged a lot more. What Sherman discovered, however, was a Myakka City trapper who “stood out for the depth of his passion and his ability to share it with others,” he writes in an email. “It didn’t hurt that he has a huge personality and was one of the only hunters who hunted with his bare feet!”
Crum’s bare soles are padded with maybe half an inch of leathery calluses. Bare feet, he says, give him a better grip on his surroundings.
Sherman recruited Crum and area locals Jay Starr, Gary Clark, Brittany Borges and Tom Cobb to form a team that hunts snakes for the cameras. “Guardians of the Glades” premiered last year with six episodes, and its second season is currently airing at 10 p.m. on Tuesdays.
If some of the devices seem familiar and stagey — spine-tingling music as the hunters approach their quarry, booming Gene Krupa-like percussion during the struggle, jittery Blair-Witchy camera movement following the chase — the action, and venues, are authentic.
Borges uses a dosimeter to test for radiation levels at an abandoned phosphate plant in Polk County; at a derelict Aerospace complex outside Homestead, Crum steps across broken glass like it’s sand. The posse finds snakes everywhere, night and day, marshland and hammocks, buildings and trees. The hunted flee, they thrash, they rear up like cobras, they snap their jaws and draw blood.
One night last April, Wildman chased the 16-6 into a north Glades swamp. Mortal combat followed in the mud, Wildman off his feet, trying to control the head, 16-6 wrapping its bulk around Wildman’s chest, neck, reaching for his airholes. “Camera guy! Camera guy!” Wildman, now horizontal on his side, grunting in real panic. “Get this thing off my neck ... it hurts!”
Another Florida-famous trapper, Mike “Cowboy” Kimmel (he went on to win the 2020 Python Bowl grand prize for catching eight snakes) dashed in, peeled 16-6 off, and together they subdued their quarry. Gasping, shaken, coughing, Crum massaged his neck, trying to collect his marbles. This episode was called “Dusty vs. The Monster,” and it was the finale of Season 1. It didn’t show everything.
“It was choking me out. I thought it was gonna break my neck with the force of it,” Crum says nearly a year later. “I actually spit up some blood for 15 minutes afterwards. I think I still have a few issues.”
Undeterred, the affable, self-proclaimed “defender of mammals” has returned to the bush many times since. The cause is righteous. Native wildlife is disappearing. Climate change is clearing a path north. Thirty to 100 eggs per nest. From what Crum’s seen, the entire southeast is at risk.
His destiny awaits.
“I know there’s a 20-footer out there somewhere.” Crum gets that faraway look in his eyes. “And I’m gonna get it.”
This story originally published to heraldtribune.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.
Invaders on your lawn?
If you spot a Burmese python or any invasive species, call the FWC hotline at 888-IVE-GOT1.
For more about Dusty Crum, visit pythonwildman.com.