SOUTHWEST FLORIDA - Jean Bernard Tarrete had the python by the tail, walking in circles to keep a step ahead of the huge snake's attacking head.
"It was almost pulling me into the canal," said Tarrete, who caught the python on his last day on the job as a Florida Forest Service ranger.
At 15 feet, 3 inches, the nonnative invasive snake Tarrete and co-worker Wilbur Chaney caught and killed along the Miller canal at Lynch Boulevard in the Picayune Strand State Forest last week was just inches short of the 16-foot record for a python pulled out of the wilds of South Florida.
Its discovery solidifies the python presence in Southwest Florida, where biologists are still struggling to get a handle on the spread of the python population from its core in Everglades National Park.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission plans to conduct a necropsy on the snake to determine its reproductive capacity and to find out what it might have been eating, Conservation Commission wildlife biologist Jennifer Ketterlin Eckles said.
She said wildlife agencies lack python data in Southwest Florida compared to data in the national park, and snakes the size of last week's find don't come around too often.
"It is pretty rare," she said,
When word reached the Florida Forest Service about the python at the spot in the southern end of the state forest, rangers Tarrete and Chaney decided to see if they could find it.
Scientists see the python spread as a threat to native wildlife and the balance of the Everglades ecosystem; the Interior Department earlier this year banned the importation of pythons and the transport of them across state lines.
Tarrete and Chaney came up empty-handed on their first trip. They spotted the snake, but it escaped into a culvert, Tarrete said. They found the snake again a week later.
"The first one I see is 15 feet, it was a big surprise," Tarrete said.
Tarrete held the tail, and Chaney grabbed the head. The two killed it with a rake rangers usually use to set fire breaks during controlled burns, Tarrete said.
Tarrete stood on the top of his pickup truck's toolbox to hoist the python by the tail over the open tailgate and into the bed of the truck to be hauled away. A YouTube video of the feat doesn't make it look easy — or pretty.
Forest Service spokesman Victor Hill issued a statement late Thursday saying the agency chose not to announce the python's capture because the snake was killed inhumanely and counter to rangers' training.
"We appreciate the efforts of these rangers to capture and kill the python but we absolutely do not condone the way it was handled," Hill said.
Tarrete resigned from the Forest Service for reasons unrelated to the python killing, Hill said.