Florida Encourages Residents to Eat Wild Pythons to Help Combat Overpopulation

But first, they need to make sure they're safe for human consumption.

African rock python head portrait
Photo: Anup Shah via Getty Images

These days, it seems Florida has a bit of a python problem. Specifically, Burmese Pythons seem to be overrunning the sunshine state, slithering their way through the Everglades and messing with its food chain.

So how does Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission plan to restore balance to a fraught ecosystem? By encouraging people to hunt and eat these 20-foot-long snakes— provided they're safe for human consumption of course.

According to the Tampa Bay Times, Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is partnering with the state's Department of Health on a study that aims to figure out whether or not pythons can be safely consumed by humans. If so, they hope that encouraging the eating of these big legless reptiles could encourage more Floridians to cull the population of one of its most disruptive invasive species.

"We would like to use consumption as another way to encourage people to remove pythons in Florida if the meat is safe to eat," Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesperson Carli Segelson told the Tampa Bay Times. "The study will help ensure that is safe."

Independent of any squeamishness one may have about killing and eating a very large snake, the issue here is that these pythons may simply contain too much mercury. Sometimes found (in small concentrations) in fish, this toxic, metallic element that can prove poisonous to humans in certain concentrations. Together, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration advise that a mercury concentration of more than 0.3 parts per million is unsafe for human consumption.

There's no conclusive data on this yet, but early evidence suggests that pythons, who come into contact with mercury through rainfall that seeps into the Everglade marshes they slither through, are much higher than that. Florida Gulf Coast University professor Darren Rumbold told the Tampa Bay Times that pythons contain mercury concentrations of "hundreds of parts per million," though a recent analysis of pythons in southwestern Florida pegged the number at closer to five.

Should an official mercury analysis clear the way for hunted pythons to be legally eaten, the question remains: How do you even prepare this stuff and what does it taste like? Donna Kalil, one python hunter who spoke to the Tampa Bay Times notes that a 7.5 foot python yields about five feet of meat, which translates to 3 or 4 pounds. Her preparations include python jerky and a "python pasta" which her husband refuses to touch.

So what's it like to actually eat a python? "I don't really want to say [it tastes like] fish because it is more the texture of fish," Kalil said of eating python meat. When pressed to describe the taste, she says pork comes to mind.

Either way, python isn't about to catch on quickly. It'll be some time before Florida weighs in on these big snakes and their mercury content. Furthermore, the annual Florida Python Challenge, a sort of big game hunting contest that doles out cash prizes, has been pushed back from its usual January start date for 2021 due in part to Covid-19 concerns.

Maybe that'll give people more time to grapple with the idea that the unsettling snake they see could just end up on their plates or restaurant menus in the future.

"I don't want to say it's an acquired taste," Kalil notes, "it's an acquired thought process."

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