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Brian Barrows

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Friends from Fort Myers and Lehigh Acres are among the state’s top snake hunters in the 2013 Python Challenge.

Sixty-eight Burmese pythons were killed during the challenge that began last month and ended Feb. 10. The winners were announced Saturday at Zoo Miami.

Brian Barrows of Fort Myers led the competition for amateur hunters, winning $1,500 for harvesting six snakes. His friend, Paul Shannon of Lehigh Acres, won $1,000 for killing the largest, which measured 14 feet, 3 inches.

The big snake caught Shannon’s eye as it slithered through the mud. It didn’t like being pulled out and lunged at a friend, Shannon said. Two gunshots to its head stopped it.

“When it jumped at him and he dropped it and dove in the bushes, I came around and it was coiled up. The coil was 4 feet wide,” he said. “The head was as big as my hand. I have nightmares about that vision of it coiled up, ready to strike again.”

Ruben Ramirez of Miami and his Florida Python Hunters team won $1,500 for bagging 18 pythons, the most caught by any of the permit holders. He also won prizes for bringing in the two longest snakes to be caught by any of the permit holders. Both those snakes stretched longer than 10 feet.

The other snakes caught by Barrows and Shannon’s team ranged from 7 to 9 feet long. On six separate days during the monthlong hunt, they pointed Shannon’s airboat toward remote tree islands, looking for snakes sunning themselves on dry land.

“To see one that massive, it was shocking,” Barrows said of the 14-footer. “You always think these things don’t exist out there, and they do. They’re out there and they’re big.”

Nearly 1,600 people from 38 states and Canada paid $25 each and completed an online training course for the right to compete in the unprecedented, state-sponsored hunt.

“Thanks to the determination of Python Challenge competitors, we are able to gather invaluable information that will help refine and focus combined efforts to control pythons in the Everglades,” Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission Executive Director Nick Wiley said at the zoo. “The enthusiastic support from the public, elected officials, conservation organizations, government agencies and researchers gives hope that we can make progress on this difficult conservation challenge by working together.”

FWC initiated the hunt to raise public awareness about invasive species in Florida, to gain more specimens for lab study and to get GPS locations for known Burmese python populations. A report will be completed and examined by the FWC to determine if the hunt was successful and should be held again.

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