SARASOTA, Fla. — A Venice flower dealer moonlighting as an elite python hunter is collaborating with a Sarasota fashion designer to create a line of snakeskin clothing to help raise awareness about the threat the invasive snakes pose to the Everglades.
The “Glades to Gallery” collection includes samples of clothing, accessories and jewelry made from Burmese pythons, a snake native to Southeast Asia, but accidentally introduced into Florida’s ecosystem.
“Dusty and I are friends and he was telling me about what he was doing,” said Nikki Sedacca, co-owner of 530 Burns Gallery. “He had originally brought me a sample of the skin. Immediately, being a designer, I had a zillion ideas on what to do with it.”
Sedacca is primarily a jewelry designer but also designs accessories. It took her about six months to come up with the 75 items for the first collection.
It includes vests, clutches, handbags, and briefcases for men and women.
Dustin “Wildman” Crum is one of 25 hunters who work with the South Florida Water Management District to hunt snakes. He gets minimum wage for up to eight hours daily, plus an additional per-python payment that starts at $50 for snakes of four feet or less and goes up by $25 per foot for longer specimens.
An additional $200 is paid for any eliminated python found guarding a nest with eggs.
Crum, who stalks pythons barefoot through the Everglades and tackles them with his hands, caught the biggest snake ever seen in Florida last year — a 16-foot, 10-inch Burmese python.
While Crum has caught hogs, alligators and pythons, he doesn’t call himself a hunter. His girlfriend challenged him to catch pythons to protect his passion for Florida wildlife.
“I used to go hunt with a camera and take pictures of wildlife, but this is an invasive hunt,” Crum said. “It’s an environmental hunt. These snakes are destroying our ecosystem.”
Burmese pythons were first brought to Florida as pets but were released, either intentionally or accidentally, into the wild when they grew to an unmanageable size.
“Miami has always been a hub for exotic pets and trade,” Crum said. “There was a breeding facility in Homestead that got leveled by Hurricane Andrew. We know for a fact there were 900 baby pythons that literally got blown into the Everglades National Park.”
The snakes began to reproduce and wiped out around 95 percent of the mammal population in parts of the park, according to Crum, who said pythons eat marsh rabbits, raccoons, gray squirrels, bobcats, deer, birds and sometimes alligators.
Hawks can eat python hatchlings, but the larger snakes have no local natural predator. They can travel long distances and females have been found carrying over 100 developing eggs.
Python growth could cause irreversible damage to the Everglades, said Crum, who first participated in the Python Challenge in 2013. He caught nine snakes the first time out and 33 in 2016.
The South Florida Water Management District put him on the payroll last year.
Hunting the massive reptiles can be dangerous.
“I’ve had these snakes at 11 o’clock at night in the water,” Crum said. “I could only see a little piece of it. I have to dive in the water and grab the snake off the bottom of the water. The only thing I could do to stop it was put the tail in my mouth and bite down on it. I floated up in the water and wrapped my legs around it like a figure-four leg lock.”
Pythons have been found in the Naples area eating livestock and chickens.
“It’s a buffet. They have an unlimited appetite,” Crum said.
The flower designer and pottery retailer said he used the skins for belt buckles, wallets and Converse-style sneakers before Sedacca offered to work with him.
“I’m a flower guy and then I’m a swamp guy,” Crum said. “It’s kind of out of my element in this fancy gallery.”
Sedacca said this is just the first of a continuing line of products.
“I’m excited. This is definitely going to evolve,” she said. “The more you do the better you get. This is where we are starting and I’m very pleased with it. … The skins are just naturally beautiful. I tend to love black and white and grays.”
Crum will continue to hunt pythons.
“Being out in the Everglades, it’s like being out in God’s creation,” Crum said. “It’s a beautiful piece of earth and it’s just paradise, nature and it’s very serene. That’s what I’ve come to know and love. I’m trying to protect that down there.”
Information from: Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune, http://www.heraldtribune.com