Archdeacon: From Homecoming Queen to python hunter

Amy Siewe with the 17-foot-3 inch python she captured last July of the Tamiami Trail in the Everglades. Amy, a former Fairmont High athlete and homecoming queen and University of Toledo tennis player, is now a python hunter contracted by the South Florida Water Management District to help rid the Everglades of the invasive pythons that are killing all the animals and birds they come in contact with and wrecking the ecosystem. CONTRIBUTED
Amy Siewe with the 17-foot-3 inch python she captured last July of the Tamiami Trail in the Everglades. Amy, a former Fairmont High athlete and homecoming queen and University of Toledo tennis player, is now a python hunter contracted by the South Florida Water Management District to help rid the Everglades of the invasive pythons that are killing all the animals and birds they come in contact with and wrecking the ecosystem. CONTRIBUTED

It made her stop in her tracks.

It was just past midnight last July 21st and Amy Siewe was driving her red, Ford F-150 pickup with lights mounted on the cab slowly along the Tamiami Trail, the narrow ribbon of asphalt that cuts through the Florida Everglades between Naples and Miami.

She was near the Oasis Visitors Center for the Big Cypress National Preserve when she caught sight of something along the tree line, that looked like a long-necked dinosaur.

“I thought ‘That wasn’t quite right! I’m gonna back up!’” she said. “And when I did, I saw her profile and was like, ‘Oh my gosh! That’s a snake!’

“It was a python and she was periscoping – which means she was standing straight up in the air, about three feet off the ground.”

Burmese pythons are beautiful snakes, some of the largest in the world, but they are wreaking havoc on the Everglades ecosystem.

The Terminator of all invasive species, pythons are multiplying almost unchecked and eating everything – marsh rabbits, raccoons, possums, fox, wading birds, deer, even bobcats and alligators – that they come upon.

“By the time I’d gotten out of my truck, the snake had dropped down,” Amy said. “Although I knew right where she was, it took me three minutes to spot her. That’s how camouflaged they are in the vegetation.

“Finally, I saw her head and it was huge. Kind of intimidating. She was trying to slide back into the swamp, so I jumped on her back and locked my hands behind her head. I dug my feet into the ground to try to keep her from moving, but she was strong. And big. I just didn’t know how big.

“That’s when it dawned on me. I was by myself and I was on the back of this gigantic snake. I kind of questioned my sanity: “What was I doing?’”

-- Amy Siewe holds out the gigantic head of the 17-foot-3 inch python she captured last July of the Tamiami Trail in the Everglades. Amy, a former Fairmont High athlete and Homecoming queen and University of Toledo tennis player, is now a python hunter contracted by the South Florida Water Management District to help rid the Everglades of the invasive pythons that are killing all the animals and birds they come in contact with and wrecking the ecosystem. CONTRIBUTED
-- Amy Siewe holds out the gigantic head of the 17-foot-3 inch python she captured last July of the Tamiami Trail in the Everglades. Amy, a former Fairmont High athlete and Homecoming queen and University of Toledo tennis player, is now a python hunter contracted by the South Florida Water Management District to help rid the Everglades of the invasive pythons that are killing all the animals and birds they come in contact with and wrecking the ecosystem. CONTRIBUTED

What she was not doing was reigning as the Homecoming Queen at Fairmont High School like she did in the fall of 1994. Nor was she a standout on the tennis team, as she was for both the Firebirds and the University of Toledo.

And she was no longer a successful Indianapolis realtor. In 2019, she’d left that 13-year pursuit and the six-figure salary that came with it, moved to South Florida and reinvented herself.

She is now Amy Siewe:

“Professional Python Hunter.”

And on this hot summer night, the 5-foot-4, 120-pound Siewe was facing the biggest challenge of her nascent career.

She wrestled the big python until she was able to slide a small bag over that massive head filled with razor sharp teeth. The snake calmed down immediately and finally, with some help from another hunter who’d stopped, she was able to muscle her catch – foot after foot after foot – into a bag.

It measured a whopping 17 feet, 3 inches – just 18 inches off the current state record – and weighed 110 pounds.

Back in Kettering, her dad, Jim Siewe – who’s in the Chaminade Julienne High School Hall of Fame as an athlete, the Alter High School Hall of Fame as a coach and was a coach at Wayne and a football player at the University of Dayton – felt a mix of pride and worry when he heard about the ordeal.

After all, he’s the one who first nurtured her love of the outdoors, especially on “creek walks” as they called them. But the thought of her wrestling a python that could’ve make her a midnight snack made him uncomfortable.

“I was like, ‘I can’t believe my little girl is out there doing that,’” he said. “But I knew that’s Amy. She’s fearless.”

She’s also quite accomplished.

Although the 44-year old has been hunting pythons less than two years, she’s already caught over 100 of them. Last year – in an event that had a slithery link to the Super Bowl in Miami – the state of Florida sponsored a Python Bowl for snake hunters and she took second place in the longest snake category.

She’s also become popular on social media with her Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter postings. Her website is www.pythonhuntress.com.

Not long ago she pulled off the Tamiami Trail again and was wrestling a smaller snake when a car pulled up.

“Four kids got out and they were going ‘That’s a great snake you caught,’” she laughed. “Then all of a sudden one of them goes, ‘Wait a minute! Oh my God! Are you the Python Hunter Amy?’”

‘They’re doing too much damage’

Scientists say pythons are responsible for an over 90 percent drop in the small mammal population in Everglades National Park.

“A couple of weeks ago I found one with an ibis in its mouth,” Amy said. “We’ve found bobcats. There was one snake that had a doe and two fawns in her. It’s crazy.

“For a python to get to be 10 feet long, it takes three years. And in the process they eat some 200 birds, mammals and reptiles.”

And that’s just one snake.

While it’s impossible to count the pythons, Amy said authorities estimate there are likely 100,000 to 300,000 in the Everglades. Females mate every two years and can lay 50 to 100 eggs each time.

It’s figured pythons – which are native to Southeast Asia – first ended up in the Everglades several decades ago when pet owners discarded their growing and unwanted snakes. Amy said it’s also believed that Hurricane Andrew in 1992 destroyed a snake facility, releasing pythons into the swamp.

Amy Siewe looking at rows of razor sharp teeth on the skull of the 17-foot-3 inch Burmese python she jumped onto and wrestled into submission last July. The rear slanting teeth make escape impossible for animals the snake bites down on. The jaws are connected by stretchy cartilage that enables a python to swallow an adult deer, bobcat or alligator.  CONTRIBUTED
Amy Siewe looking at rows of razor sharp teeth on the skull of the 17-foot-3 inch Burmese python she jumped onto and wrestled into submission last July. The rear slanting teeth make escape impossible for animals the snake bites down on. The jaws are connected by stretchy cartilage that enables a python to swallow an adult deer, bobcat or alligator. CONTRIBUTED

Python hatchlings can be two feet long and eventually grow up to 20 feet, weigh 200 pounds and be as thick as a telephone pole.

Decades late, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the South Florida Water Management District teamed up in 2017 to launch a “Python Elimination Program.”

They’ve contracted so-called “python hunters” to remove the snakes, paying them a minimum wage and adding $50 for any snake measuring at least four feet and $25 for each additional foot.

Hunters also are paid when they find a nest with eggs.

As of mid-October, 6,278 snakes had been removed through the program, which is barely a blip on the screen when it comes to “elimination.”

Still, that’s a lot of snakes no longer killing and reproducing.

Some hunters – like Amy – are conflicted conservationists when it comes to killing pythons.

“I love snakes and I absolutely hate killing them,” she said. “They’re beautiful, wonderful, amazing animals. And it’s not their fault they’re here. They were dumped by humans and now they’re just doing what’s instinctive.

“But regardless, they’ve got to go. They’re doing too much damage.”

A love of snakes

“I grew up in Corpus Christi parish and when I was young I’d go down to Great Miami River and we’d look for frogs,” Jim Siewe said.

But sports soon dominated his life and after that came a long career in insurance.

He and his wife Cathy have three daughters, each of whom he introduced to nature. Amy, he said, embraced it the most:

“We’ve got a picture of her and I when she was about 2 ½. I’d taken her to the Sugar Creek Reserve. We were doing some creek walking and the water was clear and I was teaching her how to pick up crawdads.

“But when she saw that first snake, her eyes just got so big and she was enamored with them from then on. And it was just a couple of years later that she caught her first snake. A water snake.”

Jim Siewe, former Dayton Flyers football player and Hall of Famer at Chaminade Julienne abd Alter high schools, with his 2 ½ year old daughter Amy at Sugar Creek Reserve. “We were doing some creek walking and the water was clear and I was teaching her how to pick up crawdads,” Jim said. “But when she saw that first snake, her eyes just got so big and she was enamored with them from then on.” CONTRIBUTED
Jim Siewe, former Dayton Flyers football player and Hall of Famer at Chaminade Julienne abd Alter high schools, with his 2 ½ year old daughter Amy at Sugar Creek Reserve. “We were doing some creek walking and the water was clear and I was teaching her how to pick up crawdads,” Jim said. “But when she saw that first snake, her eyes just got so big and she was enamored with them from then on.” CONTRIBUTED

While she loved snakes, Amy said she didn’t have any as pets at home.

“My mom’s deathly afraid of them, so I must be her punishment for something,” she laughed.

Each of the Siewe girls – Amy, Kristi, Betsy, all athletes at Fairmont – was voted the homecoming queen during their high school days.

“They got THAT from their mom,” Jim said.

While at Toledo, Amy worked side jobs at the Toledo Zoo, pet stores and for a vet, always concentrating on snakes. She bought her first breeding pair of snakes while in college.

After moving to Indianapolis following graduation, she married, worked in the corporate world, divorced and began a real estate career. She also had some 50 snakes and was breeding them.

When she went on her first date with Dave Roberts, she convinced him to go to Lake Erie with her so she could catch water snakes. A video he took of her pulling snakes out of drainage holes, rocky crevices and often from the water – while suffering several some bloody bites – went viral and got some 4.5 million views.

She and Dave ended up engaged and two years ago, after she heard about “the python problem” in the Everglades, they went on a hunt in South Florida, caught one snake and she said she was “hooked.”

Two months later, she quit her job and headed to Florida to hunt pythons.

‘I couldn’t be happier’

February is the height of breeding season for pythons, so they retreat further into the swamp to mate and dig burrows for their eggs. That means they’re harder to find than in the summer.

Amy said she’s now going by boat back to spoil islands looking for them. In an unexpected windfall, she caught four on Jan. 19. Friday afternoon she got one.

When she catches a python, she covers its head to calm it, works the snake it into a pillow case to bring it home and there dispatches it with a gun that shoots a bolt into the brain. That makes for the most instantaneous, humane kill.

She skins all her own snakes and buys carcasses from other hunters, too. After getting the leather tanned, she sells it to Gretchen Bauer, the owner of the Sarasota-based atelier, BSWANKY, that specializes in luxury leather goods.

Bauer makes high-end women’s purses of Florida Burmese Python and five percent of the sales (purses range from $800 to $2,900) goes to the South Florida National Parks Trust, the charitable partner of the National Parks Service. She also gives 100 percent of her sales of key chains.

Amy is also starting another business venture, making python watch bands for Apple.

While she said pythons “have become a fulltime job,” the former realtor admitted with a laugh: “Snakes don’t pay like houses, that’s for sure.”

But she quickly added: “I couldn’t be happier. This is the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Amy Siewe, a former Fairmont High athlete and Homecoming queen and University of Toledo tennis player, is now a python hunter contracted by the South Florida Water Management District to help rid the Everglades of the invasive pythons that are killing all the animals and birds they come in contact with and wrecking the ecosystem. CONTRIBUTED
Amy Siewe, a former Fairmont High athlete and Homecoming queen and University of Toledo tennis player, is now a python hunter contracted by the South Florida Water Management District to help rid the Everglades of the invasive pythons that are killing all the animals and birds they come in contact with and wrecking the ecosystem. CONTRIBUTED

She owes a lot to her dad, who happens to be in Florida now with her mom.

Jim said before he and Cathy return to Ohio, he hopes to finally join Amy on a python hunt.

“I got to admit, though, I’m a little nervous,” he said.

But what about him? He was once a college running back, barreling straight at big defensive linemen and hell bent linebackers.

He laughed: “That’s child’s play compared to what she’s doing. I’ll probably spend a lot of time in the truck, just watching her.”

And if it’s anything like that encounter she had last winter west of Miami, well, he’s in for a show.

“I had a snake – an 8 or 9 footer – by the neck and then it wrapped around my leg below my knee,” she said. “It wasn’t flailing around, so that was fine. But all of a sudden it vice-gripped me to the point I thought the bone in my leg was gonna break. That or my calf was gonna explode.

“Finally, I had to just let it go.”

But couldn’t she have used her other hand to try to break that vice grip?

“Well, no,” she said. “I had another snake – a 9 or 10 footer – in the other hand. I’d come up on a mating ball, so I just grabbed both snakes.”

Rethinking what she’d done, she now laughed:

“Yeah, no wonder they were mad.”

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