(CNN) — The predator might soon become the prey if Florida scientists can confirm that Burmese pythons — an extremely invasive species in the Everglades — are safe for humans to eat.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is collaborating with the Florida Department of Health to investigate the mercury levels in pythons. If the levels are found to be safe, the snakes could end up on restaurant menus and dinner tables across the state.
Pythons are nonvenomous constrictors that pose a serious risk to native wildlife in south Florida. The snake is not native to the state; it began appearing in the Everglades in the 1980s, when it was likely introduced as an escaped or released pet.
The state wildlife agency encourages residents to remove and humanely kill pythons when they can at any time during the year, and to report any sightings to officials.
A contractor program — the Python Elimination Program — has removed more than 6,000 pythons from the Everglades.
The objective of the mercury study is to develop and share “consumption advisories for Burmese pythons in South Florida to better inform the public,” Neel said, with the hope that Floridians could soon eat pythons to help manage their populations
“Mercury is a natural occurring element in the environment and it is high in the Everglades,” Mike Kirkland, the Python Elimination Program manager, told CNN. “Mercury bioaccumulates in the environment and you will find high levels of mercury at the top of the food chain where pythons have unfortunately positioned themselves.”
“We expect the results are going to discourage the public from consuming pythons, but if we can determine that they are safe to eat, that would be very helpful to control their population,” he said.
When pythons are safe to eat, they can actually be quite delicious, says Donna Kalil, one of the program’s python hunters.
When she catches smaller ones, about 7 feet long, she uses a mercury testing kit she bought online to confirm they’re safe to eat.
She then turns their white meat into food. She uses a pressure cooker to make the meat soft and tender, then uses it in pasta, chili or stir-fry. She also likes turning the snakes into jerky.
“It’s really good when you cook it right,” Kalil told CNN. “This would be a wonderful way to get more people involved with helping us remove pythons from the environment. It would be a good thing for people to hunt and eat them but we need to make sure they’re safe first.”
Kalil spent her childhood catching and releasing snakes for fun. Despite her love for pythons, which she calls “magnificent creatures,” she emphasizes the risk they pose to Florida’s wildlife and the severe damage they’ve already caused to its ecosystem. Large pythons can even eat big prey, including humans.
“We have a severe python problem, which began when irresponsible pet owners released them into the wild and they’ve basically eaten all the native mammals down in Everglades National Park,” Kalil said.
“There’s literally 2 to 3% of rabbits and raccoons and possums left, so when I see a rabbit, I’m jumping with joy now. There just aren’t any more of them because of the pythons.”
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