Reptile Wrangler

Reptile Wrangler
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer Felix Collazo (left) steadies the snake bag as Chris Sparacino of the city’s community affairs department feeds in the python. Operator Mike Gee of the Marco Shores Wastewater Treatment Plant restrains the snake’s head.

Mike Gee enjoys being the sole operator at Marco Shores Wastewater Treatment Plant in Marco Island, Fla. He manages the 300,000 gpd facility weekdays for six hours and usually encounters no one.

That changed in May when a lawn service worker reported finding a 12 1/2-foot-long snake in a concrete valve box. Gee, who has raised and bred snakes for years, lifted the lid and identified it as a Burmese python. “They’re not aggressive, but when I saw it, I realized why I hadn’t seen any baby alligators, rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, or opossums lately,” says Gee.

Mass escape

Pythons and other exotic snakes escaped when Hurricane Andrew destroyed several pet stores in 1992. Their populations have proliferated, and mammals declined. “They’re voracious,” says Gee. “Until October 2005, wildlife researchers believed alligators would keep their population under control. Then a helicopter pilot with the South Florida Natural Resources Center found a 13-foot python with a 6-foot-long alligator protruding from a hole in its midsection. Both were dead, and so was the theory.”

After closing the box’s metal lid, Gee notified Nancy Richie, Marco Island’s environmental specialist, who called the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to collect the snake. Officer Felix Collazo arrived, then Chris Sparacino from the city’s community affairs department.

“I thought I’d raise the lid, Felix would reach in and grab the snake, and that would be it,” says Gee. However, the look on Collazo’s face told Gee he had never seen a snake that large, let alone caught one: “I hadn’t either, but we couldn’t let it go.”

Stubborn slitherer

The snake wouldn’t move until Collazo poked it with his snake hook. Then it began slithering out behind the lid into a hard-to-reach area. Gee grabbed the tail and pulled the snake into the open, where there was room to handle it. Collazo pinned its head with the hook until Gee secured it behind the head and closed its mouth with his other hand.

“The snake didn’t struggle, but it was heavy,” says Gee. “Chris and Felix worked the tail into the snake bag while I controlled the head. The bag was almost too small.” Collazo took the snake to Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve to be euthanized and autopsied to determine its sex and what it was eating. The python, a female, weighed more than 100 pounds and was full of eggs. The reserve gave the body to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, which is studying pythons.

This is not the first time Gee has helped capture snakes. The fire department called him to exterminate a 6-foot-long Eastern diamondback rattlesnake living in the middle of a condominium complex and to remove a python in a woman’s flowerpot. Meter readers from the Water Department rely on Gee to extract all sorts of snakes from meter boxes.

Not scared

“I was raised on a farm in southeastern Ohio and enjoy animals and reptiles,” says Gee. “I’m not afraid of snakes, but I definitely respect them, especially when they’re venomous. I owned a pygmy rattlesnake until it almost bit me a couple of times. My wife told me I’d had enough fun with that one, so I turned it loose. We’re down to two goldfish now.”


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