A couple of month ago, Kevin Pavlidis was walking through tall grass on a tiny island in the Florida Everglades when he saw the snake coiled and glowing in the sun — 14.5 feet long and 85 pounds.
“Python!” he called out to his hunting partner, Anthony.
Wasting no time, Pavlidis grabbed the snake’s head, but she lashed up, causing the 25-year-old to lose his balance and fall on top of her.
“My hand went right into her mouth,” he told The Post. “Her razor-sharp teeth dug into my knuckles and that was excruciating. Usually they let go and take off. But because of where I was positioned, she didn’t. I felt the tissue tearing.”
Not a moment too soon, Anthony came to the rescue with a credit card. “He pushed his American Express card between my hand and the top row of her teeth, which pushed the meat of my hand out of her teeth and I was able to roll my hand free. That situation left me out of commission for a few days but the card was still usable.”
It’s just another day for the man who goes by the name “Snakeaholic” and who spends three to five nights a week bounty-hunting big snakes.
He earns $50 for the first four feet of reptile and $25 per additional foot, paid to Pavlidis by the South Florida Water Management District, using Everglade-restoration funds that come from the state of Florida. Photos were recently released of a 215-pound python, the heaviest snake in Florida history was caught, and the government is eager to pull the invasive species — which has multiplied exponentially as they’ve been abandoned as house pets — away from South Florida’s marshlands. So in 2017, it announced a program where licensed bounty hunters are able to catch the slithering reptiles, which are taken in alive before being cataloged and humanely euthanized.
Pavlidis is one of 50 professional python catchers who are contracted by South Florida Water Management District; another 50 are signed up with Florida Fish and Wildlife. They are the only ones allowed to work the national parks there.
After three-and-a-half years of python hunting, Pavilidis is closing on his 700th capture. And while he said he loves the creatures, he also recognizes the need to keep them from destroying South Florida’s indigenous wildlife.
“We know these snakes were originally imported for the pet trade; they’re not supposed to be there,” said Pavlidis who has a YouTube channel devoted to reptiles. “Somehow, though, they made their way into the Everglades … They are very efficient at growing and reproducing. Most likely, there are more than 1 million pythons in South Florida.”
And he knows all too well how powerful they can be. A couple years ago, during an attempted grab, “a python almost broke my wrist. He coiled around the top of my hand and just started twisting and pulling. I let of the snake, yanked as hard I could and got loose before the bones shattered.”
Pavlidis and another of his hunting partners, Ryan Ausburn, managed to snag Florida’s longest python — 18 feet and 9 and 3/4 inches — two years ago. It earned them $400 to split but the money was far from easy.
“That snake was a monster, stretched out in knee- to waist-deep water,” Pavlidis recounted. “Ryan grabbed the tail and hung on for dear life. I found the head and calculated for the clean grab. This is not the snake you want to get bitten by. We dragged her to dry ground, subdued her and maintained victory.”
After euthanizing the snakes, the hunters are allowed to do what they wish with the skin; Pavlidis sells many of them as king cobra food.
For the Long Island native, who graduated from SUNY New Paltz in 2018 with a degree in finance, python-hunting constitutes a dream job.
“I’ve been passionate about reptiles my entire life,” Pavlidis said. “[‘Crocodile Hunter’ star] Steve Irwin inspired me and I had a passion for snakes since the age of 7. The older I got, the bigger and more dangerous the animals became. At 11, I got exposed to pythons and fell in love with them.”
During his senior year at SUNY, the reptile fanatic landed an opportunity to move to Florida and wrestle alligators for tourists at Everglades National Park.
“I met the owner on a shark dive in South Florida; then we went out and caught snakes together for fun,” said Pavlidis, who has never used his finance degree professionally. “Soon after that, he called me and said he was looking for a new alligator wrestler. I couldn’t see living my life without doing it. I graduated in December; on January 3, I was in Florida. Now I wrestle alligators during the day and go out for pythons as soon as the sun goes down.”
As for the snake that almost took off his hand, it wasn’t all bad. He and Anthony bagged the snake, and Pavilidis wound up with a souvenir.
“I now have the skull in my personal collection,” he said. “I have a strip of scars on my knuckles; I can line it up with the snake’s mouth and see how she got me.”
And there are no hard feelings. “I look at the skull and smile. It brings back good memories of battle [and] reminds me of the mistakes I made and what happens when you underestimate the power of a python.”