By Bryan McGovern Wilson for knightarts.org
On October 1st, 2013, the Federal government initiated a series of closures for the entire United States, suspending and furloughing many federally run programs, institutions and their employees. The National Parks fell within the crosshairs of this government shutdown. Access was cut off to the Everglades National Park and the Artist in Residence in Everglades program was suspended.
As the designated Artist in Residence for the month of October, I suddenly found myself having the unique distinction of being the first Itinerate Artist in Residence. I learned about the shutdown days before I was to depart for Florida from New York City and begin the work of meeting with volunteers, biologists, and others engaged with the land. Despite the setback, I was determined to make my way south and continue the proposed project in a somewhat modified form. The unknowns only heightened the romance of a wilderness adventure.
My initial intent for the residency was to investigate the invasive exotic reptile and snake populations, specifically the Burmese python, which have devastated the park’s biodiversity and destabilized the overall park ecosystem. The issue spoke to many enduring interests within my own artistic practice: themes such as the human-made impacts upon the land and the cultures that emerge from ecological stewardship. There is also a theatricality to the python, echoed in our historical use of the serpent in imagery, fables, and propaganda that I was hoping to explore as a guiding force in my field work.
The Everglades National Park, the first national park to be established on the basis of sustaining and protecting the native biodiversity in the region, currently faces an identity crisis with an invasive exotic species such as the python. If the core principle of the park is to maintain the native biodiversity within it, to what extent must park officials go to maintain that ideal? Burmese pythons and other thriving exotic reptiles are only one of many invasive plants and animals that threaten the diversity of the land, while taxing the limited resources of the park.
Strangely enough, the Burmese python is considered a “threatened” species in its native habitat of South and Southeastern Asia. Does the Park Service have a responsibility to manage these animals? When do they stop being referred to as the Burmese python and become the American python?
The Swamp Apes
Before my journey to the park, I had been corresponding with many people who were passionate about the python problem as a part of their professional research, or in their capacity as a concerned volunteer. When I arrived in Miami, I found the art community, park volunteers and art patrons welcoming me with an interim residence, as well as generosity and warmth. This hospitality continued on into my interactions with Tom Rahill, founder of the “The Swamp Apes,” a volunteer group of python hunters comprised mostly of military veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. They use the hunts as a means of coping with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI), and physical trauma.
Before getting to know Tom and The Swamp Apes, I had visions in my mind of a group of hyper masculine guys who went out in to the park, killing snakes for the thrills that they missed from active combat. Indeed, I held to this belief so strongly that I braced myself for having to witness, or even take part in, the killing of one of these animals. Equipped with two sizable knives a friend had offered me and my own personal one that I always carry with me, I was ready for action. Quickly, I realized how foolish I had been. Instead of a group of bloodthirsty, insular hunters, I found a highly organized group of dedicated volunteers who were able to talk eloquently about the ecosystem and our responsibility to it as stewards, striving to find sustainable therapeutic outlets for their emotional and physical struggles.
Killing of the pythons was something that was to be avoided at all costs in the field, something that all involved loathed to partake in. Under the leadership of Tom, all successfully caught pythons are photographed, GPS coordinates are logged, and basic biometric data are gathered from the animal before it is handed over to lab biologists for humane euthanizing. A number of the people I interviewed who hunted pythons had chosen to become vegetarian, based on a desire to alleviate general animal suffering.
After tagging along on several python hunts, evidence of the therapeutic results for members of The Swamp Apes was undeniable. A common condition for veterans from volatile war environments is a loss of one’s purpose, the exhilaration of doing meaningful work and group camaraderie. The intense focus and team effort necessary for the python hunts provides an outlet for skills that fester in civilian life in a new and meaningful way. As one member remarked, “I used to have nightmares about war…now I dream of pythons!”