A BYU graduate and a former BYU–Idaho student recently found an unexpected hobby — dragging pythons out of the Florida Everglades with their bare hands.
These two Latter-day Saints and their fellow Florida Python Hunters won the recent Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission python hunting challenge that started Jan. 12 and continued for a month.
The hunt drew 1,600 participants nationwide, but the duo still won a total of $1,750. They also won the coveted award for catching the longest snake.
The pair have caught 17 pythons in the last year. By comparison, the competition’s official website reported only 68 pythons were caught in the entire competition.
Hunters Devin Belliston, a BYU graduate in anthropology, and Blake Russ, a student who transferred from BYU–I to Florida International University, caught the snakes because they know how to find them. They know that the snakes love the marshy Everglades of southern Florida and that they rarely leave the plentiful water except when it is cold during the winter.
Russ and Belliston then look for the well-camouflaged snakes in sunny areas near a canal where there is plenty of food.
“You have to think like a snake in order to be able to catch a snake,” Russ said.
Once they catch them, the hunters wrestle the pythons into large homemade pillowcases — their only hunting tools. The pillowcases are homemade by Belliston’s mother, a home economics teacher in Utah, and embroidered with the words “Florida Python Hunters.” Then the hike back to their Toyota Prius, which they nicknamed “Silent Night,” begins. Their heaviest snake weighed 60 pounds.
“So it’s really not fun when you catch a 10- or a 12-foot snake and you’re three or four miles away from your car,” Russ said.
Russ and Belliston take turns yanking the snakes out of bushes.
“If they bite me, they bite me,” Russ said. “I don’t really care.”
At least their wives aren’t at home worrying — both women were present and screaming with excitement when Russ and Belliston caught their first python. In fact, the snake hunters joined forces after their wives became friends through church. Russ said they found their common interest when his wife received a phone call from Belliston’s wife while they were out hunting pythons by night.
“I was like, ‘Don’t tell them we’re out looking for snakes. They’ll think we’re weird,'” Russ recalled. “But she told her anyway.”
Belliston’s response surprised him. He asked, “Did they invite us?”
The snakes caught from the competition are not harmed. Instead, the hunters take the invasive species to the University of Florida for research.
The pair of hunters not only caught snakes, they also caught the attention of a New York Times reporter who thought it was interesting that they followed their hunt with a fruit milkshake instead of a beer.
“People typically think about people who go out hunting as rednecks, tattooed and so on,” said Belliston, who currently teaches science at a high school in Miami. “A couple city-slicker-looking Mormon boys were definitely not what (the reporter) was picturing. I think that’s why she found us interesting.”
Russ was surprised that after spending an entire day with them, the reporter had latched onto their casual comments about not hunting on Sunday. However, he appreciated the opportunity to represent The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“I remember praying that I could be a good representative of the Church and make people want to learn more about the Church,” Russ said.
Belliston said that a couple of good opportunities to share the gospel have come through python hunting. Two of their comrades from the competition are now attending church with their families and meeting with the missionaries.
The snake hunters’ publicity may continue. They are currently in dialogue with a company to make a reality TV show of their hunts.
Russ and Belliston won the competition, but the Florida Python Hunters are still unstoppable. They are even looking into other hunting opportunities.
“Devin and I are going out to hunt caiman (crocodiles) on Thursday night,” Russ said.