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Dusty Crumm captures a 16-foot 10-inch python in the Everglades. It contained 78 eggs. Photo courtesy of Joey Waves, of Island Media Group.
East County Wednesday, May 17, 2017 3 years ago

Myakka City snake hunter goes prime time

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Dusty Crum will be featured on Swamp People: Everglades.
by: Pam Eubanks Senior Editor

Some people dance with a partner.

Myakka City’s Dusty Crum dances barefoot with wild Burmese pythons.

Or, at least that’s what he calls the jig he does to evade their strikes.

After the pythons try to bite him three or more times, they tire and that allows Crum, 36, to subdue them.

In the Florida Everglades on May 10, Crum caught one of the largest Burmese pythons recorded, at 16 feet, 10 inches and about 130 pounds. It carried 73 eggs in its belly.

It was the largest Burmese python caught since the South Florida Water Management District started its python elimination program in March. The endeavor has captured 79 pythons since it began.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also organizes a monthlong “Python Challenge” each year to entice people to hunt for Burmese pythons, invasive species threatening Everglades ecosystem restoration efforts. Anyone older than 18 can hunt the snakes on state land.

In August 2012, researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey in Florida claimed the record for largest Burmese python captured in Florida. They pulled a 17-foot, 7-inch python out of the Everglades that weighed 164.5 pounds and contained 87 eggs.

Crum isn’t hunting for records.

“What’s important to me is helping the small mammals,” Crum said. “It’s a way to make an impact on the environment.”

By trade, Crum may be an orchid grower, but since 2013, he has blossomed into a skilled python hunter who has gained celebrity status.

On May 17, he is expected to be interviewed on NBC’s “Today Show,” and at 9 p.m. May 18, he will be featured in a episode of “Swamp People: Everglades” airing on the History Channel. It’s titled “Monster in the Dark.”

Crum, who has been interviewed about his python hunting by reporters from around the globe, has signed a deal with Condé Nast for his own television series, tentatively call “Operation Everglades.” The pilot show is finished, but they’ll begin filming the series this fall. Condé Nast has six months to sell it to a network.

“It’s already sold,” Crum said, confidently. “We’re making an educational entertainment show that focuses on the environment. At the same time, I’m interesting young people.”

Its cast includes fellow Myakka City residents Daniel DeSear and his daughter, Winchester, and Crum’s dog, Riley, who is trained to sniff out the snakes.

Crum has been hunting for pythons nearly every day for the past year through a pilot program initiated by the South Florida Water Management District. It pays python hunters an hourly wage, plus extra for snakes larger than 4 feet.

He catches the pythons with his bare hands, bags them and transports them to SFWMD, where someone else kills them.

“It’s a mindset. Endurance. Mile after mile,” Crum said of hunting pythons. “They are very elusive and hard to find. That’s what draws me.”

At heart, Crum is a conservationist.

His girlfriend, Natalee McKinney, said Crum rarely brings the three things she considers essential to hunting — sunscreen, shoes (he will occasionally wear Crocs because they are easy to remove) and a gun.

“I’m not really a hunter,” Crum said. “I’m a protector of the Everglades. I’ve never actually killed a python.”

When Crum hunts, he travels barefoot, wearing a shirt and shorts, a baseball cap, a boar’s tooth necklace and a feather, for luck, in his wiry long hair.

In his orchid shop in Venice, called Orchid Envy, Crum’s gruff exterior has steered away potential customers, fearful of a man who looks more like he’s walking into a biker bar than arranging orchids into pieces of wood and hollow Cypress logs he’s collected on his treks through forests.

Crum grew up in rural Sarasota County, but moved to Myakka City in 2004 to “escape” back to a country way of life he enjoyed as a child. From McKinney, he learned a love of orchids.

“Natalee was working in a greenhouse in Myakka. She got me hooked,” Crum said. “I got interested in the science end of it.”

The pair bought a wholesale orchid business, Orchid Envy, and Crum also expanded to open a storefront in Venice, when he could not set up a solid wholesale distribution there.

Crum finds the orchid addicting, in much the same way he finds hunting pythons addictive.

“There’s a new color or a new hybrid plant — I want to find the next thing,” Crum said. “It is like hunting, in a sense.”

In 2013, McKinney heard about the Python Challenge and issued Crum a challenge: “If you want to be a man, anybody can hunt hogs. Why don’t you hunt one of these pythons?”

Crum did not say much about it. A few days later, McKinney brought up the idea again, but this time, Crum rallied friends — Bill Booth and Duane Clarke — to join him.

“We camped the whole 30 days and we hunted every day of the (Python) Challenge,” Crum said.

The crew, nicknamed the “Cypress Boys” by a reporter, came in second.

They returned in 2016, the next time the challenge was held, and won, catching 33 snakes.

Now Crum spends more time in the Everglades hunting pythons than he does at home. He returns for only two days a week to handle wholesale deliveries and to visit.

He had to purchase another phone, which he nicknamed the “wild man hotline,” because his regular cellphone won’t get a signal in the Everglades.

“I can’t drag him out of bed at 8 a.m., and he left at 4 a.m. this morning (to go back to the Everglades),” McKinney said. “He’s excited.

“You’re not going to confine him to a 9-to-5 job, ever,” she added with a laugh.

Crum loves being outdoors. He loves to hunt. He loves to entertain.

“I’m addicted to it,” he said. “It’s something I’m really passionate about.”

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