The Swamp Apes: Serving Veterans, Saving Wilderness
By Brenna Dixon
In the middle of this interview, Tom Rahill—telecommunications specialist, Everglades enthusiast, and founder of the Swamp Apes—told me to hang on just a second because he thought his stitches (internal) from a recent surgery had maybe popped. (Thankfully, they hadn’t.) When I offered to reschedule, he said no, he was a Swamp Ape, and that he had plans to go out in search of pythons after we spoke.
This is not recklessness on Tom’s part, but rather dedication to the U.S. Armed Services veterans he works with, and to the Everglades wilderness itself. As Tom explained to me when I first met him during a 2014 artist residency at Everglades National Park, he created the Swamp Apes as a means of serving the veterans who have served our country. Swamp Apes gives them an opportunity to use their skill-set as a means of “wilderness therapy,” through non-violent capture of Florida’s most notorious invasive species, the Burmese python—and in doing so, to serve the wilderness itself.
There is much speculation as to how Burmese pythons first ended up in Florida’s Everglades, but most experts agree that the established populations first reported in 2000 are the result of escape from the pet trade and intentional release. According to the National Park Service, “more than 2000 pythons have been removed from the park and surrounding areas since 2002.” The Swamp Apes themselves have captured 260 since 2013 and will be featured on Animal Planet this year in a piece on Florida’s 2016 Python Challenge.
Brenna Dixon: How did you first get involved with python removal in Everglades National Park?
Tom Rahill: In 2008 my wife was offered a great job opportunity teaching at Arkansas State University. With the economic downturn we both agreed that her taking the job was our best option. We each found ways of dealing with the emotional pain of separation. Mine was signing up as a volunteer in Everglades National Park.
In 2008 I was invited to join the python eradication program by the program’s head, Dr. Skip Snow. At the time, my brother and sister-in-law were overseas actively engaged in the Iraq War and I had a very strong sympathy for what they were doing. My support for them was certain. I knew their sacrifice. It occurred to me that all veterans and their families have sacrifices of their own. I wanted to do something to help.
As the Bear Lake Canoe Trail clearing proceeded it occurred to me that the extreme nature of the work may be good for veterans. The mosquitoes were horrific. Clouds of them in the tens of thousands hovering, biting all day, did not deter our determination to clear the trail. Often with 100% humidity, a 120-degree heat index, biting flies, venomous snakes, crocodiles, and alligators habituating the canal, the difficulties were constant.
After a truly brutal day in those conditions, I would go out tracking and live-capture the invasive Burmese Pythons. With all these combined dangers, I found that my focus was in the moment and not on my personal situation. It became clear that my activities were an extreme kind of therapy for me. This is the time period when the “Aha” moment came.
I thought that veterans, too—if they were involved in a similar pursuit—would be able to benefit and forget for a while their personal situation.
Brenna Dixon: I’ve heard you call this “wilderness therapy.”
Tom Rahill: It’s going to be the focus of what we do. It could be a marriage of working out in the wilderness—on wilderness projects such as trail-clearing and basic exotic plant removal, various construction clean-up projects, and then the removal of invasive exotic species—while the veterans have access to licensed therapists who will be part of the organization. The goal is to have therapists actually out there in the field with us, participating in the projects, while they’re bonding with the veterans. In the meantime, the veterans would be enjoying various aspects of nature while having an opportunity, if they want, to engage with a therapist. Thus, the veterans would be able to open up and contribute to accelerating their own healing process.
The Swamp Apes are dedicated to serving veterans through serving the wilderness. Our program is effectively a management program for the wilderness. It’s not a “thank you, veterans, for your service,” though those are great. Our ultimate goal is to provide a large labor force that’s engaged in regular management of invasive exotic species in South Florida and around the country for that matter. That’s one of the goals—that we are constantly engaged, that we have python surveys and hunts going on every day, that we have trail-clearing activities going on as much as possible until we clear a trail and then move onto the next project. It’s a long-term management program, the Swamp Apes, for invasive exotics and serving the wilderness.
At the same time, of course, involving the veterans gives them an opportunity to find another purpose—a new purpose—in life. It allows them to be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor and to improve the quality of their lives through being out in the wilderness and doing something significant for the wilderness.
My ultimate goal is to have a compound down here where I have barracks, living quarters, family quarters—not just providing therapy and interaction for the veterans, but also for their families and their significant others, and for support staff that can stay with us for three months, six months at a time. Also, the money that would be spent to maintain these activities and residences would be going toward helping the veterans and the wilderness at the same time. It’s a very fiscally responsible concept.
Brenna Dixon: Does live capture of the pythons factor into this?
Tom Rahill: The pythons, by no fault of their own, have propagated in Everglades National Park and the South Florida Everglades. They’re beautiful animals. Anyone that works with them has a great deal of respect for them. They’re truly magnificent animals and it’s a shame that a vast majority of them ultimately have to be euthanized. But whatever respect we can afford these animals in our capture methods, we do—and we celebrate their beauty. We would rather not be in a situation like this, but we are in a situation like this. And the counterbalance to the respect for this beautiful animal, and capturing it live, is that the pythons have had a significant and documented impact on native prey species. The populations of prey animals such as rabbits, rats, brown birds, and other mammals have decreased between 80 and 95 percent in areas where the pythons have significant footholds.
Brenna Dixon: And since the Swamp Apes started up in 2009, have you seen more landscape impacted by pythons? Do you feel like it’s lessened?
Tom Rahill: An individual who had been out there 30 to 40 years informed us that an area which we worked very heavily for a year and a half straight was now being repopulated by animals which he hadn’t seen in several years. This was very much a great reward to us, as you can imagine. We knew that we were making a difference.
Brenna Dixon: How many snakes have the Swamp Apes caught in the last year?
Tom Rahill: I’ve had some health setbacks this year, so we’ve only gotten 48 pythons so far. Last year, at this time, we had captured 73.
Brenna Dixon: Have you seen an increase in the number of veterans joining you?
Tom Rahill: It comes in waves. I’m somewhat restricted now in terms of outreach because of financial constraints. I’m funding it, basically, so I have to work and I use my earnings both to pay my bills and to finance the cost of running the Swamp Apes. So I can’t expand it past the point where it is at this point—that is, until I get funding of some sort.
Brenna Dixon: So right now it’s you and handful of regulars and some others who come in—some veterans, some civilians?
Tom Rahill: Yes, absolutely. I reached out just yesterday again to my contact with the Miami Veterans Hospital—an incredible woman who works in the recreational therapy department. She has some veterans that she feels would benefit from our program. She’s very careful about who she recommends. She understands the difficulty of what we do, the danger of what we do. But, she has some who she feels will potentially benefit from involvement with the Swamp Apes, and I’m looking forward to bringing them out there and getting them plugged in. It works for some folks. Like anything, it doesn’t work for everyone, but generally speaking, every time that someone goes out, regardless of whether or not they come back, they have a great time.
Brenna Dixon: And these are usually veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?
Tom Rahill: Yeah, PTSD, other issues. I don’t ask whether or not they’re suffering from any type of post-war or post-traumatic stress. That’s one thing non-clinical people need to be aware of, is you don’t want to ask if they’ve been injured, or for specifics about what they did while deployed. I have found that the veterans are very proud of their achievements and that they guard their experiences very strongly. I respect that.
Brenna Dixon: Is that part of why you have the no-kill policy when capturing pythons?
Tom Rahill: Well, given that the veterans experienced a lot of trauma, I work hard not to expose them to further trauma in the field, so we are not involved in killing, shooting, or pithing the pythons. Pithing a python is effectively destroying the brain. You don’t kill a snake by cutting off its head. That’s a very inhumane way to do that because if you cut off its head, the animal remains sentient and can live for hours after the head is separated from the body. You need to literally destroy the brain, and that’s a pretty invasive and harsh technique.
Our hope is always that the animals can be used in some sort of scientific study or zoo or that we can find a way for them to be kept alive. In fact, earlier this year there was a scientist who was able to capture six pythons large enough to where telemetry tracking radios were installed so that the pythons could be released and then tracked for their movements.
Brenna Dixon: That’s great!
Tom Rahill: It is. And of those six pythons, I have captured four. They’re out there now, being tracked, and it helps the scientists to study the animals and to protect the native species. That’s what it’s all about. We’re dedicated to serving the wilderness, and the wilderness needs our help. The wilderness is diminishing.
Recently, I read a study that indicated we’re entering into, or are in, our sixth great extinction age. An incredible number of animals are dying, or becoming extinct, every year. There was another study recently which concluded that since human history, and man’s proliferation on the planet, 46 percent of the trees have disappeared from the face of the planet. This same study stated that annually 15 billion trees are removed from the planet either by deforestation or as a consequence of clear-cutting for agricultural and other uses. Fifteen billion trees a year…. That’s wilderness that needs to be protected. We strive to protect the wilderness, the Swamp Apes. And in the course of protecting the wilderness, we involve veterans. With the training the veterans have, no one can be better for this new mission we have of protecting the wilderness.
Brenna Dixon: A question about the process: Can you describe a typical hunt, or snake search? How do you go about finding and capturing the pythons, because they’re so elusive?
Tom Rahill: The methods used to track the pythons are dependent upon the time of year. There’s a breeding season, there’s a basking season, and there’s a wet season in South Florida. From about December to the end of February or March, the breeding season is taking place concurrent with the basking season. It’s cold at night. The temperature gets down, so during the day, when the sun comes out and heats up the open places, reptiles will come out to bask, to absorb solar radiation. As cold-blooded animals they need this to function properly.
In the wet season, when the Everglades fills up with water, those snakes that have dispersed throughout the Everglades during the dry season congregate along water courses—the Everglades being a huge river of grass, as the great Marjorie Stoneman Douglas said. They congregate on tree islands and other points of elevation, such as levees and roads, open spaces on trails and such. So, in the summer, during the wet season, when the moisture is up and the Everglades fills with water, there’s a temperature key, an environmental catalyst that brings the snakes out into the open places, away from the colder wet areas, so that they can absorb what’s left of the solar radiation from the day.
Brenna Dixon: Like roads, for example?
Tom Rahill: Yeah, roads primarily. It’s almost unfair to road-cruise. But anyone who’s a herper understands road-cruising at night for reptiles—what that’s about, is that you’re in your car, you’re listening to the game, you’re listening to music, and you’re driving the roads and looking for the animals when they pop out at night.
But our work is really very physical. That’s one of the things we’re known for. As easy as the road cruising is to get the pythons during the road-cruising season, in the basking season and the mating season, we go in after the pythons. It’s awesome: mile after mile in the Everglades through the sawgrass with some canoes or pole boats. It’s physically taxing; and I’ve been blessed that I’ve been able to do it. I’ve been able to run circles around those young folks, you know? So I’ve got to get my health back and get back to it.
Brenna Dixon: And you’ve come across poachers, too, haven’t you?
Tom Rahill: Yeah, it’s really unfortunate and it’s a matter of education. Folks are just ignorant of the laws and don’t have the ethics that they need to understand that the wilderness is under pressure globally. And they remove native species. They hunt. They poach deer in areas where the panthers need the deer for survival. They do damage to the environment, take things they shouldn’t take rather than following that great adage of taking only photographs, and leaving only footprints. They do more harm. The wilderness is under stress, you know? There are situations where we’ve come across folks that are just, even bad, you know? They just behave badly. They don’t care and they never will care, and so, it can be a little difficult out there at times.
Brenna Dixon: Is it your hope that the Swamp Apes’ work extends beyond the Everglades into other national parks and other protected areas?
Tom Rahill: Ultimately, we would like our work to extend even globally. The Swamp Apes, once we become incorporated, will be known as the founding chapter of the Volunteer Wilderness Alliance. The Volunteer Wilderness Alliance will be the main corporate body of the organization, inviting other chapters to open throughout the country where feasible, and throughout the world if possible. We can then unite as a team to help gather the numbers needed to do significant projects in the wilderness, while at the same time helping the veterans.
Brenna Dixon: I’ll ask just one more question and then I’ll let you get to the hunt tonight. What can people do to help the Swamp Apes from South Florida and beyond? What can they do to help make it happen?
Tom Rahill: Follow us on Facebook. And where you can, when you can, come down and contact the Swamp Apes and come join us. I don’t take donations at this point because I’m not set up as a corporate structure and one of the issues with nonprofits is money; so, until I get to the point of being a nonprofit I wouldn’t ask for donations. I don’t want to muddy the waters.
But, as for helping the Swamp Apes specifically, I would say first and foremost, do what you can to help the veterans in the areas where you live. Think globally, act locally. It’s hard to conceive of this, but 22 is the average number of veterans a day that commit suicide. That’s why I’m doing this—to help the veterans. We want to knock that number down. We want to help as many young men and women as we can, to not be in that bad, negative place. While we’re helping them, we’re helping the wilderness.
Header photo of veteran volunteer searching for pythons in the Everglades courtesy the Swamp Apes.