A photo exposé of Justin Matthews: The Python Hunter

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Published Sept. 30, 2009

I spent a day with Justin Matthews of Matthews Wildlife Rescue to meet some of his friends from the animal kingdom and talk about his quest to bring attention to Florida’s Burmese Python problem. Matthews garnered international attention when he admitted to planting his pet 14-foot, 110-pound Burmese Python in a Bradenton storm drain and calling the local news outlets to the scene to witness the capture.

Matthews has given educational wildlife presentations at Mixon Fruit Farms for the past three years. These photos provide a glimpse into the bonds he has been able to form with these still very wild animals. Click through to check them out:

The first beast Matthews introduced me to was an 8-foot alligator named Wally. He kicked off his flip-flops and stepped into the murky pond at Mixon without thinking twice. After guiding Wally to the corner of the enclosure with a 10-foot 2×2, he tossed a few whole chicken thighs into his powerful jaws, and down they went in two gulps:

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The next little critter Matthews brought out was Elvis, a two-year-old alligator that will soon be living in a pond that Matthews is building at his house. He plans to replace Elvis with a loner from Busch Gardens, just so Mixon always has a baby to show people in their presentations. Wally is only six years old, which should give you an idea of how fast these reptiles can grow in four years.

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The next enclosure over houses one of the most dangerous animals you can keep in captivity. Deers are extremely wary of humans and if they feel threatened they can mess a person up pretty bad. Bucky can’t return to the wild because he is what they call an imprint, meaning he has lost his fear of humans. Don’t be fooled though. He looks adorable, but Matthews is the only person who enters this cage without the serious risk of an antler in the gut. That’s because he slept in the enclosure with Bucky for two weeks until the deer felt comfortable enough to fall asleep.

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For all those folks who think opossums are ugly, you might change your mind after you meet Fancy. Opossums are known for being one of the meanest wild animals humans often encounter, but Fancy is a cuddle bug. At least with Matthews, who says she hasn’t shown the same love to others in the past.

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This is one of two iguanas that Matthews houses at Mixon. As you can tell by her pleasant demeanor, she is the nicer of the two. The other, a Mexican green iguana, cannot be held. “He’s got a right to be mean,” says Matthews, “he’s got three bullet holes in his dewlap. He was found almost dead in a dumpster at Wal-Mart about two years ago. So, I guess you can find anything at Wal-Mart.”

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One of the crowd favorites at Mixon is Tank the tortoise. The kids actually hop on and ride him like a pony. As I talked with Matthews, he let Tank roam around outside the cage and feed on the grass.

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This is the 4-year-old Burmese Python that Matthews shows during his presentations. Her 11-foot length and 35 pounds are no match for Sweetie, the Burmese that Matthews keeps in his backyard, and that he planted in a Bradenton pipe in order to bring attention to the non-indigenous snakes’ threat to Florida’s natural ecosystem. Watch that finger!

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These are two of Matthews hybrid wolves that he keeps in a enclosure behind his house. He wasn’t able interact with them until he showed them a sign of submissiveness. This involved entering the cage and lying on his back to show them his belly while holding a piece of meat in each hand. They reluctantly accepted his offer and relations have been improving ever since. Matthews is now the alpha male.

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Last, but certainly not least, say “hello” to Sweetie. This is the big girl that caused so much fuss after Matthews used her in his big publicity stunt. I’ll say this, if i were to pick a snake to spend a couple hours with in a two-foot-wide pipe, Sweetie would not be my choice. Although Burmese Pythons are usually very docile, this is one of the meanest, most aggressive snakes i have ever encountered. She tried to bite Matthews at least 20 times as i stood snapping pictures. He appeared to enjoy himself as he danced around her trying to get her to lunge for the camera. For those who think Sweetie could have escaped from the staging incident, they may be greatly overestimating her speed. But 88 half-inch, needlepoint, backward-curving teeth are going to hurt if they sink in, whether she’s a slowpoke or not.

Come out and play Sweetie:

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I think Sweetie is ready to play:

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Let’s play tag. You’re it Sweetie!:

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Boy, that was fun! Time to go back in your cage Sweetie:

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