By Mar Gonzalo.

The group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is calling on Florida authorities to ban decapitations in the upcoming Python Challenge contest, organized to combat an alarming proliferation of Burmese pythons in the Everglades National Park.

PETA sent a letter Monday to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, or FWC, organizer of the controversial competition that kicks off on Saturday, urging it to bar hunters from killing the giant snakes by cutting off their heads.

Anyone interested is welcome to participate in the month-long challenge in the Everglades, a protected ecosystem that is unique in the world, and try to kill as many Burmese pythons as possible, whether by a gunshot to the head or other "humane" methods.

While the FWC recommends using a captive bolt or firearm, it says that decapitation is deemed an acceptable method by the American Veterinary Medical Association as long as the hunter follows up by destroying the brain with a firearm, captive bolt or other effective method.

Burmese pythons, which are among the world's largest snake species, are spreading rapidly in the Everglades due in part to irresponsible pet owners who abandoned the snakes in that vast subtropical wetlands region in South Florida once they were no longer able to care for them.

Some 400 people across the United States have registered for the contest, which allows participants over the age of 18 to carry a firearm without a hunting license.

The goal is to remove this non-venomous snake that can grow to more than five meters (16 feet) in length and is a predator that poses a major threat to native wildlife. The largest specimen of that species ever found in the Everglades measured 5.3 meters (17.7 inches) in length and was carrying 87 eggs.

The contest will run until Feb. 10 and is divided into a General Competition and a Python Permit Holders Competition, each of which offers two cash prizes: $1,500 for the participant who harvests the most Burmese pythons, and $1,000 for the participant who harvests the longest Burmese python.

But PETA - citing Clifford Warwick, one the world's top reptile biologists - said in its letter that "decapitation, followed by an attempt to destroy the snake's brain, as the challenge recommends, cannot be carried out humanely in the field, leading to prolonged suffering."

The animal rights group also criticized the very idea of a bounty hunt, noting that the U.S. Geological Survey has concluded that "(b)ounties have never been used successfully with invasive reptiles" and that "any feature that adds value to an invasive species ... creates economic pressure to assure the population's continuation."

"This bounty hunt is misguided in the first place, but allowing hunters to decapitate pythons - who remain alive and in agony and who will writhe for an hour even after their heads have been cut off - is despicably cruel," PETA President Ingrid Newkirk says.

An estimated 100,000 Burmese pythons exist in the Everglades and are expanding unchecked because no other animal poses a threat to them. They prey on everything from wading birds and small mammals to bobcats, deer and even alligators.

Participants in the contest do not need a hunting license unless they are under the age of 18 nor any type of prior experience with snakes, sparking concern by some groups over participants' safety and the unintentional damage they may cause to other native snake species.

In response, the FWC is providing information online to help hunters distinguish non-native Burmese pythons from native Florida snakes and will advise participants on safety during the entire month the contest lasts. EFE