TAMPA, Fla. - Designer Camille Zarsky believes she has a way of taking one of Florida's most notorious pests and turning it into a work of art.
"Python is incredibly popular right now," she said. "It's hands down the most popular exotic in the market."
It's happening at a time when the Burmese python is making headlines in South Florida. The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission considers them an invasive species that pose a threat to endangered birds and others native to the state.
"We don't really know how many pythons are out there but it's probably in the thousands, if not tens of thousands," said Gary Morse, Public Information Coordinator for FWC. "I wouldn't call pythons in Florida a silver lining to a cloud at all ... would never go that far. But there may be an opportunity to harvest these things commercially."
Luxury python items handcrafted by artisans in New York City make up the bulk of Zarsky's business. She currently has to work with some of the same tanneries in Europe that supply for Prada and Fendi. Python skins are in high demand.
"Over the last 10 years - you see increasingly it's harder and harder to acquire large snakes and it's because they're becoming so popular," she said. "Python - it's beautiful. Every scale, the cut, and the way the way the material is ... all one of a kind. It's not like leather where you can just replicate it easily and it kind of can go through mass production," says Zarsky.
Zarsky said, for that reason, it commands a price that's 10 to 20 times as much as leather. Her designs go from a small envelop clutch that starts at $1,200 up to a large bag for $5,500.
Through her research, Zarsky has been working with a Florida hunter named Ruben Ramirez, but she still needs to find a tannery and a place to have the skins dyed for a reasonable price.
"I'm hoping to look at this as an alternative for at least 50 percent of my sourcing," she said. "The idea is to make this Floridian python a very specialized kind of rare one-of-a-kind bag."
Zarsky, who grew up spending time on her family's ranch outside of Houston, said she plans on joining Ramirez for a hunt soon.
"My handbags are not the solution to their problem with pythons - but a way of just creating something that's unwanted and turning into a beautiful piece of art," she said.
The agency allows licensed hunters to harvest pythons on 4 Wildlife Management Areas: Everglades and Francis S. Taylor WMA, Rotenberger WMA, Holey Land WMA, and Big Cypress WMA during any established hunting season. Those hunters need a valid hunting license and WMA permit.
According to the FWC, Burmese pythons have been reported from the saline glades and mangroves at the south end of Everglades National Park since the 1980s. They're not sure how the snakes were introduced but, the agency says, it's likely Burmese pythons escaped from a breeding facility destroyed during Hurricane Andrew. Wildlife officials believe it's also likely people have released pet pythons in and around the Everglades.
FWC says Burmese pythons can pose a threat to human safety and can cause serious injury; however there have been no reports of wild pythons attacking people. Cats and dogs can be targets. There is a potential for the population to spread west towards Naples, according to FWC, but pythons will not likely survive outside of South Florida.