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In Texas: A Local Spring Rite

7 minute read
Marion Knox Barthelme

Rancher Bill Haas turns up the heat against the chilly morning as he waits, first in line, for the Nolan County Coliseum in Sweetwater, Texas, to open at 8 a.m. In the back of his brown-and-tan Ford pickup are 1,042 lbs. of live rattlesnakes. Behind him sit ten more trucks, also filled with live rattlesnakes. The snakes, venomous Western diamondbacks, are reluctant participants in what has become a rite of spring in rural Texas: the rattlesnake roundup.

Haas, 59, raises cattle and sheep on a spread north of Sweetwater (pop. 12,242), and has hunted snakes since he was a boy. “They’re a problem to livestock and people,” he says. On and off since January, he has scoured the countryside for their dens, catching them while they’re “cold” — hibernating, slow moving. Now he and the other hunters will sell them for $3 per lb. at Sweetwater’s 30th Annual Rattlesnake Roundup. The town’s Jaycees, who organize the roundup as a community fund raiser, claim that of some 40 in the country, theirs is the largest and oldest, drawing crowds of 8,000 a day. They expect to clear about $40,000 from the take at the door and the sale of skins, meat and venom.

“We had 5,000 lbs. of snakes turned in before noon the first morning, a total of 11,709 lbs. for the whole roundup,” says John Womble, a carpenter who has been weighing snakes for twelve years. Womble’s thick red mustache droops languidly at the corners of his mouth, and he is wearing a red Jaycee vest with badges and pins, a black cowboy hat, boots, gloves and heavy brown nylon chaps. “They’re brought in U-Hauls so they don’t freeze. We don’t buy dead snakes. They come loose in horse trailers where we’ve got to get in and / pick ’em out, in 55-gal. drums, plastic garbage cans, wooden boxes and even burlap sacks.”

After being weighed, the snakes are dumped in a great braided mass into chest-high octagonal white plywood stockades, called pits. There they can be safely ogled and photographed in all their slithering, tongue-flicking, fang- baring, rattling, coiling, head-rearing glory. The Western diamondback, Crotalus (castanet) atrox (fearful), is indeed a horrible-wonderful creature. Its head is broad and flat, and its close-set, silver gray eyes with black pupils seem fixed and furious. A dry, cool skin of interlocking gray-and-brown diamond pattern leads to a pyramid of hard keratin nubs, acquired at the tail after successive moltings. The ceaseless, disturbed rattling of so many snakes together is like the sound of bacon frying in a hundred skillets.

The three-day roundup is as much carnival as hunt. It begins with a parade down Sweetwater’s Broadway (antique cars; the Girl Scouts Troop No. 114 float; the Sweetwater High band; Dr. Michael Dainer, the town ob-gyn, with his Clydesdale and buggy; the Nolan County sheriff’s posse) and a beauty-queen contest in which 21 of the town’s young women vie for a scholarship prize of $1,000 and the title Miss Snake Charmer.

Inside the coliseum, spectators can watch snake handling by professional snake wranglers. There is also snake milking, butchering, gutting and skinning, the last done with the help of visibly squeamish volunteers from the beauty pageant dressed in blood-spattered lab coats. Three-dollar bus tours for those who want to see the snakes in their natural habitat leave every hour. A cook shack is busy producing corn dogs ($1) and deep-fried rattlesnake meat ($1). Take a bite; it tastes like turtle.

At the milking pit, Mike Brentz, a burly offshore oil worker, lifts a snake from a garbage can and places it on a small center table. Carefully he flattens and immobilizes its head with a hook and picks it up just behind the jaw. He sticks the tail between his legs to keep it from coiling free and hangs the snake’s fangs over a glass beaker. When he squeezes, a teaspoon of venom drips out. Then he walks around the pit giving spectators a close-up of the snake’s satiny pink mouth, its curved fangs, black tongue. When Kelly Head, 19, the new Miss Snake Charmer, gets into the demonstration pit with Bill Ransberger, the snake handler, and picks up a snake, her hands shake a little. “Beauty and the beast,” pronounces Ransberger, as the audience & applauds. “I always look for a little cold snake with no others around,” she confides.

In the IGA parking lot near the coliseum, a guided hunt is being organized. Participants have paid $29 for registration and for hunting equipment — snake tongs and hooks made from recycled golf clubs, a snakebite kit, hand mirrors, garbage cans to hold live rattlesnakes and a spray can with a long copper tube filled with unrefined gas for flushing the snakes from their dens. This is the snake-hunting-as-a-sport group, and its members come from as far away as Canada. Hunting garb ranges from Reeboks and jeans to paramilitary Indiana Jones attire, including boots with a side knife and scabbard, camouflage flak jackets, molded plastic snake-proof leggings. “Some of these folks are really into serpents,” says Wayne Wilson, a Jaycee and hardware-store owner.

Bo Browning leads the expedition. It moves down Interstate 20 in a 20-car- and-camper caravan and into the still brown land of broomweed and tumbleweed, thorn trees and mesquite and prickly-pear cactus. Browning has been hunting snakes since he was 14, always with the same high school friends. His wife Brenda accompanies him. “It’s something we can do together,” she says. “It’s exciting, the thrill of not knowing, the danger. Bo hunts snakes like some people hunt deer, for the sport.” “He’s good,” says a friend. “He just smells them.”

The group is cautioned about fires and littering, and then scatters. A few less experienced hunters trail along behind Bo, scaling a nearly vertical hill of fine, sliding sandstone and hard rock, arriving just below a cavernous outcropping — a den. Browning is on his hands and knees peering into the dark crevices under the ledge, reflecting sunlight into the deep shadows with a mirror. He and a couple of Jaycees consult.

“Think there’s anything in there?”


“Give it a shot.”

“Whew, this drip gas smells bad.”

“There’s one! A big ‘un.”

“It’s coming out. You ready?”

“Take your hook and press down on him.”

“Get the tongs! Get the tongs!”

One snake, rattling madly, is caught and put into a box.

“There’s another at the side.”

About six more small snakes are caught.

“Three bucks a pound, that’s about eleven bucks.”

“About covers your beer for the last 15 minutes.”

“Here, hold this for a second,” says Texarkanan Glen Hickman, handing us his tongs with a rattler writhing on the end. “I’ve got a thorn up my pant leg.” We gingerly hold it at arm’s length, silently cursing Hickman.

The traditional roundup has long been criticized for being supermacho. Recently, however, conservation and animal-rights groups have begun protesting them. “I’m not opposed to controlled hunting,” says Hubert Quinn, a herpetologist at the Houston Zoological Gardens. “But these roundups are designed to decimate the population. Rattlesnakes show fidelity to den sites; they can be plucked like cabbages. The whole thing is inhumane and kills every other inhabitant of the den as well — mice, owls, lizards, turtles.”

For the moment, these are not considerations for the hunters and spectators. “It’s amazing to me the number of people who are so damn interested in snakes,” comments Wilson. Adds James Bynum, a young hunter from Lubbock: “There aren’t that many social events in West Texas. This is one.”

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