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Snakes on a Plain: Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup

Could you ever participate in a snake hunt?
Posted 10:56am on Wednesday, Apr. 20, 2011

SWEETWATER -- The sound isn't what gets you. It's the smell. I don't know if it's a combination of dirt, juices, peanut oil or the caked blood slathered on the floor, but these snakes stink!

Here at the Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup, that audacious aroma is the smell of money, fear, tourism and for the nonprofit Jaycees, the bulk of the operating budget for next year. Money raised at the event benefits police and fire departments, Girl and Boy Scout troops, hospice care, Special Olympics and a host of other organizations in Sweetwater. Rattlesnakes are big business, and business is booming in the spring when snakes are moving, breeding and causing ranchers and cattle havoc in this part of West Texas.

And here I am, a city girl from Dallas, stuck in the middle of this madness in a pair of knee-high boots I bought the day before yesterday. I'm trying very hard to fit in; I am trying even harder to breathe through my mouth.

I've got a rattlesnake bite kit in the car, as well as a hunting license and special permit. You need both to hunt snakes. And I've convinced myself, and my poor husband, that I will hunt snakes! Part of the Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup experience includes a field trip to snake-infested property, snake skinning, a rattlesnake-eating contest, milking demonstration and, for real adventurers, actual hunting.

They tell me all you need is a hand mirror, boots, tongs, a hook and some sort of container to put your snakes in. Sounds simple enough, and I add my name to the list and head back into the coliseum.

In a nearby skinning pit, children slather their hands in snake blood as freshly killed serpents -- a man with a machete stands a few feet away decapitating snakes -- hang from hooks on the coliseum floor. Proud parents take snapshots of their children sliding a knife along the headless snake's underbelly. Then the skinners put their bloody handprints on the wall behind them, signing their names on a morbid wall of fame.

Yep, this is going to be good.

West Texas tradition

Sweetwater's is the world's largest rattlesnake roundup. It began in 1953 and has grown to huge proportions with thousands of visitors from around the world. I don't know if it's part fascination or horror, but there's something that draws you into this carnival, even as you're repelled.

Screams can be heard above the crowd noise. People shiver at the sight of snakes up close. Children press their face against Plexiglas for a better look at the "rat'lers," as they are called.

Here, they measure success in snake flesh, and this year it weighed in at about 1,800 pounds of snake. That may sound like a lot, but in previous years they've collected 10,000 pounds of snake (the average rattler is 5 to 7 pounds).

The hunting is not just a fundraising opportunity. This is done as a necessary evil -- and snakes are evil. All of the body parts are used in one way or another. The skin for purses, belts, accessories, etc. The gallbladder is an aphrodisiac in Chinese culture. And venom is used to help make anti-venom.

Similar rattlesnake roundups take place across the country, and not surprisingly, Texas has a large number of them stretching from Weatherford to Brownwood. Though there are some animal-rights groups who call the spectacle cruel, no one here seems bothered by the mass slaughter taking place in the skinning pits.

I grew up in a small town in Central Texas, and we had snakes on our property. My mother, brother and father all had their encounters with the slithering kind, and my mom was fond of collecting the rattles in a container she kept on a shelf in the living room next to her other knick-knacks. My brother likes to brag that he once killed a rattlesnake using nothing but a shovel and a spotlight, and, he says, he did it in flip-flops! (Note to readers: Do not wear flip-flops in snake territory. Snakes typically strike at your ankles and lower legs.)

He also used to think it was funny to leave a dead snake at the front gate, so when I came in from school or work, I'd almost pee myself.

I never understood how they could be so not afraid. I had three encounters with snakes by myself, with no weapon and no help nearby. And I did what you are absolutely not supposed to do: I ran! My dad would get so mad and tell me: "Stand there. Don't move. Stay calm." And I'd yell back belligerent after a near-death encounter, "You stay calm with a 7-pound venomous reptile rattling a warning to you!"

I became so fearful of snakes that crossing even a small patch of land with tall grass made me break out in a cold sweat. I hated snakes! I hated even more the fear that overcame me. But, dammit, those things can kill you. They killed one of our kittens once, countless chickens, nearly killed a goat and caused permanent nerve damage to our dog Smokie.

And it was those memories that flashed through my mind as Larry Martin, a snake handler, offered to wrap the live rattlesnake around my neck. "You can get as close as you want," he offered with a smile. Miss Snake Charmer 2011, a blond Sweetwater sweetheart, proudly had stood with the rattlesnake wrapped across her shoulder just a few minutes ago. Yes, they have a beauty pageant, it's Texas after all, and part of her talents included yodeling. (We all got an earful in the coliseum.) All the contestants were required to demonstrate their snake skills, including skinning.

I declined Martin's offer and stood a good foot away from the reptile. I was sweating now. It was pouring down my back, my pants were wet. I'm sure this kind of shock therapy is not healthy, but when you grow up in Texas, you are supposed to be braver than most people. So I posed with a frozen smile and mouthed to my husband who was fiddling with my camera: "Take the picture. Just take the damn picture!"

Respect, not fear

Are these people crazy? Do they just have giant cojones? Aren't they just a little bit scared? "I wouldn't say I'm not afraid of them," said Martin, as he walked around a large wood-paneled pit with high walls and a moving floor where snakes slithered and stacked on top of each other hoping to avoid the handler's hook. "I have a very high respect for them."

We made our way outside for fresh air, where trailers of fried food were lined up along the walkway. Have I mentioned how much it smelled? And in the line for barbecue burritos, I began to have second and third thoughts about hunting. Do I have to hunt to prove I'm tough? I mean, I've never had a panic attack before, but I darn sure felt close to collapsing when Martin raised that snake in front of my face.

We had one last stop that day -- a tour bus ride to a rattlesnake-infested ranch. They hunted the grounds before we arrived, but as the group of tourists, some in shorts and sandals, walked up to the hillside where a flat-top table stood in the field, we could hear the distinctive schk-schk-schk of rattlesnakes, and these were not behind walls.

No, they were right in front of us. Pissed. Scared. And coiled. Our bus driver, a husky man named Buttons dressed in overalls stood nearby with a hook, ready to catch any stray critters. A Jaycee will take a bite in the leg before letting anyone get hurt. And in the 53-year history of the roundup, no one has been bitten.

The handlers began a long explanation about snakes: They can't see details, but they do see blurs. If you move, they become rattled and may strike. Stay quiet. Don't move, and they won't move. Rattlesnakes are not aggressive and usually don't go after you or chase like other breeds: cobras, for instance. They bite out of fear and to protect themselves.

Scot Van Allen, a former car salesman from White Settlement, is here with us. An engineering student at the nearby college, he is volunteering this week and will soon join the Jaycees. And although you are not required to be a snake handler, it's almost expected, "Part of my initiation is to milk it," said Van Allen, who is a little freaked out by snakes. "I got to do it."

But I don't have to. The handler started walking around with a huge snake stretched in his arms. I step forward and let him wrap the snake in front of me, "You can hold it," he says. I decline. I'm still sweating, but I'm not scared. That fear is gone. The respect is there, but I don't have to handle, hunt, cuddle or anything else to prove I'm a Texas girl at heart.

"Smile," the handler says grinning into the camera pointed our direction. We both smile big, and I swear the snake smiled, too!

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