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Original Issue


Only in your worst nightmares are you apt to come upon 18
rattlesnakes crawling out of a porcupine den--unless, of course,
you are in Sweetwater, Texas, during the town's annual
Rattlesnake Round-up. Here you may actually feel a snake's fangs
pop against the chaps covering your shins. Or you may take a
step or two backward when JoAnna Cornutt, Miss Snake Charmer,
extends a hand covered in snake blood as if she were welcoming
you to the First Baptist bake sale.

Since 1958, reptile wranglers have gathered each March in
Sweetwater to hunt rattlesnakes and trade stories, propping
their rear ends against caliche ottomans and rolling up flannel
sleeves to show the scars of snakebites or to enlarge their
gestures illustrating "the biggest ever."

"Bill Ransberger, now, he's been bitten 33 times," says Don
Castillo, a rattlesnake merchandiser from west Texas.

"Nope. Forty-one times," says Ransberger, who helped run this
granddaddy of all snake hunts from its inception until 1993.

Sweetwater's is by far the largest of about 36 organized
roundups held in the U.S. each year. Most take place in Texas,
with a few in Georgia, Alabama, Kansas and New Mexico, and the
rest in Pennsylvania. In the Southwest the quarry is the
diamondback. In the East it is the timber rattler.

This year the Sweetwater event, which like the others evolved
from a desire to thin a rattlesnake population that was killing
livestock, brought in more than 100 snakes, ranging in weight
from one to 11 pounds. Howard Rogers alone brought in 405
pounds' worth, and at five dollars a pound he made a tidy sum.
Thousands of pounds of rattlers were captured, killed, eaten and
tanned--and also, this year, stuffed, jeweled and wigged like
diamondback drag queens.

The hunting itself is an odd affair. No guns, just tongs. The
prey is more dangerous than the weapons, and no catch is killed
until after it is carried, hissing fiercely, to a central point
for decapitation.

No dogs help the hunters. You couldn't pay a pointer his weight
in Milk-Bones to ferret out rattlesnakes. No lures are used. No
earthworms or blood bait, no doe-in-rut. Rattlers don't go for
bait. Instead they are forced from their dens with gasoline fumes.

Out among the rock outcroppings, Jace and Tony from
Dallas--they don't want their last names used because their wives
think they are at a gun show--are busy shining a mirror into a
hole. The mirror reflects sunlight into the hole, picking up the
somewhat iridescent glow of a snake's skin. This helps a hunter
figure out how many rattlers may be getting ready to slither
toward his snakeskin boots.

Next Jace and Tony tip a bucket of gasoline downward so that the
fumes enter a copper tubing contraption and, eventually, the
den. "Just the fumes won't hurt 'em," says Ransberger. "We used
to use raw gas, and it hurt 'em, but the fumes won't. Any kind
of gas will do."

Jace and Tony stand next to the hole in their chaps and boots,
picking up the snakes one at a time and dropping them into a
rectangular wooden box about the size of a big league strike zone.

Some people use plastic trash cans. Only idiots use bags,
according to Ransberger.

"Never metal containers," he says. "Metal gets hot and cold
pretty fast, and the snake will get a cold and succumb. A
rattlesnake will get cold real easy."

Jace and Tony have eight snakes in the wooden box, which isn't
great. They figure it was the mild winter that kept the snakes
from denning up. Diamondback season in Texas runs from Jan. 1 to
late April, when the snakes start shedding and their hides
become undesirable for tanning. In cooler climes, with different
rattlers, the season extends into midsummer, and in Texas it
gets a brief second wind during October and November.

"I have caught 200 at a time," says Ransberger. "Up until about
1964 I might get 180 to 200 in a den. Now weather patterns have
changed, and the snakes' breeding patterns have, too. I might
pull 25 from a den at most."

Jace and Tony say they haven't been hunting for very long, but
they know enough not to get bitten. They have a rule about not
mixing beer and rattlesnakes, but they are ignoring it because
the ice is melting in Jace's backpack.

"Beer and rattlesnakes don't mix," says Ransberger. "Sober
people don't tend to die from rattlesnake bites anymore. But if
you get bit by a rattlesnake and you're drinkin', you'll die.
The blood is sped up." Another, less technical argument against
beer on a snake hunt is that it makes you dumber.

Rogers hunts on his own before the actual roundup, walking the
pastures and rocks looking for signs that a rattler has come
this way. "You find hair balls--that's what we call 'em, hair
balls--where they've passed what they've eaten," says Howard.
"They won't defecate in their den. Or you find the mashed-down
grass where one has been coiled up."

Meanwhile, back in Sweetwater, the county coliseum is filled
with snake handlers, snake milkers, snake sexers, snake
skinners, snake pits and, of course, the smell of rattler pee,
which hunters know as one of the most pungent urines of the
outdoors. "Right Guard," says Daniel Riley, a pit worker.
"That's the only thing that'll get rid of that smell."

In one pit there are about 400 diamondbacks, freshly caught and
cranky. One at a time the snakes are brought to the research
area. There, volunteers supervised by representatives from the
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Wildlife and
Fisheries Sciences department at Texas A&M determine each
rattler's sex, then extract its venom.

This information-gathering program was started largely to
satisfy the "earth people," as animal-rights activists are
called around these parts. As it turned out, studies conducted
at Texas A&M showed that the Sweetwater Round-up has very little
effect on the local rattlesnake population. Plenty of snakes,
from the rustlers' point of view, are left behind to bite
ranchers' cattle, kill their dogs and scare their children out
of the pastures all summer long.

The information on the snakes' sex, length and habitat goes to
Texas Parks and Wildlife and to Texas A&M. The venom is sold to
labs for antivenom serum and for studies of venom's effects as a
cancer treatment.

In the research pit Ken Higdon holds a snake by its head and
says it is like arm-wrestling a human. Higdon presses the open
mouth of each live rattler against a contraption that looks
something like a fraternity house's beer bong: The venom runs
into a funnel that empties into a glass baby bottle sitting in a
bucket full of ice.

Until last year protesters often attended the Sweetwater roundup
and decried what they perceived to be the depletion of
rattlesnake species and cruelty to reptiles. "We kinda miss the
earth people," says Ransberger. "They were the best
advertisement for us. Most of 'em were Yankees--you know, from
north of the Red River. Then studies were done that showed we
weren't hurting the population. That ate the earth people plum

At rattlesnake roundups, just as at fast-food restaurants, one
is always assured of getting the same product, presented in
exactly the same way: good ol' boys, bad ol' snakes and even
worse novelty items, which include rattler-tail earrings,
rattler meat and rattler heads in blue wigs and Dallas Cowboy
helmets. And at all events, organizers go to great lengths to
tell you just how proud they are of their safety record. Not
until they have had a few cold ones at the Knights of Columbus
dance does word of this year's bite slip out.

Some people recommend carrying suction cups for drawing out the
venom. Others are now carrying stun guns to deliver a
concentrated electrical current to the wound immediately after a
bite. Vets in the Sweetwater area swear by the stun gun for
treating bitten livestock. Theories abound as to just how the
high voltage works. Some say it reverses the polarity in venom,
rendering it ineffective. Others, among them Ransberger, say
the electricity "messes with the proteins in the venom."

"One ol' boy," says Ransberger, "he hooked a screwdriver up to
his number 1 spark plug and stuck it on the bite, but you gotta
know what you're doing. In any case, you should have a good set
of car keys and get to the doctor."

And then, perhaps, to a sanitarium.

Jennifer Briggs, who lives in Dallas, frequently writes about
baseball and basketball.

COLOR PHOTO: RON ENNIS/FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM In the research area, after determining a snake's sex, a wrangler extracts the venom.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: GERALD EWING (2) At times a reach with tongs into a porcupine den is required before a rustler can box his rattler. [man reaching into hole with tongs; man holding rattlesnake with tongs]