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KN Press: Rattlesnake handlers just fascinated with snakes

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Posted by W von Papinešu on January 10, 2003 at 09:53:01:

KANSAS CITY STAR (Kansas) 08 January 03 Rattlesnake handlers just fascinated with snakes (Brent Frazee)
If Dallas Brakeville, Andy Stewart and Gary Bliss had ever appeared on the old "What's My Line?" television show, they undoubtedly would have stumped the panel.
Go ahead. Take a look at the three Kansans, all in their 60s, and guess their profession.
Rural mail carrier? Insurance agent? Power and light worker?
Well, yes. But that's not what we're looking for. Those are their "real" jobs. We're after their avocation, which has brought them much more attention.
Give up? They're rattlesnake handlers.
"If we're walking down the street, no one would ever pick us out of a crowd as snake handlers," said Brakeville, 61, who lives in Lane, Kan. "Not a chance.
"We don't look like the daredevils that everyone expects. We're just three old guys who have a fascination with snakes."
The three men, who dub themselves "The Rattlesnake Wranglers," are living in the middle of the snake pit this week.
They are appearing daily at the Kansas City Sportshow in Bartle Hall, both entertaining and educating the public about the world of venomous snakes.
One minute, Brakeville is performing "the kiss of death," letting a rattler touch his nose with its tongue.
The next minute, Bliss is walking through a pit filled with 100 slithering snakes.
So, the snakes must have been de-fanged, right? Or maybe they've had the venom milked from them.
Nope, they're the real deal, the wranglers say. But before you go calling these guys careless for dealing with such creatures, better listen to what they have to say.
"We're careful not to put ourselves in danger," said Stewart, 63, who lives in Liberal, Kan. "We know what to do and how much distance to keep.
"For example, when one of the snakes is touching our nose, it can't strike if it's extended. If it pulls back, that's when it's getting ready to strike. That's when you have to look out.
"It's the same way in the pit. We know how much room we have to leave."
But that isn't to say the act isn't without danger. Bliss won't forget Aug. 10, 2002 -- the date he has memorized as the one time he was struck by one of the rattlers.
"I was cleaning up and I wasn't attentive as I should have been," said Bliss, 62, of Downs, Kan. "I was bending over and one of them nailed me just above the boot.
"I started swelling up, and they took me to the emergency room. At one point, my leg was swollen all the way up to my groin.
"But luckily, that's the only time we've had a problem."
It's such incidents that strike terror among most outdoors enthusiasts. And Bliss admits that he and his two counterparts were no different than most people at one time.
"I was brought up to believe that all snakes were evil and dangerous," he said. "We'd kill every one that we'd see."
But along the way, each of the Wranglers became drawn to the huge rattlesnake roundups in Oklahoma. And they became fascinated with the creatures that they once feared.
"After I had a triple bypass, I wanted to do something to get closer to my three brothers who were spread out all over the country," Brakeville said. "We wanted to try something a little crazy. My one brother was a skydiver, but I didn't want to jump out of airplanes. So we decided to take up snake hunting and go to one of the roundups.
"That first year, we were terrified. We thought there was a rattler under every blade of grass. We were moving so slow that there's no way we ever would have found one."
At the same time, Stewart and Bliss also were taking up the sport, combing the rocky terrain of Oklahoma to look for rattlesnakes as part of annual roundups.
As they all became more proficient at finding snakes and handling them, their reputations grew. They met in the early '90s at a roundup in Okeene, Okla., and immediately hit it off.
Soon, they were licensed to handle the snakes and began giving educational programs at schools and for groups. That led to requests from sports shows -- and the start of a new part-time business venture in 1995.
The men started by simply displaying the snakes and giving talks. But they later decided to put some "entertainment" in their act.
"People think we have to be either fearless or crazy," Stewart said with a laugh. "But we don't look at it that way at all.
"We have a healthy respect for these snakes. At the same time, we know how to handle them."
As part of their presentation, the Wranglers also try to educate.
For example, they teach people how to identify venomous snakes and how to stay safe from them. They also stress the vital role the creatures play in the wild world.
"We have rattlesnakes in Kansas and Missouri, but that's no reason for people to panic when they're outdoors," Brakeville said. "We discourage people from killing every snake they see.
"Snakes serve a useful purpose in rodent control. For example, if it weren't for snakes, the prairie-dog population would be out of control in some parts of Kansas."

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