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TX Press: Rattle dazzle - In Sweetwater ...

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Posted by W von Papinešu on March 15, 2003 at 11:14:11:

STAR-TELEGRAM (Fort Worth, Texas) 15 March 03 Rattle dazzle - In Sweetwater, serpents are as common as pickup trucks, and every year, the town becomes a hotbed of activity during the World's Largest Rattlesnake Roundup (David Casstevens)
Sweetwater: Bill Ransberger never claimed he would live forever, but after his 42nd rattlesnake bite, folks in town began to wonder.
Maybe Ransberger was too tough, or stubborn, to die.
When he finally did, last year at age 76, many mourned his passing. A retired railroad worker and a World War II veteran, he was remembered at his funeral as a good man -- though unlucky when it came to snakes -- an upstanding member of a community that owed him a debt of gratitude.
Ransberger helped start the World's Largest Rattlesnake Roundup in 1958 and served for years as the main serpent-handler in the "demonstration pit," where he lectured on snake safety and entertained spectators.
"Last snake got him right here," recalled Sweetwater Jaycees President Riley Sawyers, touching the tip of his thumb.
Ransberger's wife, Doris, administered first aid.
"Bill got right back in the pit," she recalled. "There wasn't any swelling till that night."
One might argue that the pain and suffering Ransberger experienced at the hands (figuratively speaking) of snakes would be a valid reason not to continue staging a rattlesnake festival, but the sponsoring Jaycees never once considered canceling the charity event after Ransberger's departure.
Ransberger would have wanted the show to go on.
And it did last weekend, for the 45th time.
According to figures released by the Chamber of Commerce, bounty hunters brought in 4,207 pounds of rattlers, and Sawyers is relieved to report that not one person had to be rushed to the Rolling Plains Memorial Hospital emergency room with a snake bite.
The roundup is to Sweetwater what Mardi Gras is to New Orleans. Every second weekend in March, the town's population of 12,000 more than doubles. Motel rooms are scarce. Tourists from all over camp out in Newman Park.
This year's four-day celebration began with the crowning of Miss Snake Charmer. Sweetwater High School junior Alanna Adams won the scholarship pageant, beating out 12 other contestants, including Jessica Chick from Roby, who played The Star-Spangled Banner and Taps on her trumpet.
There was the downtown parade, a carnival, a chili cook-off, the Girl Scout Salsa Challenge, two rattlesnake dances (bring your own bottle) and the roundup itself, which began early Friday when area farmers and ranchers rolled into town, their dusty pickups loaded with bushels of live rattlers.
To say snakes are sighted in and around this community is like suggesting the Hunchback of Notre Dame had a posture problem. The Western Diamondback (Crotalus atrox) is everywhere.
"Ask people here if they've ever had a rattler in their house and a larger percentage will say yes than no," Sawyers said.
When the weather is cool, snake hunters find rattlers in crawl spaces, holed up in burrows of other small animals or coiled up at rest in rock ridges outside town.
During every roundup, tons of snakes are harvested and brought into Nolan County Coliseum. They are weighed, measured (the record is 81 inches, set in 1993) and dumped into a large pit for viewing.
Thousands of snakes. Writhing piles, in muddy shades of brown and gray. Their forked tongues, thin black ribbons, appear and disappear. Their rattlers stand up, and vibrate in warning, a low steady buzz. It's a skin-crawling, "Danger: High Voltage" sound.
The daily poundage is recorded on a chalkboard in the coliseum, where vendors sell snakeskin belts, wallets, hat bands, walking canes, snakehead keychains and the Extractor, a suction pump for removing snake venom.
Rattlers are beheaded and skinned. Others are milked on the spot, their sharp fangs hooked over the edge of a glass funnel. The yellowish venom is used in medical research and as an antidote for snake-bite victims.
Like candy apples, chunks of fried snake are sold as snack food. The bony meat, some report, has a "frog-leg, fried-chickeny" taste.
After the celebration, the live snakes are sold to Maverick Trading Post, a company in Farmers Branch that sells the meat to wild-game restaurants and produces a variety of snake merchandise. On its Web site, the company states "All the animal parts used in the manufacture are from animals that have been farm- or ranch-raised or taken in legal harvest that in no way depletes these natural and renewable resources."
The demonstration pit is the venue's main attraction. The octagon-shaped enclosure is ringed by bleachers where spectators watched Rick Wilkinson move among the snakes with the purposeful stride and cautious air of a circus lion tamer. Using a snake hook, he lifted four large rattlers from the floor and plopped them, one at a time, atop a small table. Standing inches out of striking distance, the handler bounced like a boxer from side to side, provoking one rattler to lunge at him.
Children shrieked, their eyes growing. Some adults shuddered. Wilkinson held a yellow balloon at belt-buckle level. Another rattler struck, hiccup-quick, and popped it.
For many, the mere thought of a snake triggers a cold sweat and palpitations. Some make no distinction between venomous and nonvenomous varieties.
Fort Worth author Dan Jenkins, who is deathly afraid of snakes, once went to South Africa to cover a golf tournament. A phone call home to his daughter is legendary.
"There's black mambas over here!" Jenkins cried. "They completely paralyze you in six seconds. You don't even have time to holler!"
Those afflicted with ophiciophobia couldn't become Miss Snake Charmer. As part of her duties, the roundup queen appears at the coliseum in her rhinestone tiara and either skins or milks a snake. All the Jaycees have first-hand experience with handling live serpents.
Dressed in knee-high boots and leggings, and armed with tongs, Jaycees take turns working inside the collection pit. At the club's initiation, held at the end of each roundup, every new member is required to grab a live rattler behind its spade-shaped head, hold it up and pose for a photograph.
Jaycee Cal Parks willed himself to complete the task. The experience, he recalled, left him thirsty and so shaken "it took me six shots of whiskey to get over it."
D.M. Trent peeked over the wall into the viper pit. What he saw sobered him.
"How'd you like to step into a mess of them?" he asked.
The retiree from Strawberry Plains, Tenn., lifted a hand and placed it around his throat, as if feeling his glands swell.
"Once they lay tooth to you, it's instant death."
Few people are bitten at the Sweetwater roundup. And while a bite from a diamondback is highly poisonous, in the United States the number of rattler-bite fatalities is said to be less than the number of people killed and injured each year in bathtub accidents.
"In a way," said the late herpetologist Laurence Klauber, "this is a reassuring statistic. But it must be admitted that a good many more people encounter bathtubs than snakes, and, we hope, oftener."
Trent and his three companions drove to West Texas and signed up for a day-long, guided rattlesnake hunt. Even though Trent is familiar with copperheads and black king snakes, the look on his face suggested he was rethinking the wisdom of paying $60 for the adventure.
Asked what supplies they needed, the Jaycees directed the visitors to Shamrock Liquor, which stocks not only nerve-settling elixirs by the pint but also basic snake-hunting equipment -- a hook, tongs, a mirror, copper tubing and a pump-style garden sprayer.
A common and controversial method of flushing rattlers is to spray gasoline into their dens.
Dr. Jon Campbell, professor of biology at the University of Texas at Arlington, says this is harmful to the environment and kills other animals.
"If you find a rattlesnake in your yard and kill it, that doesn't offend me in any way," Campbell said. "But these roundups, in my opinion, send a poor message."
Roundups, he said, teach children that wildlife is meant to be used for entertainment and amusement. "They are really mistreatment of wildlife in the worst form. Having said that, I know it's hard for most people to engender any sympathy when it comes to snakes."
Before the Tennessee hunters headed for the hills, the first ranchers lined up behind the coliseum with their snake harvest. The Jaycees paid $5 per pound for the first 2,000 pounds. The bounty dropped in price thereafter.
Andy Lee unloaded several plywood boxes teeming with live rattlers he'd collected during the past few weeks in six counties. While his 355-pound haul earned him a tidy profit of $1,775, many would agree that the monetary compensation paled in comparison to the risk.
Lee, who owns a pest control company, removed 40 snakes from beneath one house.
"About the only way you can get 'em is to go in on your belly and take 'em out, one at a time," the snake hunter said.
"When I get in the crawl hole, I've learned to always check above me. Night is usually the best time to go in.
"It's flashlight work."

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