Snakes on a Plain

by Holly Wall


I stood shaking in the center of a wooden 9-by-12-foot pit, surrounded on all sides by about 250 western diamondback rattlesnakes.

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“Just be still, and stay calm,” a man in a black cowboy hat reassured me.

Teddy Richey and his son T.J., from Thackerville, Oklahoma, are members of the Outlaw Handlers. They travel to small-town rattlesnake roundups in Oklahoma and Texas with their stunt show, at once educating and astounding festival-goers with feats of bravery that involve live, sometimes agitated (sometimes nearly dead), rattlesnakes. Their ringleader is Mike Darrow. He wears a black cowboy hat, too, but he’s shorter and trimmer than Teddy, his tan face accessorized by wide, wire-framed glasses and a neat gray mustache.

Mike’s the one who got me into this mess, and he’s the one who was sliding coiled rattlesnakes toward me and arranging them at my feet. He carefully rested their rattles against the toes of my too-thin leather boots.

I glanced down at the snakes coiled around my feet. Their rattles hummed against my shoes. Then something, ever so lightly, brushed against the back of my knee.

“I won’t let them strike,” Mike promised me, reading the fear on my face. Another handler, the only woman on the team, took photos with my phone.

I stood as still as I could, doing my best to breathe and act relaxed. At the same time I was scared that my breath would cause a shift in my hips or ankles, a welcoming gesture for a snake just waiting to sink its fangs.

Once the snakes settled around my feet—six of them circled me—T.J. wrapped what he promised was a non-poisonous snake around my shoulders. Either end rested in the crooks between my thumbs and forefingers, and I held it gently as it stared into my eyes, flicking its forked tongue.

I glanced down at the snakes coiled around my feet. Their rattles hummed against my shoes. Then something, ever so lightly, brushed against the back of my knee. I didn’t move—stopped breathing, even. My heart pounded.

“I’m done,” I said. “Get me out of here.”

* * *

Small towns in Oklahoma build their yearly festivals upon whatever gimmick happens to be native, in one way or another, to the area. In Porter, it’s peaches; in Stilwell, it’s strawberries; in Prague, it’s the Bohemian treat kolaches; and in southwestern Oklahoma, where the dry, desert ecosystem seems worlds away, despite being a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Green Country, it’s rattlesnakes.

Oklahoma is home to seven species of venomous snakes, five of which are rattlesnakes. The western diamondback and prairie rattlesnakes are most common, and they’re the ones, especially the former, that hunters are after. Western massasauga, pigmy, and timber (known locally as velvet-tail) rattlesnakes are also native to Oklahoma,though they’re becoming increasingly rare. Cottonmouth and copperhead snakes are the other venomous species native to the state, more common in the east.

The western diamondback and prairie rattlesnakes prefer the dry, rocky grasslands of western Oklahoma. They make their homes in the gypsum bluffs, slithering behind and underneath rock that juts from the hills to make their dens, which they share with up to 100 other snakes. Around October, when nighttime temperatures begin to drop below 50 degrees, they retreat to their dens, where they stay until they can feel the rocks above them begin to warm under the sun’s rays, usually in March. But they’re known to take advantage of a warm winter day, to slither out onto a rock to sun themselves. That’s when they fall prey to birds, coyotes, and mountain lions—and to hunters.

 Hear a biblical encounter with snakes recorded at the Waurika Rattlesnake Roundup.

Farmers and ranchers in Okeene—in Blaine County, about 90 minutes west and north of Oklahoma City—hunted snakes decades before someone got the bright idea to build a festival around the practice. Men used shotguns and women garden hoes, and together, they’d scour their land for snakes, ridding it, their cattle, and their children of the threat of the creatures’ deadly venom. If they killed a really big one, they might hang it up on the side of their wagon or truck and drive into town to show it off.

In the 1930s, Orville van Goelker, publicity manager for the Okeene Milling Company, saw a group gathered around a pickup truck in town one day. In the bed was a large, dead rattlesnake. Van Goelker thought he could draw an even bigger crowd with a live snake or two. So he, along with the rest of the Junior Chamber of Commerce, of which he just happened to be the president, organized the town’s first rattlesnake roundup in 1939.

They kept it small, Anthony Felder told me, because they weren’t sure what kind of trouble they might be getting into. Anthony is 84 and the unofficial Okeene Rattlesnake Roundup historian. He zipped over to me on a borrowed motorized scooter on the first Sunday in May, the last day of this year’s festival. He saw me browsing old photographs of roundups past and offered to tell me the stories that went along with the pictures. He remembers the first rattlesnake festival—his dad was one of the snake-hunting locals. A few years later, when Anthony turned 14, he was, too.

The Jaycees shot for an attendance of 250 for their second festival. When they topped that number—and no one was fanged—they added attractions to draw larger crowds. Within five years, they were making a profit and pumping money back into the town via community service projects. Throughout the 1950s and‘60s, they attracted crowds upwards of 25,000.

Okeene claims—and so far, no one’s refuted it— to be the oldest rattlesnake roundup in the country. Today, there are six festivals in Oklahoma, and several more in Texas, Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico. Okeene’s Jaycees helped several other Oklahoma towns get their festivals up and running.

In Okeene I perused the vendors’ booths, the carnival games, and the rides. I bought a raffle ticket from the Blue Star Mothers and scarfed a loaded cheeseburger before I made my way toward a blue metal barn, where I was told I’d find the snakes. I gave a guy about my age five dollars and let him clumsily wrap a hot-pink paper bracelet around my right wrist. Hand-painted signs warned me of the danger ahead, inside the Den of Death.

The moment my foot hit the barn’s dusty threshold and my nostrils filled with snake stench, the symphony of a hundred buzzing rattles was interrupted by a long, shrill scream.

A gaggle of teenage girls crowded around a bloodied butcher station, where teenage and 20-something locals were processing snake meat. It would be bagged and sold, raw or battered and deep-fried, to hungry and adventurous festivalgoers in five-dollar baskets.

The station began at a blood-splattered tree stump. The young guys doing the bulk of the dirty work were letting some giggling girls, with their heavy eye shadow and short shorts, chop off the heads. A kid in a blue T-shirt and ball cap pinned the snake to the stump and waited for one of the girls, still standing a safe three feet away from the thing, to swing an axe at a spot just behind its head. Every girl, every time, would swing, scream, drop the axe, and run.

Hand-painted signs warned me of the danger ahead, inside the Den of Death. 

Each swing lacked the conviction required to take a life, so the snake’s head dangled, hanging on by a thread of skin and meat. Its body writhed while the boy tried to talk the girl into finishing the job. She couldn’t, or wouldn’t, so he’d strike the final blow, letting the head hit the floor while he passed the body, still squirming, to another boy standing over a metal trashcan, which was bloodstained enough to be used as a horror movie prop. Painted on the side were a couple of snakes and the words “BUTCHER SHOP.”

The boy slid a pair of utility scissors into the cavity where the head once was, slicing the skin along the snake’s belly in a straight line as blood fell into the trashcan. Reaching inside the snake, he pulled out a long sac containing the snake’s entrails and tossed it on a table nearby, where a handful of eggs, a gall bladder, and a still-beating heart attracted plenty of attention from other attendees. Another kid affixed one of the severed heads onto the side of a Styrofoam cup, holding it high for folks taking photos

Once the guts were out, the guy pulled the snake’s skin away from the white, almost translucent, meat beneath. Working slowly at first, then building speed and momentum, he tore off the entire skin at once, leaving it intact and still attached to the rattle. He cut the snake from the last bit of skin and hung the skin to dry, next to about a dozen others, on a string of clothesline. Later it would be rolled up and sold.

The meat passed to a more pristine area of the butcher shop, where it smelled of bleach and there wasn’t a drop of blood in sight. There, a plastic-gloved girl was portioning the snake, chopping it with a cleaver into several three- or four-inch pieces.

I first tasted snake meat a couple of weeks earlier, at the Waynoka Rattlesnake Hunt. My boyfriend, my kids, and I were first in line when the call rang out that meat was ready. We paid $10 for two portions of rattlesnake—one battered and chicken fried, the other smoked.

The first big bite of fried rattlesnake was a mouthful of bones. I searched with my tongue for any smidgen of meat. When I found it, after spitting several tiny bones back into the Styrofoam bowl, it was tough and nearly impossible to chew. The meat itself didn’t have much flavor—it certainly didn’t taste like chicken, which was what we’d been promised. The closest thing I could compare it to was alligator meat (no offense to alligators).

A kid in a blue t-shirt and ball cap pinned the snake to the stump and waited for one of the girls, still standing a safe three feet away from the thing, to swing an axe at a spot just behind its head. 

The smoked snake was tender and easier to eat, but it had the imitation flavor of Liquid Smoke. The third  bite tasted rancid, like the stuff my mom put on my fingernails when I was a kid to get me to stop sucking my thumb. After that, I didn’t eat any more, but the fellas with me polished off what was left. My sons liked it enough that they probably would have eaten more, and they were certainly hungry enough, but I suggested we get a corndog at the carnival instead.

* * *

The butcher shop in Okeene is the kind of thing that has folks like Ned Bruha and members of Rise Against Rattlesnake Roundups pressing local law enforcement to put an end to what they call felony animal abuse. Their objections are many: Rattlesnake season is March 1 through June 30, but many hunters admit to venturing out on a warm winter day, catching more snakes than they would in the spring. A snake caught in mid-December will likely spend the months leading up to April and May’s festivals in a bucket, box, or burlap bag—without food or water.

Once the snakes make it to the festival, they’re hungry, fatigued, and dehydrated. If they’re taken to the festivals in Apache or Mangum—or, until this year, Waurika— they might be one of the few chosen to entertain guests of the festival’s photo booth. With that honor comes the painful process of fang removal and mouth sewing, a guarantee of safety to the folks willing to fork over five dollars for a souvenir photo.

Bruha and others have beseeched local law enforcement, county and state officials, representatives of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife, the state attorney general, and the governor in hopes that someone will intervene and end the practice. So far, they’ve been unsuccessful. Bruha even sent a letter to President Obama, only to receive a generic form reply.

The festivals generate $5,000 to $35,000 annually for the organizations that host them—either the Jaycees, who use part of the profits to purchase schools supplies and Christmas gifts for needy children, or the local volunteer fire department, which wouldn’t have equipment or supplies without its local festival. Ten times as much money gets pumped into the local economy by visitors who also eat, sleep, and pump gas within city limits. Because of that, and because, in Bible-reading, cattle- ranching Oklahoma, snakes are considered the devil incarnate, no one minds too much when a few of them get their mouths sewn shut—or a few hundred find their way to slaughterhouses.

Mouth sewn shut for photo booth, snake was near death. Apache, OK, 2012

“Although a rattlesnake is not as cute and cuddly as a dog, Oklahoma animal cruelty statutes do not differentiate,” Bruha wrote in a letter to Attorney General Scott Pruitt when he filed a citizen’s complaint with the multicounty grand jury division. “Using pliers to remove the fangs, sewing a rattlesnake’s mouth shut, and depriving them of food and water is a felony in Oklahoma. You and the rest of Oklahoma lawmakers and law enforcement have  ignored thousands of requests from around the world asking you to enforce existing Oklahoma laws.”

Oklahoma categorizes rattlesnakes as animals—not pests or rodents, like Texas does—so the state’s animal cruelty laws apply. Those laws say: “Any person who shall willfully or maliciously overdrive, overload, torture, destroy or kill, or cruelly beat or injure, maim or mutilate, any animal in subjugation or captivity… shall be guilty of a felony and shall be punished by imprisonment in the State Penitentiary not exceeding five (5) years, or by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding one (1) year, or by a fine not exceeding Five Hundred Dollars ($500.00).”

Bruha hasn’t had any luck getting anyone to enforce the law when it comes to rattlesnakes. Patrick Abitbol said no one cares about rattlesnakes enough to care whether they’re protected from cruelty. Abitbol is a retired assistant district attorney whose relentless pursuit of justice for abused women, children, and animals earned him the nickname “Pit Bull.” He has volunteered to advise Bruha and others in their pursuit of justice.

“My feeling is that it will end; we’re just not at the public opinion stage of accomplishing anything,” Abitbol said. “I don’t believe anything will resolve itself until the public itself has an outcry that this is not acceptable behavior. There’s no reason for it. You would no more allow a dog to have its mouth sewn shut, even if you were going to euthanize it tomorrow. There’s no purpose.”

They don’t put an end to it because it’s too profitable for the small towns they represent, and they say that if they interfere, they’ll be out of a job. 

Joe Dorman, a state representative and the recipient of many of Bruha’s pleas, has, off and on for years, worked in the snake pit at the Apache Rattlesnake Roundup. He lauds the event as an educational and economic opportunity. Only a couple of the snakes’ mouths are sewn shut, and in the end, they’re slaughtered, and their meat, skin, and entrails are sold. “Every part of the snake used,” he said. “The organs are ground and used for spices in Asian culture. It’s no different than any other animal production.

“I think there’s some misunderstanding with what happens at hunts,” he continued. “It’s about getting out and understanding the culture. But there have been some concerns, and we’re taking steps to address those issues. Hopefully, there can be an agreement reached so there is no animal cruelty issue at these festivals.”

In 1988, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, which has since refused or ignored Bruha’s requests to take action against the festivals, issued a report on the rattlesnake roundups, calling “crowding and water deprivation of snakes captured several weeks prior to the events”—which results in suffocation for many—and the defanging and mouth-sewing, plus the treatment of the snakes at the butcher shops, cruel. “Sewing is no doubt done with the animal fully conscious and undoubtedly is a painful, traumatic process for the snake,” the report stated. Bruha claims some festival officials have admitted to placing the snakes in a freezer for 15 or so minutes before sewing their mouths shut, to slow them down a bit.

Bruha said many of the law enforcement and elected officials he petitioned admitted to him that some of what is happening at the roundups is cruel and, yes, illegal. But they don’t put an end to it because it’s too profitable for the small towns they represent, and they say that if they interfere, they’ll be out of a job.

* * *

In Claxton, Georgia, organizers of the Claxton Rattlesnake Roundup have stopped catching and killing wild snakes. They’ve reinvented their event as a wildlife festival and use captive snakes from local zoos to provide an educational event. John Jensen, senior wildlife biologist for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, told the Savannah Morning News that the decision came after “years and years of pressure” from several local groups. “For eastern diamondbacks, the biggest threat is habitat loss,” he told the paper. “But then you tack on that they’re killed by anybody who sees them and harvested for roundups and harvested for skins. Another main thing is these events contribute to passing along to younger people the idea that wildlife should be treated this way. People should recognize they’re potentially dangerous, but they’re part of the ecosystem.”

Bruha and others would like to see the roundups in Oklahoma make a similar change, and they say the events would still be as profitable for the local economies—if not the snake sellers—if they made the roundups no-kill.

“I do not consider myself an animal rights activist whatsoever, but the animals still deserve better,” Bruha said.

In Waurika, where I was charmed into the snake pit, the roundup is organized by and benefits the volunteer fire department. This year was the first in 52 that they didn’t sew snakes’ mouths shut. The activists got to them, Stephen Dyer told me. They were tired of being bothered, said the town’s only paid firefighter, and they decided it wasn’t worth it.

In Waurika, rattlesnake roundups have paid for two new pumper trucks for the fire department, as well as a new tanker and a new grass rig.“We’re as big as Duncan,” Rickey Porterfield boasted from the driver’s seat of his white pickup. Earlier, the volunteer firefighter and snake hunter took me to a spot of private land, 700 acres’ worth, about four miles outside of town, where a group of festivalgoers hunted for rattlers. We stopped by the town’s fire department to see its shiny new trucks. Rickey, a big guy with a wild mane of curly white-gray hair, is one of 17 volunteer firefighters in Waurika. He’s been on the job for 21 years; he’ll retire in two. When he does, he’ll likely retire from rattlesnake hunting as well.

Rickey had his first experience with fire in the 1970s, before he joined the department. There was a three-building fire on Main Street, and one of the firefighters grabbed him and told him to hold the water cannon. He figures he sat on it for eight or nine hours. He wasn’t scared then, he said, and fire doesn’t scare him now. “Fire’s a lot like rattlesnakes,” he told me on the way back to the festival’s main drag. “You’ve gotta respect ‘em.”

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 17. Sept. 1, 2013.