Sssnake, rattle & roll

Hunt of slithery creatures cash in bank for Waurika fire department

By Brent D. Wistrom/Times Record News
April 8, 2005

STARVATION FLATS, Okla. – Johnny Berry drove over the southern Oklahoma hills with the windows of his truck rolled down and the smell of dust and burning grass racing by.

As the 45-year-old assistant fire chief passed from one slope of empty road to the next, he pointed out snake dens and could hardly finish telling one hunting story before he spotted another eroded hillside and started over.

“Catch a lot of them over there,” he said, turning the scanner under the
dashboard down.

Out in these crumbling foothills, where people sometimes dump their old dishwashers and you might find a wild hog’s head on a fencepost wearing a pair of sunglasses, Western diamondback rattlesnakes are everywhere. And for one weekend every spring, firefighters lead caravans of the curious out here to catch them.

The scene goes something like this: Trucks stop on the side of the road.
Men, women and children – some who have never seen a rattler in the wild –
step over the tired old fences and scatter across rugged terrain with 3-foot
long tongs seeking creatures most people try to avoid.

“It’s like a big Easter egg hunt,” Berry said with a calm smile that belies
the danger of pursuing a pit viper.

Diamondbacks, found in much of the Southwest, sense body heat and judge size using the pits on their snouts. When defensive – and they tend to hold their ground – they rattle their segmented tails as a warning. In a split second, the 2- to 7-foot snakes can deliver a load of venom that can decompose flesh, cause massive swelling and shut down nerves. In rare cases, the neurotoxin kills people.

But history shows, at least in this part of the Sooner State, humans are the
ones doing the killing – and the frying, eating and selling.

More than 3,000 pounds of rattlesnake – they’re weighed not counted – is
hauled to downtown Waurika every year for the “Fang-tastic” Rattlesnake

Hunters hand over their catch in burlap sacks or buckets and get $3 for
every pound of snake. Event organizers, mostly firefighters, put the
reptiles in cages or boxes where the cold-blooded creatures pile up in the
corners, sometimes suffocating each other.

And there are other fates.

Most snakes are boxed or caged for two or three weeks. They won’t eat in
captivity with each other, but they drink water. It’s natural for
rattlesnakes to wait two to three weeks between eating. But it’s impossible
to know when captured snakes had their final meal.

Out of the hundreds of snakes, a few die each week.

That’s one reason the Human Society of the United States detests the hunts.
They say the hunts only increase the number of bites to humans. They also
say the snakes are treated cruelly, in some cases having their fangs clipped
and mouths sewn shut for photo ops.

Organizers, however, say catching and butchering the snakes keeps their
population in check and reduces the number of rattlesnakes that strike farm
animals and pets.

Dr. Jim D. Clark, a veterinarian at the Jefferson County Animal Clinic in
Waurika, said he treats about 12 snake bites a year, mostly dogs and horses
that got curious when they heard the rattle. Many of the pets taken in for
snake bites survive. But it comes at a cost, and there are no promises.

“You can spend $1,200 in a few hours and the dog dies,” he said. “It’s
almost cost prohibitive to treat them.”

Clark believes the snakes should be treated humanely but said the hunt may
help control the number of snakes around.

“Are we inhuman to flies when we hit them with a fly swatter?” he said. “You
don’t want any animal to suffer. Nobody wants to kill a snake, but you
respect the changes a little bit when your girl gets bit by a snake in the
grass and dies.”

While stories of bites during hunts float around, locals say envenomations
are rare – mostly happening to daredevils who don’t pay enough attention.

The former fire chief lost his pinky after a bite at the festival several
years ago. It happened in the sacking contest where the catcher has to bag
three snakes in an enclosed area. Organizers ended the contest last year.

Walking into a downtown Waurika building filled with rattlesnakes is like
walking into a room of mousetraps.

First, there’s silence.

Then – a rattle – and one becomes a high decibel frenzy of force echoing
through the shed. The snakes strike toward the cage, usually stopping before
they hang a fang on the wiring.

For a fire department in a town of about 2,000, the rattles might as well be
the cha-chings of a coin. It lands them $20,000 to $30,000 a year for
firefighting equipment, said J.R. Cronin, a burly former firefighter who
doesn’t shy from holding a rattlesnake in his grip or slipping into a cage
full of them.

“The revenue is just great,” he said, noting that every part of the snake is
sold somehow, be it the rattle as a souvenir or the gal bladder as an

City hall doesn’t track the economic impact. But some local businesses see a
boost during the hunt.

At the A-OK Motel – the only one in town – hostess Millie Petel says
vacancies disappear a month before the hunt.

“We don’t have a room left,” she said.

Down the Highway 70, at the Sonic, teenaged workers see the same.

They have to work all weekend as a rule – even though they don’t sell
Waurika’s featured cuisine.

Brent D. Wistrom can be reached at (940) 763-7554, 1-800-627-1646 Ext. 554
or by e-mail at wistromb(at)

Bites are rare, but serious

United Regional Health Care System in Wichita Falls treats snake bites every
year. About half of the patients are treated and released. Others are

In 2004, 32 patients were treated for snake bites. In 2003, there were 12,
and in 2002, there were 13.

The hospital keeps 20 to 25 vials of anti-venom in stock. But, depending on
the bite, one patient may need up to 18 vials. The antivenin runs about
$1,000 per vial and treats bites from any type of pit viper.

Each year, 5,000 Americans are bitten by venomous snakes, resulting in about
five deaths.

About one-third of snake bites are dry, meaning no venom is injected.

If poison is injected, about 35 percent of bites are mild envenomations, 25
percent are moderate, and 10 to 15 percent are severe.

A young snake is more likely to inject all its venom with its first strike
than an older snake. For this reason, a bite from a young snake can be
serious. A dead snake can have a bite reflex up to an hour after death, so
it must be considered dangerous as well.

Source:, United Regional Health Care Systems

Snake bite first-aid

These steps should be taken to treat rattlesnake bites:
Wash the bite with soap and water.
Immobilize the bitten area and keep it lower than the heart.
Get medical help.
If a victim is unable to reach medical care within 30 minutes, a bandage,
wrapped two to four inches above the bite, may help slow venom. The bandage should not cut off blood flow from a vein or artery. A good rule of thumb is to make the band loose enough that a finger can slip under it.
A suction device may be placed over the bite to help draw venom out of the
wound without making cuts. Suction instruments often are included in
commercial snakebite kits.
Source: Food and Drug Administration

Fang-tastic fun
The 44th annual “Fang-tastic” Rattlesnake Hunt starts at noon today with a
carnival and karaoke. The snake hunts and daredevil shows are on Saturday
and Sunday in downtown Waurika, Okla. Money raised benefits the Waurika Fire Department. Registration is $3.

For snake sales information, call (580) 228-2553. To contact the Butcher
Shoppe about rattlesnake meat, send an e-mail to

Oklahoma law
Snake harvesting is legal in Oklahoma for anyone with a hunting permit. Open season is March 1-June 30, and there are no limits. The law applies to the prairie rattlesnake, western diamondback rattlesnake, timber rattlesnake and massasauga.

Harvesters can sell lawfully taken rattlesnakes only to those individuals
holding a commercial or noncommercial wildlife breeders license. It’s
illegal to use gasoline to force snakes to surface from their dens.

Source: Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation