Sonia Smith 2015-07-16 00:16:06
RATTLING GOOD PROJECT Texas Lions don’t get rattled by their unusual fundraiser. The first thing you notice is the dense sound. The hum and buzz of hundreds of rattlesnakes shaking their tails drown everything else out inside the auditorium at the Oglesby Community Center, a white brick building in the center of town. A pungent, earthy smell hangs in the air, emanating from the pulsing, coiled mass of snakes that would make Indiana Jones weep. Welcome to the Oglesby Rattlesnake Roundup, a weekend of kitschy fun, brushes with danger and encounters with eccentric characters. The roundup is the biggest fundraiser of the year for the Oglesby Lions Club. The central Texas town of 474 near Waco quadruples in size for two days each February. Pickup trucks park on the grass and motorcycles line the streets, as families come out to marvel at the western diamondback rattlesnakes, Crotalus atrox, on display in a custom-made plexiglass and wooden pit. Texas was once home to dozens of rattlesnake roundups each spring, but that number has dwindled to only seven across the state today. The event in Oglesby is the first one of the year. Each January, ambitious rattlesnake hunters fan out for a hundred miles around central Texas for several weeks ahead of the roundup, capturing the snakes and keeping them under heat lamps until the time comes to drop them off. Many of the Oglesby Lions Club’s 30 members give the snakes a wide berth, preferring to help take tickets, sell T-shirts and help with setup. That’s the safe approach of John Barnes, 88, who returned home to this sleepy farming community 21 years ago from Houston, where he worked as an accountant for Texaco. “We just prepare for the snake show,” says Barnes. “We leave the work in the pit to the professionals.” That’s not the case with Bruce Pomerenke, the new mayor of Oglesby and a 20-year Lion. He performs the painstaking task of weighing and measuring each of the more than 500 rattlesnakes that hunters haul in over the 48-hour period. “This is the biggest weekend of the year here in town. It’s something we look forward to, but it is two days of very hard work,” he says. This year, the longest snake measured 62.5 inches and the shortest came in at a mere 13.75 inches. A snake broker paid hunters $6 for each pound of snake they bring in. The Lions chipped in a $3-a-pound bonus for snakes turned in early Saturday morning. Some of these snakes end up in other roundups, but most will eventually be harvested for their skin and meat. Pomerenke, a jovial, mustachioed man who wore a camouflage fleece under his yellow Lions vest, is well-suited for his hands-on role. He’s something of an amateur herpetologist who keeps seven ball pythons as pets. (Pomerenke also has a puckish sense of humor. Halfway through our interview he took a small albino snake named Sunshine out of his pocket and placed it in my hand without warning.) In his youth, Pomerenke brought his own quarry to the roundup. “When I hunted I started in October or November and kept going until February. At one point I had 286 snakes in my garage,” he says proudly. When asked how he tracked down all those snakes, he simply says, “After you start hunting, people will start calling you to say that they have a snake on their property that you should come catch. It’s really just word of mouth.” As we spoke, James Burt, a snake hunter from nearby Valley Mills, came holding a white bucket containing a couple of snakes he had caught on a bluff the previous afternoon. His catch weighed in at 2.5 pounds, and wasn’t a contender for length either. After recording his measurements in a binder, Pomerenke handed the bucket to Jack Bibby, who poured its contents gently into the pit. Bibby, the eccentric star in the Animal Planet show “Rattlesnake Republic,” has been running Oglesby’s roundup for more than 30 years. Over the course of the weekend he emceed five snake-handling shows each day, wearing dapper black Chippewa snake boots and his signature snakeskin fedora. Each show began with a safety demonstration, with the handlers passing around gory photos showing how a snakebite can ravage human tissue and reminding kids to listen for the distinctive rattling sound and look for the black-and-white section of the rattlesnake tail when they’re out walking. David Gay, another employee of Heart of Texas Snake Handlers, walked around the inside of the pit showing how a snake can be milked for its venom. He let kids pet the tail end of a snake. Gay’s job has left its mark on his body, from the rattlesnake tattoo on his left forearm to the scars from bites on his legs to the indention in his pinky finger where the tissue died after a snakebite. “Most of us tend to fib when we’re asked how many bites we’ve had,” Gay tells me, adding that he’s had six serious bites and 10 or 12 “nicks” over his 30-year career as a snake handler. “If they don’t take me to the hospital, they don’t count.” Bibby’s bites are even more of a cautionary tale: the 64-year-old has been bitten 12 times in the 46 years he’s been handling rattlesnakes. In 2012, doctors were forced to amputate his right leg after a particularly bad bite. Prosthetic leg and all, he still keeps getting back into the ring. As Bibby launched into his performance, curious children smashed their faces up against the plexiglass walls of the snake pit, and older onlookers stood on the bleachers, gasping and snapping photos with their smartphones. “The stunt I’m about to do you may have seen in the Guinness Book of World Records. Or you may have seen them on Jay Leno,” he says into his microphone. “This is called ‘Snakes in the Mouth.’” His assistants gathered a dozen snakes together by their tails, stuffing the rattle ends in Bibby’s mouth. There the creatures dangled, for several tense seconds, before he let them drop to the floor. Raucous applause erupted. “Jack Bibby brings a lot to this. People follow him around the country,” Lion Ed Newman explains to me Saturday morning as he staffed one of the exit doors in the auditorium. “This is the biggest event of the year in Oglesby. Nothing else comes close,” he says, not even the club’s annual seed-spitting contest, which draws in a few hundred people each fall. This year’s roundup drew more than 2,500 people, raising $12,500 for the Lions. They’ll use the money mostly to fund scholarships and to buy eyeglasses, according to John McClure, secretary-treasurer. Groups such as Center for Biological Diversity and the Humane Society of the United States oppose the rattlesnake roundups. They argue that the roundups are cruel to the animals and drive down their numbers. They also say that the technique some hunters employ, gassing snakes in their burrows, is harmful to the larger environment. But Newman, a former prison guard and now a pastor in Waco, isn’t swayed by that line of thinking. “The naturalists keep talking about what we’re doing to the environment, but I’ve never seen grass growing around a rock without seeing a snake,” he says. Rattlesnakes can be burdensome for those who live in the country. “They harm our livestock, and they harm us. I know a show goat that got bit this year,” Newman adds. A Lion for five years, Newman actually has a much longer history with the roundup. In 1969, his junior high school agriculture teacher, a Lion named J.J. Owens, picked Newman and three classmates to build the roundup’s first snake pit out of plywood. Newman helped out with subsequent roundups while in high school. Bibby’s show at the roundup is hardly the only attraction. After each show ends, attendees made their way past tables of vendors hawking all sorts of snake-related kitsch, from rubber reptiles to snakeskin headbands to baby food jars with rattlesnake heads inside, buoyantly suspended in fluid. Burly, bearded James Smith of Randal’s Wildlife Creations offered passersby a chance to pose with a particularly large stuffed rattler around their neck. For those looking to pick up a live souvenir, a pop-up pet store, Tony’s Turtles and Reptiles, had a wide range of offerings, from quarter-sized, red-eared sliders to hulking savannah monitors. Complete with funnel cakes, carnival games and pony rides, the weekend has the feel of a small version of the Texas State Fair. For anyone hungry, a range of standard festival fare could be devoured, from barbecue to turkey legs to pie by the slice. More adventurous eaters could tuck into a plate of “southern fried rattlesnake,” a bargain at $5. Don Jones, a rancher and county commissioner, was among the Lions cooking up the 100 pounds of snake meat, which quickly sold out on Saturday. “I’ve been frying rattlesnakes the last few years, but I’ve never tasted it,” he says. “It’s a dark-looking meat. It comes to us frozen and then we throw it in buttermilk and cayenne pepper and soak it overnight.” Lion Ray McEnroe acknowledges that he’s tasted the snake. “I try everything I cook,” he says. “It’s a novelty, eating snake. A lot of people love it, but I prefer to cook fish.”
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.
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