Taylor, Texas — SHAWN JONAS is on the prowl. It's a windy morning in Central Texas. Gusts hammer the metal roofing of an old abandoned farm as Jonas combs through the tall grass, littered with rusted slabs of sheet metal. There's no explaining why homesteaders left such a mess, but that was years ago. Today this is rattlesnake country, home of the Western diamondback.
Jonas starts pounding on the debris. His buddies do the same. Each carries the tool of the trade -- a pinner -- a golf club-like instrument, perfect for making a racket and for nailing a snake. The din starts picking up. One man kicks over a metal cone, revealing two coiled snakes, their tails buzzing softly. Jonas edges closer and, after jumping back a couple of times, pins the snake's neck against the black prairie soil, grabs the snake behind the jaws and plants his thumb against its skull in a three-point headlock.
One of Jonas' buddies opens a burlap sack. Jonas eases the tail inside, and in one frantic motion, releases his fingers on the jaws and chucks the head into the bag. Instantly his friend twists the neck of the sack and ties it shut.
Next stop: the Taylor rodeo grounds where crowds are gathering for the 33rd Annual National Rattlesnake Sacking Championship, one of 28 annual rattlesnake roundups in the United States.
As legend has it, roundups started in the 1920s when communities cleared schoolyards and parks of the vipers during the spring. But this explanation -- as with many rattlesnake tales -- is more convenient than real. Small towns from Georgia to New Mexico learned that rattlers draw crowds and crowds bring money. Whether set up as a roadside attraction or a carnival, roundups hype the human fear factor. Boys, and a few girls, test their mettle in snake stunts, and the Jaycees cash in.
Roundups' forked road
In recent years the contests have dwindled in number due to changing times. Not many young men want to scout snake dens when they can blast aliens in a video game, and animal rights groups call the stunts brutal and protest the slaughter of reptiles at such shows as the popular roundup held in Sweetwater, Texas, near Abilene.
"The roundups are extremely cruel but people can ignore the cruelty because a reptile can't scream," says Andrea Cimino, wildlife campaign coordinator for the Humane Society of the United States. "It's hard to tell if a snake is suffering."
In their defense, snake handlers argue the contest is no meaner than a rodeo. "I use [snakes] just like I'd use a horse if I was rodeoing," says snakeman Jackie Bibby.
Some biologists say the roundups could deplete snake numbers, but population surveys are inconclusive. In some states such as Pennsylvania, Cimino says, snake rustlers pursue timber rattlers, a threatened species. But that's not the case in Texas where the Western diamondback is plentiful, according to Andy Price, biologist for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Regardless, snake handlers seem immune to critics. At one event, the snakemen at Taylor walked right past activists who chained themselves to a fence in protest. As rattler roundup photographer Chris Hamilton puts it: "They really don't care what you think."
At the rodeo grounds, snake handlers drink beer and show off their catches before crowds arrive. Shane Mowery fishes around in his truck bed for an empty cat litter bottle. He turns it upside down and dumps a rattler on the macadam. Mowery advertises himself as a snake-removal expert -- the herpetological equivalent of a termite exterminator. He boasts that he has 17 rattlers at his house.
As more hunters arrive in pickups, drag out coolers and release their squirming wares, it becomes obvious that a rattlesnake is hardly a demon. When a handler's attention strays and a snake is momentarily free, it lies still or tries to crawl away. Throughout the event, the men strive to make the snakes look menacing while the snakes mostly try to escape.
The circle of snakemen makes way for the arrival of the show's star, Bibby, holder of four world records in rattlesnake stunts. Wearing his trademark black derby, the Fort Worth resident is built like Shrek, with the green ogre's bald head and friendly demeanor.
Bibby claims to have been struck by a rattler eight times and proudly shows off his left thumb, which is whittled to a point like a sharpened pencil. The dead flesh around the bone was removed after a bite he received at Taylor last year. "We was winnin' and I didn't want to quit so I stood around and stood around," Bibby says. He didn't go to the hospital until a week later when the pain had become "a burning, horrendous, terrible feeling."
Bibby may be speaking for all snakemen when he explains his reason for playing with vipers: "I'm an egomaniac with an inferiority complex and I'll do anything to get attention."