Snakes on the Plains: The Strange, Surprisingly Popular World of Rattlesnake RodeosMario Zucca
The late morning is thick with humidity; this could pass for summer weather in a lot of places, but it’s springtime in the Deep South. I’m standing near a cluster of men leaning on their golf clubs, hushed to respectful silence. It’s the final weekend of the Masters, but we’re hundreds of miles from Augusta. On a stage erected nearby in the grass, the town’s mayor is standing at the end of a long line of area dignitaries. You can pick him out by his short-sleeved official event polo, embroidered with a diamondback snake on the breast where the alligator would go, with “MAYOR” below the snake in neon-green letters. He addresses the families assembled in the stands, the milling throng threading through the carnival booths, and the line of beauty pageant winners organized tallest to smallest. The threat of inclement weather has dampened the turnout some, but his enthusiasm is undimmed.
“Good morning! It’s gonna be a great day! We’re supposed to have some sunshine coming out. I believe the rain’s over. We’ve got some great entertainment today, but right now, we’re gonna start the Rattlesnake Rodeo off with prayer.”
This is Opp, a town of around 7,000 people deep inside Alabama’s coastal plain, and this is the opening ceremony of the town’s 55th annual Rattlesnake Rodeo. Stewart Young from Opp’s Southside Baptist Church takes over the microphone.
“Father God, we give you great thanks for this day, and the opportunity to gather together as a community, and to celebrate life. And I just pray that this will be a day that will be filled with laughter and smiles. I pray for Your hand of protection, upon each and every one that is here. And we would be remiss, during this day, if we did not take pause to give thanks, and to pray for the protection of the brave men and women of our armed forces, that at this very moment are stationed around this world protecting our freedom, which enables us to have events such as this. We are a blessed, blessed people. We live in a blessed country, a blessed state, and a blessed community. May we never, ever forget that. May we never forget Your magnitude of blessings upon us. You’re an awesome God. You are awesome in all Your ways. In the name of Jesus Christ, we pray, amen.”
Once the recording of the Gaither Vocal Band singing the national anthem finishes blaring out from the speakers, the men with the clubs will go back to work. They’re snake handlers for the rodeo, volunteers with years, sometimes decades of experience toting putters that have been converted into snake-wrangling hooks in home workshops.1 While the festival is on, they’re charged with maintaining the snake pit, staging the snake races, subsequently retrieving the peevish participants in the snake races, and fielding questions from more than 13,000 visitors2 throughout the weekend.
I should back up just a little bit here, before anyone gets too excited, and disabuse you of a couple of notions that might be percolating: There are no tiny saddles being affixed to serpent backs at the Rattlesnake Rodeo, nor are there snakes riding horses. (Rattlesnake rodeos are called “rattlesnake roundups” in other parts of the country, and that’s maybe a more accurate descriptor, but it’s just not as fun to say, is it?) Proponents say roundups rid the area of serpents that are vexing to residents and dangerous to hunters; Opp’s own rodeo allegedly began when a favorite bird dog was bitten by a rattler.
And while the rodeo does entwine itself thickly with area churches — services will be held on the grounds on Sunday, and a Christian music concert is scheduled to close out the festival that night — we’re not talking about some kind of Pentecostal hoedown. This particular roundup was founded by a town businessman in cooperation with the local Jaycees chapter. The first Opp rodeo was held in a restaurant, and it has since migrated to a couple of different locations before settling in Channel Lee Stadium. One snake handler tells the story of a rodeo staged in nearby Andalusia, sparsely attended by Andalusians because it was originally an Opp project but spurned by Opp residents because it was in Andalusia — and there’s high-school-football-based beef at the root of this particular tale, but this is Alabama, so you don’t need me to tell you that.
What began as a low-key show-and-tell (and-then-maybe-skin) has ballooned into the biggest annual event on Opp’s social calendar. The atmosphere you want to picture here, to get the correct impression, is basically that of a county fair with reptiles, operating on the incontrovertible premise that any excuse for a bouncy castle is a good one. The rodeo now encompasses such events as a 5K run and the beauty pageant. (Contestants do have to interact with the snakes as part of the undertaking, taking turns posing with the pageant’s slithery mascot if they win, but critter contact isn’t a judged event in itself.)3 The rodeo has also done a bit of evolving on the conservation front. Events like these are a target of animal-rights activists; snake handlers and organizers in Opp all avow that rather than being killed on site, as is historical habit and still a practice in use at some other roundups, all of this year’s serpentine charges will be carted off to a lab in Middle Tennessee after the festival, where their venom will be used to produce antivenin. There is fried snake meat available at the concession stands at the top of the bleachers, but I’m told it’s imported from Texas.
All of the live-snake-based activity is centered on Channel Lee’s baseball diamond. There’s a concert stage set up in the outfield; the infield is fenced off to all but reptiles and reptile wranglers. The central attraction of the rodeo is the snake-holding pit, off to one side of the stage. It houses a couple dozen serpents of varying sizes, almost all eastern diamondbacks with a couple timber rattlers slithering around. Some of the largest snakes bear colored adhesive tape tags with numbers scrawled on them. These are the racing snakes, and eight or 10 at a time, they’re being lowered into a large metal trash can and taken to the racing circle for their heats. “We’ve never had anybody bitten in conjunction with the rodeo,” says rodeo coordinator Don Childree as he supervises the loading.
Behind where the backstop would be, there’s a white circle about 40 feet in diameter. The can is carried in by two handlers and upended in the center of the circle; the first snake to slither far enough to break the plane of the perimeter is declared the winner. The whole thing is narrated by a local radio DJ in the cadence of a horse race: “And it’s Spirit of Opportunity in the lead, Spirit of Opportunity … does NOT like the camera.” He breaks character only once, when a pen falls to the ground and rolls inside the circle. “I ain’t getting that. That ink pen can rot.”
Rooting interests are determined by sponsorships; local businesses and town dignitaries pay to sponsor snakes, with a rotating trophy awarded to the sponsor of the final race’s winner. The best part of this is that the snakes in the race all get names. The one sponsored by the speedway is Checkered Flag. The snake sponsored by J.R.’s Lawnmower Shop is named in honor of J.R. the Mechanickin’ Dog, the store’s beloved mascot who passed away a couple weeks ago. One is simply named Frank.
After each heat, longtime MC Kenn Howell takes over the microphone and begins a lengthy educational monologue. “Let me tell you a little something about ol’ Crotalus adamanteus.” I could listen to Kenn talk all day, and it seems like he could go on that long. While he dispenses knowledge on the biology of snake-venom delivery systems; the one-tenth-second strike power of a rattlesnake (“So don’t think you can dodge him or something like that”); how reptiles react to the ambient temperature of their surroundings; and the relative wisdom of keeping these creatures as pets (“There is no such thing as a pet snake, and he isn’t gonna be nice to you. He’s gonna bite you every time he gets the chance”), snake handlers herd their charges toward the fence surrounding the infield to give onlookers on the other side a better look.
Kenn isn’t preaching at tomorrow’s services, as far as I know, but maybe he should be. “I don’t know why God made them that way. Maybe he wanted to name something ‘rattlesnake.’” There’s a young woman I didn’t notice before who’s now among the snake-handling volunteers, and Kenn singles her out: “Everyone give that young’un a good hand. I’ll never forget the day she came up to me and said, ‘I want you to teach me to handle the rattlesnakes,’ and I thought, Lord have mercy, here we go again.” When Kenn exhausts his educational monologues, he takes questions from the audience: “If we don’t know your answer, we will get you an answer. How’s that?”
Definitely take the snake handlers up on this if you ever get the chance. An innocuous “So how’d you all get into this?” led me straight to one older volunteer’s tale about growing up catching rattlers behind his house, selling them to a place down in Panama City he says doesn’t exist anymore but used to be called “Snaketopia,” and using the proceeds to fund his spring break. “Beer was 25 cents then!”
As I’m the product of an Appalachian upbringing, it doesn’t really occur to me to consider the “why” of something like a rattlesnake roundup, but I understand the impulse, and it’s stories like that one that come closest to providing the answer: It’s all in the raising. This determinism is something of a theme at the rodeo; Covington County Commission chair Bill Godwin, during his welcome remarks, said, “I always wondered why the Good Lord gave us rattlesnakes, and now I know. It’s so that Opp would have a symbol for their festival today.”
It might be easy, as an outsider, to see a story about a snake festival and gawk, but I don’t feel any more or less reasonable purchasing wristbands to go stare at a pen full of snakes with my pals than I would ponying up to inhale azalea pollen a few hundred miles away to watch famous dudes golf. In this, I promise you, the Masters and the Rattlesnake Rodeo are more alike than you might imagine. Why do we care so much about antediluvian shindigs like these, after all? Because our elders told us to when we were young enough to internalize it. What is it that makes them so special? Nothing, save our insistence that they are. It’s a tradition like any other, sustained by new blood and imprinted tradition. In that way, maybe it is like church. There’s no air of the ridiculous here; as with spring football, we all know deep down that what we’re watching is a little bit goofy, but when in the course of human history has that ever dampened our enthusiasm for a good show?
Something else about the absence of any sense of the ludicrous in Opp: The people here have been doing this so long that if they ever felt like curiosities (and I doubt that), they’re over it, and that relaxes everybody. I won’t go so far as to say that this is a “more authentic” version of the American South than a fancy golf outing is (because what does “authenticity” even mean or matter, and is it necessarily a good thing when we’re talking about either golf or reptiles?), but I do know which one feels more inclusive.
It’s a strange sensation combination to feel like a long-lost cousin in a crowd of the like-minded and also to know empirically that what all of those like minds are up to is so unusual. I hit my personal weekend nirvana doing a lap around the fair’s perimeter, where booths are set up with carnival food, midway games, and merchandise (I’m coming back for you, specialized concealed-carry purse table). I was late to this particular party, but that didn’t diminish my smug satisfaction that right at that moment, nowhere else on earth was anybody nibbling on a fried Oreo, listening to a local singer belt out Heart’s “Alone” on the concert stage, and imagining she was singing the torch song to a seven-foot poisonous snake.