Snake, Rattle And Roll

Reptile Wranglers Harvest A Dangerous Crop.
By Leo Banks

IT CAN GET interesting around the Weber home late at night, when those pesky rattlesnakes in the refrigerator start acting up. Seems they don't know they're dead and commence to thrashing around, heaving leftovers this way and that.

"They can make a bloody mess," says 64-year-old Sandy Weber. "Even dead, snakes move around a lot, so I make sure to cover the food."

Ah, the pitfalls of the professional rattlesnake hunter.

Sandy and husband John have been practicing the trade some 16 years now. They live in the ghost town of Gleeson in the Dragoon Mountains of southeastern Arizona, and spend much of their time prowling the washes and backroads at night, listening for the telltale chi-chi-chi of the Western Diamondback.

It's enough to make your toes curl up inside your Tony Lamas.

"If you're walking through brush and hear that rattling and don't know where it is, it's absolutely blood-curdling," says John Weber, 61. "But once I've spotted it, the fear is gone."

Then he moves in with his tools, a long aluminum stick with pistol grips on one end and pliers on the other, a golf putter to hold the slithering varmint down, and a hatchet for the all-important beheading process. He stuffs the head and the body into a satchel and keeps moving.

The best time to hunt is during the August rainy season, when he fetches several a night. At other times he averages one snake for every nine hours of hunting.

Even after taking off the head, Weber says he has to proceed with caution. "Those jaws can still bite," he says. "I've seen them snap at the lip of a jar as I was trying to stuff the head inside."

Hunting reptiles is nothing new to John Weber. It was his favorite pastime as a kid growing up, and he stayed with it as a college student in Gainesville, Fla. While his pals were at football games and keg parties, Weber was prowling south Florida's swamps looking for deadly water moccasins.

When it came time to retire from his job negotiating contracts for an Illinois aviation firm, he and Sandy went on a 2,000-mile trek around Arizona looking for a place that had been forsaken by God and man, but not by rattlers.

They settled on old Gleeson, and the charms of its broken-down buildings and hovering vultures. "First time I came out here there were 20 big snakes just laying out on the ground," says John. "Took my breath away. I knew we'd found our Shangri la."

Arizona law allows rattlesnake hunters to catch a maximum of four snakes per day in each of the four major varieties. Four less-common kinds of rattlers are protected by law, and cannot be killed or captured.

The snakes are sometimes hard to find, so the Webers never miss a chance to make a kill. Once they were driving to meet friends for dinner when they spotted a pair winding across the highway. They stopped their pickup, killed the snakes, stuffed them in the flatbed and went on.

Then there was the time when Sandy, dressed in her Sunday finest, was driving to church when she spotted a rattler. Resourceful to the end, she pulled over, found a big rock, bashed the snake's head off and stuffed both parts into a canvas bag.

The minister let her stash the bag in a refrigerator at church until services were done. "John buys me lunch for every one I get, so I wasn't about to let that sucker get away," says Sandy.

Despite the dangers, the Webers haven't been bitten, but that doesn't mean they don't fret about it. "If they sink their teeth into you it's $10,000 and 10 days in intensive care," says John. "It's ugly. We're very careful, almost cowardly, in the way we hunt. We're not out here to show off."

Just to be safe, he carries a suction device to draw the poison out of any wound. He also packs a stun gun that could be used to send an electric current into any bite. Although it's only a theory. Weber believes the gun might neutralize the poison.

The Webers market their catch at their crafts store in Gleeson. The shop is stocked with more than 100 rattlesnake products--from snakeskin neckties to wristbands for bowlers, earrings made from ribs and fangs, bookmarks, dog collars and even a nightlight made from the head of a Western Diamondback.

Visitors to the remote site might find John curing strips of rattler meat to make jerky, while Sandy is boiling ribs and vertebrae in her crockpot to remove excess flesh. "We finally got another crock pot so I don't have to cook my chili in the same pot I cook the vertebrae in," she says.

The Webers offer visitors free samples of jerky, and they sometimes fire up breakfast for early comers. Snake and eggs, anyone? TW

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