Saga of a tame rattlesnake

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Following is a true story of the depicted rattlesnake.

A former student of mine, Mark Bailey, encountered a 4.5 foot canebrake rattlesnake in Macon County. It was passive and exhibited no aggressive behavior, and against his better judgment, Mark gently picked up the snake with his hand and secured it in a pillowcase.

He and another student, Emmett Blankenship, who was in vet school, decided to anesthetize the snake and perform a microsurgical procedure to close the ducts that transfer poison from the venom glands to the fangs.

The procedure was successful, rendering the snake non-venomous. Mark handled the snake on numerous occasions, and it was as tame as a pussy cat.

The folks at TV-13 in Birmingham asked me to do a snake show, and I agreed. I arrived with several harmless snakes and Mark’s rattler, which I had borrowed. I exhibited all the snakes in front of the camera except for the rattler. I was not afraid to handle the rattler but refrained from doing so for fear that it might tempt others to engage in “free handling” rattlesnakes.

So the film crew merely showed the rattler crawling across the ground in front of the studio.

Janie accompanied me on the trip, and upon returning we detoured to Gold Hill to visit Husky Kirkwood. Husky came outside, and I told him where we had been.

I then said, “Husky, on that route from Waverly, there was a large rattlesnake in the road and I captured it. It’s in a cage on the back seat.” I removed the cage containing the snake and placed it on the ground. Husky looked at the snake and said, “That is a big one, about as big as they come.”

“Husky,” I said, “when I captured the snake, it was calm. It did not strike or even use its rattles. I believe I can pick it up bare-handed without fear of being bitten.” I then opened the cage, lifted the snake, and it coiled around my arm.

Husky’s jaw dropped and he exclaimed, “Janie, make him put that snake down! Bob, if that snake bites you, I’m not taking you to the emergency room. You’re acting like a damn fool!”

I then told him about how the snake’s venom ducts had been closed by surgery and showed him the almost imperceptible scars on the snake’s face where the incisions had been made. Husky breathed a sigh of relief.

We then drove to my son’s house in Auburn. I put the snake around my neck, knocked on the door and entered. Robert, my son, began backing up in his wheelchair and exclaimed, “Daddy, that’s a rattlesnake!”

“I know it’s a rattlesnake, son, but lately I’ve been reading the Bible, and it says if you’ve got the faith, you can take up serpents and not be harmed.”

Robert said, “Janie, has Daddy lost his mind?” After staring at me for a minute or two, Robert said, “Okay, now tell me what’s going on. Daddy, I know you don’t believe everything in the Bible any more than I do.” I told him I was just pulling his leg and told him all about the non-venomous rattlesnake.

Mark let Dr. Chris Sunderman take custody of the rattler, and she cared for it a dozen or more years until it died, apparently from old age.

Chris is a parasitologist and was interested in parasites found in snakes. In the rattlesnake’s feces she found a previously unknown protozoan parasite and described it as a new species. The rattler proved to be, quite literally, a “good snake” and was docile throughout its life.

Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Dept of Zoology and Entomology, Auburn Univ. He is also chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.

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