By GREG RUSSELL, Register Staff Writer
Thackerville, Okla. —
THACKERVILLE, Okla. — By Sunday’s end, a few brave souls will have handled their way through hundreds of pounds of poisonous Western diamondbacks, agitating the snakes and daring them to strike.
The 2013 installment of the Thackerville Fire Department’s “Rattlesnake Roundup” continues today and ends Sunday evening at the department’s fire station. This sixth annual Roundup, which generally raises up to $4,000 for the department, is only one of several fundraisers the department conducts during a year.
But it stands out as the most daring in theme — with handlers teasing deadly snakes before a crowd, milking venom from their fangs and risking expensive injuries.
“The guys are crazy, I don’t know,” said hunter Allan Goldsmith, who rustles the snakes each year from rural Cooke County. “It’s a whole new breed (of handlers) and it’s hard to explain. There’s always the risk. You get in it and there’s a bond among snake handlers, or some.
“We like to make all the money we can,” he added. “But a successful show is, nobody gets hurt.”
A parade of slithers
During the Roundup, visitors come to the Thackerville station for two days, bid on auction items and browse products sold by food and craft vendors. The show also includes safety tips and snake information, but the main draw is the actual handling of hundreds of diamondbacks.
In 2012, Thackerville Fire Department Chief Teddy Richey said the show’s theme has always been a way to deviate from the norm.
“All fire departments do mostly chili cookoffs and fish frys and bake sales,” Richey said. “We try to do something a little different. Actually, our show gets bigger and bigger every year. There are a lot of people interested in snakes and their habitats, and people like to come out and look at them.”
On Friday, Goldsmith explained the snakes are corraled in a show pit within the station during the event. The rattling can be heard from the entrance, but only ticketholders can see the reptiles.
The snakes have been gathered only two or three days prior to the Roundup, he added, and after two days of dangerous handling among several trained participants, they are sent away.
“They go to a commercial buyer who processes them into product,” he said.
But during the Roundup, the diamondbacks are just as dangerous as they would be out in the rough. Show organizers do nothing to change their behavior or make them any safer to approach.
“None of these snakes are ‘dociled down’ in any way,” Goldsmith said. “We keep them at a constant temperature. And even a rattlesnake can’t take a big change in temperature. They’re not even milked. They’ve got all the venom in them. They are just like you’d picked them up out on the river — and there’s not a lot of precautions, except, don’t get bit.”
The snake hunter said the snakes at the Roundup are dangerous to humans but not prone to attacking them without provocation. Basically, he said, a person has only three ways to suffer a snakebite.
“You have to sit on it, step on it or stick your finger in its mouth,” he said. “You’ve got to make a mistake to get bitten, and of course, no handler’s going to do it on purpose.”
Despite this, and despite the professionalism of the people who actually touch the rattlers, the Roundup’s caution factor is more considerable than most local animal shows. The proceedings always include a first aid kit on standby, with venom extractor.
But even after the victim has an extraction, Goldsmith said, a hospital visit is mandatory and the injury can be either inexpensive to treat or can be a bill of up to $300,000.
“I know of cases in every direction,” he said.
This year’s Roundup proceeds will directly benefit the fire department, but the 2012 installment put all its financial focus on cancer patients Brenda Reed and James White.
Reed has been with the Thackerville Independent School District for more than 20 years, and White is a veteran snake handler of more than 45 years whose appearances have included “National Geographic” programs.
White, the father-in-law of fire chief Richey, was diagnosed with colon cancer in late 2011, and was commuting to expensive chemotherapy treatments at the time of the 2012 Roundup.
“It’s $450 to $500 a month,” Richey said in 2012. “We’re trying to kick this thing in the butt, because these expenses are tremendous.”
But on Friday, Goldsmith reported that both patients remain vigorous. Reed is still employed with the Thackerville school district and as in years past, White is serving as one of this weekend’s Roundup handlers.
“He doesn’t look a lot different in appearance,” Goldsmith said about White. “And they’re both in good spirits.”
Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for youth ages 5 to 12. Show times are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday. For directions or more information, call (580) 812-0175.