The Red Hourglass: Lives of the Predators - Gordon Grice (1999)
It lies half-coiled in a stand of dusty green weeds, its jaw against the ground to catch the vibrations of any moving thing. Its body, patterned with the colors of dead grass and earth, is touching a stack of iron pipe. Its forked black tongue slips out of its closed mouth, slashes in several directions, and slips back in (think of a person sucking down a strand of fettuccine). It is licking up particles of airborne scent and brushing them against the mass of olfactory nerves in the roof of its mouth. Its pupils, which would be only slits in the sun, have ballooned in the near-dark.
The rattlesnake has followed a scent along the pipes, and here it stops to wait at the turning of a scent-path. The prey, whatever it is, has the habit of following the shape of these discarded pipes. Probably it has a nest among them. The rattlesnake is still except for its active tongue, which slides out every few seconds, invisible in the dusk except for its gleam.
I don’t see the field mouse arrive. He is suddenly there, tentative in his movements, a run of a few inches and then a pause. His coat is pale brown on top and white on bottom; his eyes are the sleek brown of apple seeds. He stops, runs to one side, stops, runs back the other direction, stops and rises on his hind legs. He seems to know something is wrong, but probably that’s my imagining. I look to the snake and can’t see it—only dirt and weeds and scraps of iron. I blink a few times and there it is in exactly the same place, my eyes and brain finally interpreting its pattern.
The mouse is a few inches from the safety of the pipes, but he darts around in the open. Does he smell the snake? I can’t decide whether I smell it or not. The mouse runs onto a higher clump of dirt to look around and sniff. But it’s not a clump of dirt. He is standing on a thick loop of the snake. The snake does not move.
The mouse comes down and moves away from the pipes. A blurred movement, the rustle of one weed— something happens too fast for me to see. The mouse leaps into the air but makes no sound. He lands on his feet, takes a step or two, defecates, and stands shivering. The snake slides back a few inches. It isn’t moving now, but it’s watching with the heat-sensing pits below its eyes. Its strike, gauged by means of the pits, has hit home. The pits work with heat as human eyes do with light, creating stereoscopic “vision” and thus a fine discrimination of direction and distance.
The mouse rolls on his side, breathing heavily, spasms rocking the forelegs and head. The snake waits. After a long while it slips closer. Its tongue runs over the mouse, which is still twitching. The snake makes a half-circle and settles its head near the mouse’s. The mouse still appears alive to me, but the snake has its heat-sense and may know something I don’t. Alive or dead, the mouse has already begun to be digested. The venom is breaking down cell walls; tissues are flooding with blood; the flesh is softening.
The rattlesnake swallows the mouse head-first, the hollow tube of its glottis pushing to the front of its mouth at the bottom so that it can breathe while it eats, its delicate bones momentarily separating, its muscles working and rippling. The swallowing is a long process; the mouse remains partly visible for perhaps five minutes. Before he disappears entirely, I see a hind leg twitch, and then for a long while only the mouse’s dark tail hangs out, and then it is gone.
Two men were hunting in the woods in midwinter. They came upon a clearing where a seven-foot Eastern diamondback lay soaking in the sun, sluggish in the cold. The hunters knew of a man in town who made money by milking the venom from rattlesnakes; he sold the venom to a pharmaceutical company for use in making antivenin. They decided to catch the snake and sell it to the venom collector.
Catching it was easy. The snake was cold and slow. One man grasped it behind the head and around the middle. He knew it couldn’t bite him in this position. They got into the pickup and headed for town.
The heater was on in the pickup.
They reached town and were about to get out of the truck. The man holding the snake had grown complacent on the ride to town; the snake had grown warm. The man must have relaxed his grip for a second. The snake whipped suddenly, too fast to react to. Its two fangs punched into his arm.
The swelling started minutes after the bite, while they were driving to the hospital. Eventually his arm purpled and gleamed with the sheen of leaking plasma. It grew to Popeye proportions; they had to cut the shirt to get it off. The skin ripped open. He bled from his mouth and nose and from the pores of his skin. His arm broke out in tiny blisters. He was in intensive care for four days, a nightmare time in which the doctors used calm, soothing tones to discuss his “hypotensive crisis” and the amputation of his arm. Finally, in a sort of Faustian bargain, he was allowed to keep the arm in return for the sacrifice of his hand. He handles a fork well enough with the stump of his thumb.
“I wouldn’t even touch a rattler that size,” said the venom collector, the one they’d planned to sell it to.
The metaphor scientists often use is a cocktail: the venom of a rattlesnake is a cocktail of diverse toxins. There are more than thirty rattlesnake species between Canada and Argentina, and many of them have subspecies, bringing the total to over ninety. Each subspecies serves a different mix, and each snake makes individual variations on that recipe. The Mojave species packs a neurotoxin that blinds you, then makes you forget to breathe and paralyzes your heart.
Most rattler venoms break flesh down chemically. They partly digest the snake’s prey before it is eaten. In fact, rattlesnake venoms evolved from digestive juices, and the poison gland of the rattlesnake is a specialized salivary gland. A good dose of venom makes your limb burn with pain as the venom digests it. Chunks of a human victim’s skin and flesh may die and eventually fall off. No rattlesnake is big enough to eat a human, but the venom is strong enough to go a considerable way toward predigesting one.
Small animals usually die of shock long before the venom has softened them up, and the same can happen to a human. We can also die from such systemic effects as damage to the liver or kidneys, or from gangrene of the dead flesh.
A bigger snake is more likely to kill you because it has more venom to spend. That fact makes the diamondbacks, the biggest rattlesnakes, especially dangerous. Rattlers have personalities and moods; one rattler may crawl away while another stays to fight. Western diamondbacks generally have less patience for a human than most. They’ve been known to chase a man across open ground.
Snakes choose whether to waste venom on you—they can bite dry if they want to, or give you only a little venom. They need the venom for hunting, and it takes time to produce. One collector I talked to, Steve Barnum, has been bitten dozens of times. He said three-quarters of his bites proved dry. He described the symptoms of the loaded bites as “swelling, blood- and water-blisters, and a hell of a lot of pain.” Most loaded bites, Barnum said, turn out to be only minor medical problems, a claim borne out by statistics: in the United States, fewer than a dozen of the thousands of people bitten by rattlesnakes in an average year die. A doctor friend told me giving rattlesnake antivenin is a risk rarely in the best interest of the patient, though the possibility of malpractice suits prompts most doctors to give it anyway. The antivenin can send a patient into a fatal anaphylactic shock.
Of course, some survivors find the bite of a rattlesnake has altered their lives.
At a rural construction site, one man was directing the heavy equipment by hand signals. The sound of the machinery drowned out human voices. It also drowned out the warnings of a prairie rattler that lay in the same weedy ditch where the man stood. He felt a sting on his leg, but ignored it—thorns from the weeds, he thought. He ignored it a second time, but the third sting got his attention. He saw the snake among the weeds, three feet long and thick as an axe handle. He beheaded it with a tire iron before asking his coworkers to drive him into town for treatment. It was fifteen miles.
At the hospital, the doctor presented him with a dilemma. “You can stay here until something happens, and then we can treat what happens,” the doctor said. The “something” the doctor assured him was coming within twenty-four hours would present itself in the form of either a stroke or a heart attack. His blood pressure was already soaring.
“Or we can start you on a course of antivenin, which is expensive.” The antivenin cost several thousand dollars per dose, and there was no telling how many doses he would need before the crisis passed.
He chose the antivenin. He passed through the usual prairie rattler bite symptoms: blood pressure rising in response to the neurotoxin, leg swelling, burning pain. He endured the treatment: an IV of glucose and pain killers, hourly blood tests, hourly checks of his blood pressure. His recovery appeared complete; his only trouble was the hospital bill, which ran into the thousands.
A few weeks after he left the hospital, he blacked out.
That blackout was only the first. He also had bouts of giddy weakness and mood swings. His doctors suspected diabetes, but after extensive tests they had to revise that hypothesis. The man was suffering from wildly fluctuating levels of blood sugar, a condition caused by the malfunction of specialized cells in the pancreas. But the problem was not conventional diabetes, and it could not be treated with insulin injections. It was unpredictable.
Now the man eats a diabetic’s diet and tries to listen to his body. Probably he will never recover, but maybe he can manage his condition, which doctors call an aftereffect of his encounter with the rattlesnake.
Rattlesnakes like to stay in holes in the ground when they are not hunting or basking, but they’re not equipped for digging. Their transitory hunting-season homes are shelters they acquire opportunistically—they simply find the place and move in, killing any occupant that objects. Rattlesnakes are often found in the former dens of prairie dogs, rabbits, and even badgers. Prairie dogs, large rodents that live in towns of hundreds, invented the neighborhood watch system long ago. Guards stand on their hind legs to watch and warn the others.
A prairie dog guard sees a rattlesnake coming and chirps the alarm. The adult prairie dogs defend their burrows, throwing their tails up to appear menacing and making bluff charges at the snake. They work in teams, one distracting while another rushes in for a bite. The rodents have formidable teeth and can kill a rattlesnake, though they rarely manage to. Some people say prairie dogs will seal a rattlesnake in their own burrow once he’s inside, entombing him alive, Poe-style.
Sometimes prairie dogs turn the snake away from their burrows. Sometimes they don’t. The snake alternates strikes and sizzling retreats, and eventually a strike lands. The prairie dog has only a few minutes to live. He convulses and dies. His comrades give up the fight. The snake retreats momentarily to save his energy while the bitten dog dies. He doesn’t eat the dead prairie dog. He smells something better.
Inside the burrow, the snake finds a litter of prairie dog pups. He decides to stay for dinner. The mother comes into the litter chamber to threaten him, but he’s busy eating. He buzzes a bit. She leaves.
The snake makes his living in the prairie dog town, exterminating one family and living in their burrow until he’s hungry again, when he moves into the open, setting off the chirping alarms again until he conquers the next burrow. So much for the advantages of city living.
Rattlesnakes aren’t picky. They like warm blood and cold, so long as it’s warm enough to detect. They eat rodents of all kinds, a smorgasbord of lizards, cottontail rabbits, and birds on the ground or in the trees.
Ground squirrels frequently grace the menu. A snake learns a particular hole in the ground has good eats. He returns again and again to this same burrow, where the resident ground squirrels deliver litter after doomed litter.
The mating of rattlesnakes is sometimes preceded by a sort of combat dance between the males. They rear up, pressing their bodies together, knocking each other to the ground until one has had enough. Sometimes the males twine together, one pulling himself taut to send the other hurtling away, thrown like an old-fashioned top with a string. These fights, if that’s what they are, also happen when females are not present, perhaps because of territorial disputes.
The male keeps his double penis inside his body, turned inside out like a pair of socks, until he is ready to mate. After he has draped himself on a willing female and done some rubbing—a sort of foreplay—one of his hemipenes extrudes itself from his vent (which one he uses is simply a matter of the happy couple’s position). He inserts the spiked hemipenis into the female’s vent.
The female can store the sperm for years. She may mate in succeeding years and then produce a litter sired by several fathers. In colder climates, she does nothing but eat for several short summers, building up the fat supply necessary for carrying young. She may take five years to produce a litter. The young—as few as one or more than two dozen—reside in a rudimentary kind of placenta, which is virtually an internal egg, before their mother bears them live. A mother rattlesnake does nothing in the way of child care except to strike at anyone who comes close.
Rattlesnakes are born venomous. They can already hunt for themselves. My father once reached into a patch of grass and was struck on the fingernail by a baby rattlesnake. The nail eventually blackened and fell off. He suffered no other effects. Some people claim young rattlesnakes are more toxic than adults. Possibly the explanation for this paradox is that young rattlesnakes show less restraint in using up their supplies of venom when biting defensively. A certain medical student, assuming the young harmless, handled one. He showed off for friends, telling them how ironic it is that such an emblem of fear could be handled freely. That’s the way most people get bitten: an urge to handle fire. These days the young doctor has nine fingers.
Rattlesnakes are scavengers as well as predators. The exquisite heat-sensing organs that make them ideal hunters of warm, living things also allow them to sense the recently dead. Their discrimination of temperatures is fine to the thousandths of a Fahrenheit degree. They swallow road-killed squirrels and rabbits, which lie on the shoulders of highways radiating warmth.
Like most snakes, they know many ways to move. A simple design makes them versatile. They can move in S-shaped curves, with the outer surface of each curve serving to brace the body so that it pushes forward. They can creep in a straight line by rippling the abdominal muscles. They can sidewind, using loops of their bodies as feet and essentially walking across loose sand. One desert species is named the sidewinder because it likes to use this trick. The sidewinder leaves tracks like those of a tank. It’s not a large snake, but the sight of it thrashing epileptically across the gypsum sands, its eyes shaded by scaly horns, is enough to make most people invoke a deity or two.
Rattlers can climb trees in search of birds and their eggs. A friend of mine went fishing at a lake in north Texas and saw dozens of limbs festooned with cotton-mouth moccasins and diamondback rattlers. Rattlers can squeeze into tight places and crawl on any kind of surface. They swim beautifully, holding their tails daintily above the water to keep their rattles dry. The beads need to be dry for a crisp sound.
Scientists observed a female Great Basin rattlesnake coiling tightly in the rain. By the time the rain stopped, the groove between two coils of her body held about two inches of rain. The snake drank for half an hour from the cup of her own coils.
I have heard rattlesnake stories all my life. When I told my neighbors I meant to write about rattlesnakes, the stories flooded me. Many of them were obvious myth— the tree killed by a rattler’s strike, the giant specimen guarding a hoard of conquistadors’ gold. Others seemed plausible until I tried to trace them to the friend-of-a-friend eyewitnesses. Then they evaporated.
If you want to know how big rattlers get, you can find any length you like, up to fifty feet, in the stories. I heard as truth a story about a woman in Wyoming who shot a thirty-footer. As one researcher told me, “Snakes are like fish”—meaning the ones that get away. Their dead bodies bloat to impressive girths, and their flensed skins stretch a couple of feet beyond their living capacities, supporting extravagant claims. It’s hard to guess the size of a snake, and with rattlers the danger makes it unlikely that anybody will make a point of taking an exact measurement.
Scientists draw the line at about eight feet and forty pounds, though some of them will admit a few freak diamondbacks approach nine feet. One research center has a standing offer of twenty thousand dollars to anyone who can produce a live eight-foot diamondback; they haven’t had to pay. Science insists on seeing proof, which is a reasonable protection against exaggeration, but it’s not a logical way to assess the upper limits of snake size. What are the odds that the biggest specimen in the world will ever run into a biologist with a camera and a tape measure? For what it’s worth, one prehistoric rattlesnake species went about twelve feet.
Unlike mammals, snakes have no genetically determined size limits. They grow until they die. Their growth starts out fast but slows as they age, so that they are adding only fractions of an inch by the time they reach their twenties. Factors like nutrition and climate influence growth, but generally a big snake is an old snake. The lifespan for rattlesnakes seems to be around twenty-five years, but most rattlers don’t reach the “natural” age of death. They die long before they get huge, victims of disease or enemies.
The largest rattlesnakes are those people never see. A rattlesnake risks death every time he meets a human. Some large rattlesnakes bear old scars made by human tools. Maybe these snakes, having been injured once, learned to avoid humans.
I mine the stories I hear. In the dross of fiction and exaggeration, I sometimes find the glimmer of truth:
A nine-month-old boy sat in a playpen on the lawn of his family’s home. His mother and several friends were a few feet away. The boy became mildly upset about something, but he only fussed a bit, and no one checked on him. Later the family deduced that the boy must have seen the little rattlesnake at that point. A few minutes later he screamed. The adults found the snake still in the playpen; the boy had been bitten repeatedly.
He survived after a long stay in the hospital. Because of damage caused by the venom, his nervous system never developed properly. Today, as an adult, he can’t drive a car, hold a job, or make change for a dollar.
A pet theme of nature writers and scientists is the unfair hatred humans have for snakes. It is often claimed that adults teach children to hate and fear snakes early, and that this teaching is based on their own lack of understanding. My earliest memory involving a snake is of my mother and older sister talking fearfully about a rattlesnake on a country road. We were driving and had just passed the snake. I was too small to see the road from the car and did not know what “snake” meant. I remember asking questions and getting answers that intimated revulsion but did not explain what I really wanted to know, which was what a snake looked like.
That experience fits the stereotype of learned fear, but I’m not sure it was necessarily a bad thing, except for the lack of complete information. When I was a little older, I encountered a rattlesnake in my own front yard, and fear of it kept me out of danger. My mother had no way to instruct me in the subtle differences between varieties of snakes when I was a toddler.
Another piece of snake education that has stuck in my mind came when I was about six. My sister and I were taking turns pushing each other in a wagon. She suddenly screamed for me to stop pushing. Then she leaped out of the wagon and ran away, shouting “Snake! Snake!” I didn’t see the snake for a long time; it was wrapped around a post many times, its coils resembling the wrapping of a hangman’s noose, its head pointing to the ground, its eyes apparently staring straight at me. That sudden feeling that I was observed, that I had been observed long before I was aware of it, gave me the creeps. My father came to investigate. He looked for a moment, pronounced the creature a bull snake, and turned to leave.
“Aren’t you going to kill it?” I asked.
“He’s not hurting anybody,” my father said. That statement didn’t make me less cautious around snakes. A classmate of mine had suffered a bull snake bite to the big toe, so I knew that nonvenomous didn’t mean “friendly.” But my father’s remark did make me understand that there are several ways of seeing snakes.
The rattlesnake has served as a kind of lightning rod for human hatred of snakes. While other snakes are killed for no practical reason, the killing of rattlers has been institutionalized; their venom provides a pragmatic reason for their killing, which can easily become a pretext for killing even when other, less logical motives are the real ones.
I suspect learned fear is only part of the story. It seems to me there really is an innate fear of snakes, not only in humans but also in many other mammals.
Snakes as a group excel at scaring enemies. Cobras rear up and expand their necks into hoods; racers rush at intruders rampantly; corals have bright warning colors, and some harmless king snakes mimic the coral colors; the water moccasin flashes the fanged cotton-mouth, which inspired its other common name. The bull snake coils and hisses in a warning display. Some people say the bull snake is imitating the prairie rattler; the two wear similar colors. Several snakes, including the copperhead and the bushmaster, shake their tails in leaves or grass to produce a warning buzz, and the rattlesnake has special equipment for this purpose, the rattle apparently having evolved as an enhancement of the tail-shaking behavior.
The rattler’s buzz is nothing like a rattle. It is something like trickling water, and something like dry leaves on cement. It nudges my subconscious first, and then suddenly I am aware of a tickle between my shoulder blades, and I know what I’m hearing. The recognition comes fast, but I am always disturbed by the feeling that the sound was there before I heard it. This effect is universal with humans. Its cause is unknown, but perhaps resides in the ultrasonic portion of the sound.
Experiments with rats suggest another explanation. These experiments showed that sounds which provoke a reaction of fear in rats take an unusual route through the nervous system. Instead of traveling to the part of the brain that normally interprets sound, the neural message of the fear-producing sound goes directly to the limbic system. Thus, the rat reacts with fear quickly, presumably before he knows what he’s reacting to. In these particular experiments, the fear response was learned—the experimenters taught the rats to associate a tone with an electric shock. The human reaction to the rattlesnake’s buzz does not have to be learned. People who have never seen a rattlesnake get the same tickling sensation in the back of the neck on first hearing the buzz. The reaction occurs when the buzz is used in recorded music and isn’t even consciously recognized. This reaction suggests that our fear of the rattler is instinctive, perhaps ingrained through long generations of human, and prehuman, danger. However, the human race came to the Americas, where rattlesnakes are found, only about ten thousand years ago. It may be that the fear reaction is even more universal than it first appears, a fundamental aspect of having a mammalian nervous system.
Add to the snakes’ own artistry our fear of anything different—the snake eats and makes love and shelters himself from the cold like we do, but he moves without legs, like something purely hungry, purely sexual. My accountant and I were swapping rattlesnake stories one afternoon, and I mentioned the idea that we hate and fear them by instinct.
“Ever since the Garden,” he said.
Venom makes its user a specialist. Whereas more primitive snakes simply swallow prey, or else suffocate it by constriction, venomous snakes have the option of delivering a killing strike and then allowing their prey to die before moving in for a meal. This tactic spares them some of the danger involved in overpowering prey; living prey can bite and claw.
The venomous bite has evolved independently in many different animals, from octopi to shrews. It even evolved independently in different types of snakes. No one knows exactly how it came about in rattlesnakes, but some clues can be found in the behavior of the monitor lizards.
The monitors constitute the lizard family most closely related to snakes. This relationship is not hard to spot once you’ve seen a large monitor move: it walks on legs, but with an ophidian essing of the body. In the largest monitor, the Komodo dragon, the males engage in courtship battles similar to those of rattlesnakes, rising into the air as they push against each other in a sort of sumo match. And, most snakelike of all, the Komodo dragon smells by constantly lashing the air with its forked, black tongue.
The big lizard (up to about ten feet and three hundred pounds) can find fresh carrion more than a mile away by scent. Its sense of smell is, in fact, more acute than that of a bloodhound, which itself can seem almost supernatural to us. But the dragon doesn’t restrict its diet to carrion; it also actively hunts, and its predatory technique is strikingly similar to that of the rattlesnake. The dragon rushes the prey—which can be something as large as a pig, a deer, or a human child—and delivers a toothy bite. Then it allows the prey to escape, and tracks it by scent. The dragon has no venom; the tactic works because of the festering meat between the reptile’s teeth, which makes the bite septic. In the hot, humid tropics, a septic bite can kill a big animal in a couple of hours.
The rattlesnake’s venom may be a refinement of a septic-bite tactic, which both the monitors and the rattlesnake’s ancestors might have developed to complement their extraordinary smelling abilities—an example of convergent evolution. Killing by septic bite is also a feline tactic. The lynx uses it on young caribou. Many people mauled by lions have died from wounds that should have been survivable: the meat caked under the attackers’ claws and teeth injected the victims with disease, and they died in a gangrenous fever.
Evolutionary theory suggests that the rattlesnake’s venom would improve its chances of survival. Reality, however, proves more complicated than theory. While the venom enhances the rattler’s success as a hunter, it also creates unique survival problems.
In the American Southwest, there’s a tradition of killing rattlesnakes as a point of etiquette. It goes back at least to the middle of the nineteenth century. The idea was to kill any rattler you found, even if it wasn’t threatening you, so that it couldn’t bite somebody else another day. Farmers and cowboys would decapitate rattlesnakes with a whip or a lariat, striking from a safe distance. Nowadays people more often kill rattlers by running over them on the road.
Rattlesnake hunts or roundups are a ritualized, and commercialized, version of this old custom. Roundups reportedly began as a way for farmers to make their fields safer to work in. The tradition began in colonial times, with an entire community setting aside a day to catch or kill every rattlesnake they could. The snakes gathered were boiled to produce snake oil, one of the infamous “medicines” sold by traveling hucksters. The Okeene, Oklahoma, chamber of commerce boasts the first roundup in the modern sense; essentially, it’s a tourist attraction. Okeene and other towns, like Sharon Springs, Kansas, and Sweetwater, Texas, hold annual festivals featuring such amusements as measure-offs, cookouts, bagging competitions, flea markets, dancing shows, carnivals, and exhibitions of bravery such as people sleeping in snake cages. There’s something archetypal in these events: they’re like pagan celebrations of spring. In one town the roundup is always scheduled to follow Easter by a week.
There are no festivals for nonvenomous snakes, and no point of etiquette in killing them. The rattlesnake’s venom makes it a target for predators—in this case, humans.
Recall the smell of a restaurant that serves fresh lobster but isn’t scrupulous about cleaning the lobster tank. Now, in your imagination, dry this smell out, and spice it with the dried rust of old water pipes. For the sound, imagine being in a shower, the water pressure rising and falling erratically.
This is the Rattlesnake Pit.
The so-called pit is not underground. It is a fence of welded iron and lumber set on the cement floor of a community building in Waynoka, Oklahoma, where the roundup is under way. The fence is five feet high and runs about twenty feet by ten, and inside it at this moment are 203 rattlesnakes. Two men work the pit. They use metal rods to unstack the snakes in the corners, where they tend to accumulate. Unstacking is necessary because even though these snakes can’t climb a smooth five-foot perpendicular, they might be able to use each other’s bodies as steps to shorten that distance.
The pit contains prairie rattlers and Western diamondbacks. Each year the longest prairie rattler caught in this roundup runs about four and a half feet, and none of the prairie rattlers in the pit is up to that mark. They are slender, though their girth increases slightly from neck to near the tail. The longest diamondbacks listed in the roundup records exceed seven feet. Of the ones in the pit, only a few approach six feet. The hunters keep their best catches of both species until the measure-off; the pit is full of their rejects.
One of the men in the pit, a powerfully built, sloping three-hundred-pounder, uses a special metal rod—a snake hook—to pin the head of a big diamondback to the cement floor. He seizes the snake, index finger atop the head, thumb opposing the other fingers at the sides of its neck, and picks it up. He brings it around to show everybody, face to face. People are packed two or three deep around the pit, children holding each other up to see, men suddenly pinching women from behind to make them think they’ve been bitten, the mass of people smelling of whiskey and cotton candy and sweat and Marlboros—but the snakes smell stronger.
The handler holds the snake’s open mouth two inches from my camera lens. The hooked fangs drip venom that looks like cloudy white wine. The smaller teeth that lie in paired stripes on top and bottom are not visible; all I can see of them is the holes through which they have retracted. The holes are swollen and red, probably from the handler’s having pushed the snake’s head against the floor to catch him.
“How many times you been bit?” a spectator asks.
“A few,” the big handler says.
He deflects most of the questions in this way until someone says, “Are you ever afraid one of ’em will reach up and bite you in the balls?” Then he becomes animated.
“Only me and the gal that does my laundry know how much.”
The other handler comes by a little later, kicking a pile of snakes out of the corner. They flare up at him, raising their heads shaped like the spades on poker cards, pulling back along the looped lengths of their own bodies to strike, their noise increasing as the hiss of a fire does when you throw on gasoline. The man is wearing heavy boots, and most of the strikes bounce off. One big diamondback hangs a fang in the man’s jeans, and man and snake have to wrestle a moment to be free of each other. Later, another snake strikes the man’s boot and leaves a half-teaspoon of venom on the scuffed leather. “He was pumped up, wasn’t he?” the man says.
A third handler enters the pit. He catches a six-foot diamondback and holds it by the tail; it lifts its head, making its body a parabola. Its black forked tongue flits and gleams. The handler gives it to a girl perhaps ten years old standing outside the pit. She holds it by the tail for a minute before handing it back. Now everyone is reaching for it. The handler shows them how to grasp it—thumb up, rattle up, at arm’s length, so that the snake can’t double himself against gravity and score a bite. “He’s heavy,” a woman says. The handler takes the snake back and considers.
“About a seventeen-pounder,” he says.
At the other side of the pit a man appears with a gunnysack. A handler lifts diamondbacks into the sack with a snake hook. The man with the sack goes to a back room. I follow for the butchering.
The contents of the gunnysack are dumped into a fifty-five-gallon barrel, which echoes metallically with the buzzing of the snakes. One man uses a mechanical grabber to seize a diamondback by the head. He holds the head down on the chopping block, never letting his artificial grip loosen.
A second man grabs the tail with his bare hands. They straighten the snake, which fights them. They slap at its curves to make it relax. A third man measures about six inches back from the head and slams his hatchet home. The snake writhes, both its neck and its headless body twisting. The man with the grabber drops the head into a green plastic bucket already half full of heads. The hatchet man points the wounded body into a barrel to let it bleed out. The blood stops in less than a minute.
The hatchet man sets down his hatchet and takes up a filleting knife that hangs from a chain attached to his belt loop. After slapping the headless, twisting body into submission again, he makes one long incision from the neck wound to the vent. He peels the skin back from the neck; it comes off easily, like the skin of a banana. He stops skinning at the tail and chops; the tail and skin go into another bucket. He reaches into the long incision he has made and pulls out the organs, along with a string of yellow globules of fat. They are all neatly contained in a membrane that pulls out easily.
What’s left is a long sleeve of muscle and bone. It still writhes a little. A woman takes the sleeve and puts it into a sink full of soapy water. Its writhing accelerates until it is rising out of the sink in great hoops. The woman seems unperturbed. She washes the outside and the empty body cavity and then sets the sleeve in a sink of rinse water.
Another team takes it from there. They stretch it out on a marble-topped table and use a meat cleaver to cut it into fist-sized chunks.
Volunteers sell the meat in plastic bags, ten dollars a pound. The other parts go to an artisan in Colorado who will freeze-dry the heads to sell as novelties. The rattles will become key chains and such. The skin he tans and uses for hatbands and belts and wallets. The leather is delicate, grained with scales the shape of sunflower seeds, and far less practical than the kind made from the hides of cattle. It is only the snake’s reputation as a killer that creates a demand for its body parts.
Similarly, people eat rattlesnake meat because the creature has such a glamour about it, such a reputation for dealing death. The meat is expensive and not especially easy to get, yet it attracts people who would not care for other high-priced foods—snails, for example, or ostrich.
I myself have eaten rattlesnake. I bought a couple of pounds at the Waynoka roundup. A rattlesnake hunter from Texas told me the best way to cook rattlesnake meat is to brush it with lemon and butter and grill it, though people more commonly bread it and panfry it. This enthusiastic snake-eater said the taste had “a wild richness.” An acquaintance who grew up in Waynoka told me how he had been “uninvited” to a neighbor’s barbecue after he announced his intention to bring rattlesnake. This gentleman described the taste as resembling that of breast of chicken, but I put little stock in this claim, since I have heard every meat from frog to alligator similarly described. I have eaten frog, alligator, and a number of other supposed chicken substitutes, and none of them impressed me as particularly chicken-like.
Following the Texan’s recipe, I basted the rattlesnake meat and put it on the grill. Thirty seconds later each chunk of meat had shriveled to the size of a silver dollar and was the texture of a steel-belted radial.
“They look like little vampire bats,” my wife, Tracy, said. She was right. I tied one to a string and caused it to fly around the backyard while I made squeaking noises. My son, who had just turned one, thought it was funny, but Tracy gave me one of her patented see-what-I-have-to-put-up-with looks. Then she put some chicken on to grill.
“Surely you’re not giving up on the snake yet?” I said.
“There’s no meat on your bats,” she said. She was right again. Each little bat consisted of many tiny ribs. Between any two ribs there was about enough meat to make a mouse need a toothpick.
Nevertheless, I set about eating. The taste wasn’t bad—something like gamey, dark turkey meat, and, to be honest, a little like chicken—but I nearly starved trying to get the meat off the bone. After the meal, I phoned the Texan.
“What sort of scam are you trying to run?” I asked him tactfully.
“It always worked for me,” he said, as if he’d done nothing wrong.
Despite my disappointment with my own culinary skills, eating the rattlesnake gave me a deep satisfaction. The taste was not the point, just as a human cannibal’s point in eating his enemy’s heart is not gustatory pleasure. It is the devouring of death that matters. It is a communion.
Rattlesnakes live in a world of vibration and scent and subtleties of heat. Dogs live in a world that’s largely scent and high sound. Somewhere in that system of senses beyond our experience, a dialogue of hatred transpires.
When I was a child my grandparents had a German shepherd. I saw her one day moping around the porch, her neck swollen as if with a goiter. My grandmother told me she must have fought a rattlesnake. That’s the first I knew of the ancestral feud.
One morning our own dog, a miniature bloodhound, lay under the air conditioner. He had arranged straw and an old blanket into a sow’s nest in the dirt, as if he expected to be laid up awhile. He growled when anyone approached. He had never growled at us that way before, with that tone of serious business. He lay there for two days, and the bowls of milk and water we set at a safe distance went untouched. They were cold, drizzling days, and the air on his side of the house smelled like soggy toast and sickness. My mother spoke to us gently, making implications I didn’t want to hear.
On the third morning he was up and surly, snapping at the other dogs, licking weakly at a pan of gelid milk. Loose skin sagged at his throat, the only remnant of the throat-constricting bloat I had never quite glimpsed. I had only heard my father tell my mother about it.
I assumed the dogs must have been taken by surprise, but that’s not how it works. Dogs like to hunt rattlesnakes. They detect the scent easily. There’s a confrontation—even cowardly dogs seem to lose all sense in their hatred of the rattlesnake. As the snake becomes more agitated, so does the dog. I suspect the sound produced by the snake’s rattle, which affects people so profoundly, does the same to dogs. Or maybe it’s the stink of the rattler. Some claim the smell can make a human dizzy.
If a dog gets his jaws around a rattler, the rattler is doomed: the dog whips its head side to side, snapping the snake’s spine, and doesn’t stop until the snake lies in pieces. (Alligators kill rattlesnakes by the same method, which they use only on venomous snakes—the others they simply swallow.)
Dogs lead with their snouts, so they almost always get bitten somewhere on the front end. Some die of the bite, though in general dogs are fairly resistant. Some dogs hunt a rattlesnake, once scented, to the exclusion of everything else. One farmer claimed he could tell from a distance when his dog tangled with a rattlesnake by its tone of voice.
Dogs become more efficient at hunting rattlers through experience, and experience involves bites. The canines develop immunity to the venom, and some old dogs hardly notice another rattler bite. The first bite makes the dog, which innately dislikes rattlers, hate and actively hunt them. Maybe the nasty near-death experience amplifies their hatred, or maybe they somehow know they’ve been immunized and can indulge their passion freely.
Estimates of the rattler’s size ranged from eighteen inches to four feet. Personally, I put it near the smaller end. The question is not trivial. My boots are thirteen inches high—I measured them afterwards—and knowing the snake’s length would theoretically have allowed me to judge how close I could get, because rattlesnakes are said to have a strike less than half a body-length. As it was, I chose to keep a good distance, and my wife said later that while I was at work with the shovel, I formed an arch like a pole vaulter in midleap.
We were inside the trailer house when the dog raised the alarm. Jody, my brother-in-law, opened the front door to investigate. I was sitting at the kitchen table in front of the swamp cooler with a glass of iced tea and couldn’t see outside, but I didn’t have to. I heard the buzz.
“Another one,” Jody said. “Well, hell.”
“He hates those rattlers,” Corey said.
I asked if she thought her husband would take offense at an offer of help. She thought he’d be grateful.
I asked Jody for a shovel. He brought one for himself as well. Everyone else stayed in the trailer.
The prairie rattler was a good twenty feet from the door, but its buzzing was audible over the dog’s barking. The dog, a young chow, worked a circle just beyond striking range. The snake coiled back and back on itself, its head leveled for a strike, its tail shivering too fast to be visible.
Jody and I approached from opposite sides. The dog fell in behind me and kept barking. No matter which way the snake and I moved, the dog’s nose remained pointed to the true-north of the rattler.
I planted the shovel blade in front of the snake. Sometimes a rattler will stand still when faced with a shovel blade. If the metal is cold, it confuses him—he senses it as something moving but too cool to be alive. I know a man who collects live specimens by employing this fact. He puts a shovel in front of the snake, and while it pauses to “look” with its heat sensors, he walks up behind the rattler and picks it up by the back of the head.
But this day was well over a hundred degrees, and I guess nothing read “cold.” The rattler lunged up the shovel blade, and kept trying to climb it as I wagged it from side to side. It was zigzagging, but its movements looked like those of rapid water. It could have climbed the shovel easily if I’d held it still. Instead, I flicked the snake back and slammed the blade down on it. The stroke wasn’t clean, but it was the best I could do with a rattler stirred to such speed. The rattler rolled over twice around the wound, which cut across two of its coils. I saw the white flash of its belly, then the dusty gold and chocolate of its back, then both again in quick succession. The buzzing didn’t stop.
All that movement happened in a second or so. I planted another blow, and this time, with the snake wounded, my aim was better, the blow severing the head cleanly. The buzzing stopped, then started again in a muted way, as if the tail had plunged under water. The body whipped once, then straightened out; the muscles still moved, but forward, in a sort of peristalsis. I drove the shovel blade into the ground with my boot to make the decapitation sure. The buzzing gave a few stops and starts—and then the tail stilled. The dog leaped forward, bit the snake near the middle, and slung the body side to side.
The dog carried the body off somewhere. I took the rattle. Jody buried the head to prevent anyone’s stepping on a fang.
That was the third rattler they’d seen around the trailer. A couple of days after we killed it, Jody and I walked through the tousled grass behind the trailer, talking out the problem.
A small frame house had stood in what was now the front yard. The house had stood empty for twenty years before Jody had had it bulldozed into its own cellar. It was completely invisible under the yard, which Jody and I had tilled and planted with grass seed. Occasionally as we tilled we found an old shingle or a shard of window glass. The only outbuilding left was a barn. There had been no cellar to push the barn into; the workers had simply knocked it over. It lay in untidy piles in what Jody and his family had designated the backyard, its wood weathered past any trace of paint. Yellow grass jutted between the boards. Three parched elms, leaning with the course of fifty years’ wind, stood around the pile. They were the only trees within eyes’ reach.
The fallen barn was clearly the source of the snake problem. It was good shelter, inaccessible to hawks and dogs. I poked around it. In places the dirt gave way beneath my boots; the bulldozer had leveled the ground but left hollows just beneath the surface. Once I dropped about a foot. The crater I had discovered was a sort of cave extending at least six feet to the side. I scrambled out, fearing the cave was a rattlesnake den. There was a jumble of pipes in it that neither of us could explain, and a mass of concrete that must have been part of the old house’s foundation, but no sign of rattlesnake.
I went farther into the rubble. Jody’s two-year-old son followed me. When I realized he had come along, I said, “Go back to the house—there may be snakes in here.” I hadn’t finished my sentence before I heard a buzz like the shivering of icy leaves.
“Get back,” I said to the boy, in a tone I hoped would discourage any questions.
“Why?” he said.
Jody came running. He had heard the buzz. He scooped up the boy and ran him to the trailer.
“Bring a shovel when you come back,” I said.
So far I hadn’t seen the rattler—I had only heard it. Now the buzzing stopped and I glimpsed movement. A fallen outer wall of the barn lay six feet to my right, and a thin snake was fleeing along its siding, smooth as oiled rope through a pulley. Its hide had the faded look of the prairie rattler, the yellow of old documents patterned with the brown of old saddle leather. Its head slipped into a hole in the wood, and the body glided after it without any break in its rhythm.
I had lost time seeing to the boy. My chances of killing the snake were slim. I saw one opportunity: the board the snake had slipped under looked loose. I kicked it. The bent nails that held it creaked and the board flew off.
The snake was holding the same straight line it had been following on top of the wall. A man who drives a ditcher once told me of following a rattler in a new ditch. The man had dug the first pass and needed to make a second pass to deepen the ditch. He saw the snake crawl into the ditch behind him on the first pass; when he turned around to make the second pass, the snake fled along the ditch for dozens of yards before being flung by the ditcher. It could have saved itself by crawling out of the ditch. They are like water: path of least resistance. They don’t see things schematically, from above, as we erect primates do.
My snake was already halfway under another board. Its rear half was exposed. If I had had a shovel, I could have delivered a deathblow with little danger to myself. As it was, my only chance of killing it was to grab the thing in the second before it made cover. The only safe way to hold a rattler is by the back of its head, but if I could grab this one by the tail and throw it onto open ground, I might be able to block its escape until a weapon came to hand.
I reached for it—and glimpsed something disturbing. I hesitated, and the snake escaped.
I had glimpsed a tangle of spiderweb. It glimmered in the shadow of a board as the snake brushed by. I had seen only that glimmer, but it was enough to suggest the shape. It was a black widow’s web.
Jody returned with a pair of shovels. “How about a jar?” I said.
“You’re not going to fit that snake in a jar,” he said.
After I had explained the new development, Jody procured a Miracle Whip jar. I looked around thoroughly to make sure no snakes were likely to bite me while I knelt over the widow’s web. The web ran in a sloppy weave along a board. Beneath it I saw the glinting black shell and pincers of a carabid beetle; it must have been a massive specimen, at least two inches long. The other insect husks, covered in mold and old web, were harder to identify.
The web twisted into a kind of funnel which angled under the board. Because of the turmoil the snake and I had produced, the spider was almost certain to be hiding in its funnellike retreat. I turned the board and slapped the jar over the funnel. A flick of a twig knocked the spider into the jar.
It was a mature female. Despite its dirty surroundings, it gleamed a clean black. I put the lid on the jar. The widow scratched frantically at the glass, but couldn’t climb it.
In the widow’s web hung a marble-sized ball of silk, its texture like linen. It was an egg sac, and in the side of it was a pinpoint hole through which the spiderlings had already escaped. The egg sac suggested the possibility that young widows might be scattered throughout the woodpile. I stood and thought about the situation while Jody went for the dog. I hated to let the snake go; it was too close to the trailer for safety. I also hated the idea of digging through the wood; I’d be in constant danger from black widows and rattlers both. The black widow has a more dangerous venom than any rattlesnake ounce-for-ounce, but the rattler deals in greater volume. Both venoms are less dangerous to dogs than to humans.
Jody brought the red-blond chow from her pen. Her black ears had serrated edges where they had been fly-bitten. She barked wildly at the woodpile. She had caught the snake’s scent. I could smell it too, a clammy, nauseous taint in the air. She went to a spot in the middle of the fallen wall and tried to dig, her claws rebounding from the wood. She didn’t make a dent, but she kept digging. I came over to stand on the spot; she backed off to let me have my turn. I stomped on the boards. After five or six tries, my boot broke through to dirt. I stepped away quickly. The dog plunged in, weaseling through the hole I had made and digging at the ground. Dirt flew out along her red flanks. Her barks turned to growls. She had something.
She came out of the hole tossing her head from side to side, the snake swinging in her mouth—but it wasn’t the snake. It was only his old skin.
The next afternoon was 110 degrees. It was lousy weather for a snake hunt; no snake would be out in such heat. It would be deep beneath the old wood until dusk, pouring its excess heat into the cool dirt. But this was the only time I had, and I went at the pile with an axe Corey found for me. I meant to chop through the wood and stir something up.
I brought the dog with me. She barked at the smell of the place and scratched at the hole where she’d dug out the old skin. She dug at the loose boards where I had seen the snake the night before. I worked with the axe, but it was dull. I didn’t get far before the heat wore me down. I stood in the hot wind with red wasps buzzing around my face and the dry grass hissing—it sounded a little like a rattler’s buzz, and I confess I had stopped in my chopping several times to make sure of the sound.
I couldn’t do much more. It was time for drastic measures.
The bulldozer returned to push the wood and its tangle of grass away from the trailer. It gouged a hollow near the old house’s grave, and then scraped the hollow again, pass after pass, and soon the hole was deep enough to hold the barn. The dozer left the land smooth, and where the old farmhouse and its outbuildings had stood for seventy years, there stood only a trailer house and a patch of newly sprouted grass.
A couple of weeks after the bulldozing, a man from the county came to tell Jody and Corey to be on the lookout for snakes. The county workers were mowing the ditches of the dirt road near their house, and whatever wildlife lived in the ditch might show up at the trailer. But the family saw nothing unusual.
Driving away from their place one hot evening, I spotted a rattler on the road, recently dead from a sharp wound, maybe the slash of a mower blade. Sun and rot had not yet made it swell. I took the head and the rattle.
You’ve had nightmares like this. Everything is normal except for one detail, preposterously wrong, and no one else is there to notice that vulgar disproportion, that dangerous but unspoken violation. The young man was looking across a long stretch of ground at three horses watering at a trough. Two of them seemed themselves, and the third had an enormous head. The young man stared, trying to see things in some different way that would make some sense of the scene.
He approached the horses. He had worked with all of them, and they hardly stirred at his approach. The two buckskins drank, water rattling off their tongues. The big palomino mare turned her rich brown eyes on him, but they were no longer horse’s eyes. They were bulging and weeping blood. Her head was twice the size it should have been, and furrows of creased flesh showed where a halter should have been. Her breath was coming hard.
The man touched the horse’s face. He should have felt the firm bone beneath the felt hide, but her muzzle was softer, like a bag of water. He ran his fingers into the furrows and found the straps of the halter buried there. He fumbled to unbuckle the halter, his every tug on the straps causing a catch in the mare’s breath. Finally he took out his knife and cut the halter free. The mare breathed easier and plodded to the trough.
He’d seen the two punctures just above her nose. They told him everything: a patch of grass or weeds, a warning buzz, a young grazing horse too curious to heed it.
Scientists think the rattle evolved as a way to warn off hoofed animals that might accidentally trample the snake. Horses seem to understand the message, at least when they’re older and experienced on open range. They usually shy from the sound.
But there’s more to the story. Observers have seen horses go out of their way to trample rattlesnakes. Other hoofed herbivores—pronghorn antelope, deer, cattle, sheep, goats—also actively attack rattlesnakes. One deer was spotted jumping up and down on a rattler for half an hour. No other small animal gets this kind of treatment from the hoofed contingent. Why do large herbivores attack this particular snake? Maybe they, like some people, want to kill the snake while it’s in the open and the odds are good, somehow knowing they may meet it under worse circumstances another day if the snake escapes. The rattlesnake’s venom, a prime predatory asset, brings down its doom.
A man rode over grassy pasture toward a stand of oaks, where he hoped to have his lunch in shade. He noticed a bird weaving among the trees while he was still a mile away.
He thought the bird’s odd flight might make more sense as he got closer. Rushing up from somewhere near the ground, spewing some raucous invective he’d never heard from an avian throat, turning up rapidly and then spinning into a kamikaze dive, the bird was so thoroughly occupied that it didn’t react to the man’s approach.
When he was within the shade of the oaks, the man smelled rattlesnake. His horse shied a bit. The snake was moving out of the grove, rattling sporadically. The bird, rain-cloud gray with bursts of white, was dive-bombing the rattler. The man looked carefully—as carefully as he could without dismounting. The snake was wounded around the neck, and its bloody face was eyeless. The bird visited a nest in one of the trees, then dove again: a rush of threatening screams that only a mockingbird could make, a rising buzz, and then the bird rose, the whole pass too fast for the man to see what exactly the bird had done. The snake must long since have given up trying to strike the faster bird. He simply dragged his ragged, dying body toward the tall grass.
Mockingbirds are territorial, and will attack even people and dogs that venture near their nests. They’ve been known to keep after a rattlesnake for an hour. They don’t relent even when the snake leaves their territory; they follow and perform an execution.
This all depends on the bird’s detecting the snake. Things can go the other way if the snake gets in the first shot. Rattlesnakes have been found in the nests of mockingbirds, eating every last egg.
The extravagant violence between reptile and bird makes a more obvious kind of sense than the preemptive killings by hoof. Rattlesnake and mockingbird are natural enemies whose relation hinges on predation, the snake trying to eat the bird’s young, the bird getting nasty at first sight of the snake.
If the mockingbird reacts to the rattlesnake with violence born of fear, several other birds react to it with fearless hunger.
The golden eagle plucks a rattler from a vast expanse of wind-rippled grass. You see the silhouette rise into the sky: the bird’s wings slapping the air like sheets on the line, the snake twisting and knotting in the rugged talons that have already dealt him fatal wounds. Sometimes the snake manages to reach the eagle with a fatal strike as they struggle high in the air.
The rattler is lethal at one end and scary at the other, but in between it’s a tube of protein irresistible to many predators. Hawks and owls take rattlers, but so do some less obvious avian predators, like wild turkeys and domestic chickens. The tough, scaly legs common in birds give them an edge over snakes. The roadrunner specializes in rattlers and never seems to get bitten.
Other rattlesnake predators include domestic cats and pigs, skunks, badgers, bobcats, coyotes, foxes, and other snakes. Some kinds of kingsnake live mainly on rattlers, which they kill by constriction and swallow whole. There’s a beautiful iridescent pink snake with a texture like braided rawhide that hunts by sight, rearing up and looking around for prey. It’s called the coachwhip, and it often eats rattlesnakes.
Whatever advantages the rattler’s venom may provide, they don’t include freedom from predation. To some animals, the rattler is only a potential meal; to an astounding number of others, it is something so fearsome it must be either fled from—or killed on sight. No other animal provokes such visceral reactions from other species.
A couple rented a building for their motorcycle accessory business. The poured cement floor of the old building was divided into neat islands full of chrome and leather. Several months after the shop opened, the weather turned cool and the trouble started.
The woman was sitting at the desk doing paperwork when she heard a sound she described as “someone turning on a shower.” She pushed away from the desk, her swivel chair shooting back on its rollers. In the instant of moving she looked down to see the rattlesnake’s strike in a blur. The strike fell short of her retreating leg. About an inch short.
The woman ran for her baseball bat. She claims the rattler then became the recipient of a twenty-minute batting practice from which it did not emerge alive.
Up to this point, her experience was not unusual. Rattlesnakes do occasionally come into buildings for warmth. For example, some friends of mine had a house in the country. They came home one evening to find a sizable rattler coiled beside the washing machine in the utility room. The gentleman of the house prodded the intruder outside with a broom before demolishing it with buckshot. My friends had a situation ideal for drawing rattlesnakes. The utility room was flush with the ground. It had, besides the usual warmth of a human habitation, heat-producing machines (washer, dryer, and water heater) that would have been “visible” to the heat sense of a rattlesnake at night. And its floor was cement.
A surface of cement might as well be a rock for the rattlesnake’s purposes. Like flat rocks, cement surfaces soak up the heat of direct sunlight and pour that heat back into the air at night. Rattlesnakes use such surfaces to control their own body temperature. For example, a rattler emerging from his hiding place at dusk may lie on a radiating rock to get his blood warm for the hunt.
To my friends, the cement floor in their utility room was a clear indicator of a human territory. In fact, they seemed to consider the rattlesnake’s trespass not merely a danger but an insult. The snake, however, probably wasn’t even aware it would encounter humans, if in fact it had any concept of humans. It simply got cold and followed the heat across a surface that seemed natural enough and easy to move on. It must have had to squeeze through a crack or under the door, but snakes are good at that.
This problem, disconcerting as it was for my friends, was minor compared to the difficulties encountered by the couple at the motorcycle accessory shop. The day after the close call with the rattlesnake, they discovered a garter snake in the building. The following day brought a kingsnake, and the day after that a bull snake. When I came to visit the shop, no one was there. The cement floor of the building was flush with the ground, and there were several holes in the surrounding earth. A sign on the door read CLOSED DUE TO SNAKES. When I contacted the proprietors, they seemed ashamed, as if they had been publicly exposed as lepers. They found a new building for their business.
The low cement floor had allowed a few snakes to get inside, but the indoors wasn’t their destination. What drew them in the first place was surely the presence of an ancestral den beneath the building’s foundation.
When a rattlesnake eats another animal, he eats it all— not just the muscle tissue and organs, but also the bones and fur or feathers. Each prey item he takes is likely to be huge in proportion to his own weight: a four-pound snake eats a two-pound rabbit as readily as a man eats a quarter-pound hamburger. Once he’s converted the meal to energy, the snake doesn’t spend that energy keeping his body temperature constant, as we mammals do. All of this means the snake can stretch its meals a long way. In a laboratory experiment, one rattler survived a year between meals.
Rattlesnakes adapt to different climates by exploiting this ability. They operate most efficiently in a hot climate, producing abundant venom and hunting year-round, but they can endure winters by simply crawling into holes and hibernating. These hibernating places are dens. The difference between a den and a temporary shelter used in spring and summer is that a den houses an entire congregation of snakes. Denning is the weirdest thing about rattlesnakes. Hibernation doesn’t fully explain it, but it’s a place to start.
A den can be any cavity—a sinkhole, a cave, a man-made well. Heat helps determine the site. Dens are near flat rocks, ledges, or open ground; rattlesnakes coming out of hibernation need to bask in sun. In the North, dens turn up in the crevices of south-facing slopes— southern exposures get more sun. In the South, where winters are mild, a dip in the ground will do. A friend of mine was reminded of this fact one day while he was hunting. He stepped over a fallen tree onto what he thought was solid ground. It was actually only a tangle of twigs and leaves that covered a waist-high depression. When he fell in, he heard the sibilant greeting of many rattlers. He quickly arranged to view them from a distance.
In Texas County, Oklahoma, where I live, the land is mostly flat and free of holes and cracks. The prairie rattlers here use the only available holes, the same ones they use in the active season: prairie dog burrows. One particular prairie dog town in this county extends for something like three square miles, and some of the burrows there house several dozen rattlers each in the winter.
The scarcity of holes in this landscape has an odd side effect: the group hibernation of natural enemies. The rattler sleeps with the bull snake and the blue racer, species that in their active phases prey on rattlesnakes, killing them by constriction or simply seizing them by the head and swallowing. The prairie dog and the pack rat, perennial victims of snakes, nestle into ophidian masses for the winter. The rattler lies down with its own predators, the badger and the fox.
A few hours east of here, there’s a country of red earth dominated by mesas. Centuries of rain have carved arroyos down the sides of the mesas. That’s where the Western diamondbacks live, in those red ravines: the country with bigger caves has bigger snakes.
Denning in numbers helps conserve body heat. The rattlers need to hold a little warmth even when the ground is frozen deep. You can find dens along creek beds where leaves accumulate and rot in the cave-pocked banks, the heat of decomposition warming the snakes. My father worked in a feedlot, where thousands of fattening cattle were packed into pens, eating from a trough, the ground beneath them covered in their own manure. The dung would build into great hills; I often saw mounds taller than the fences. My dad’s job was to whittle down these hills with a front-end loader. He unearthed tangles of snakes beneath the dung: bull snakes, blue racers, and prairie rattlers basking in the subtle rot-heat. Once he dug up a globular snake-mass a foot and a half thick.
In north Texas a house had stood vacant in the country for years, and when electricians showed up one day to reclaim it for human use, they found it claimed for denning. The men killed eighty snakes and stacked them like dirty laundry.
After a winter in the den, each snake goes its own way to hunt and maybe mate. A rattlesnake returns to its original den with the coming of cold weather. Newborn rattlesnakes winter in their mothers’ dens. These young snakes have never been there before, but somehow they find their way to the ancestral den. How they do this, and how adults find their way back, is a mystery. Rattlesnakes may navigate by the sun, or they may memorize the way landmarks look to their heat-sense, but these mechanisms don’t explain how the young find a place they’ve never been. One researcher who had spent a great deal of time tracking rattlers, even cutting into the bellies of some to plant radio transmitters before sewing them up and releasing them, threw up his hands and blamed “instinct.”
Another theory is that the young track the adults to the den by scent. In laboratory tests, young rattlesnakes followed the paths of adults in simple mazes. Whether scent is involved in the wild, no one knows. The young rattlers may be miles from the den and may not have seen their mother for months; if they track only by scent under these circumstances, it’s an astounding feat.
But the chemical senses of the rattlesnake are so much better than ours that our idea of smelling is a shadow of theirs; we are like congenitally blind people who see only vague masses of gray and light and cannot grasp a sighted person’s feelings toward blood, diamonds, autumn, and Renoir. The rattlesnake can identify the scent of any of his den mates as family. With dozens or hundreds or thousands of summer-wandering snakes trailing the taste of home, the young rattlesnake perceives a world reticulated with traceable connections, a network that reads as clear as the spider’s web does to the touch of its maker or a system of highways does to a human.
When rattlesnakes convene for denning, they first form a bolus—a ball-shaped cluster, like a collection of rubber bands. Every member of the bolus keeps moving, the pulsing amalgam growing as more snakes arrive. One man peered into a cave and saw a bolus more than four feet thick. There are bigger claims, too, if you want to believe them.
Writer J. Frank Dobie reported the story of a hired man sent to bring in two grazing mules. The man’s boss heard a scream, and then a fainter one. He found the body in a gully amid hundreds of rattlers. The snakes were forming a bolus. The man, who must have stepped into the gully without looking, was already dead.
A bolus soon breaks up, and the snakes enter the den. They may form the bolus as a ritual of recognition. Or maybe it has some obscure connection to mating. Or maybe it’s a way of scent-marking each other to help with next year’s den-finding. Nobody really knows.
The number of snakes in a den varies with species, climate, and predation. Some dens contain only three or four rattlers. And then there are the big ones.
My friend Michael Gabriel was hunting dove with a friend on a ranch in the Texas Panhandle. Gabriel had a bird in sight. It was flitting between a low cottonwood branch and the edge of a puddle. It was close enough for Gabriel to see the plump muscles of its gray-brown breast. He was moving closer, trying to be unobtrusive. He could hear the bubbling coo of the dove—and then, cutting through that smooth sound, the buzz of a rattlesnake.
He looked around until he spotted the diamondback lying on the ground three yards away, a safe enough distance for him to stay and watch. The other hunter, having heard the buzz, cautiously joined him. The snake had stopped rattling. It crawled off at a leisurely pace, though not exactly away from the men; instead it was heading toward a nearby tailwater pit. It buzzed again, as if in afterthought.
Behind the hunters, another buzz answered. They looked around, more concerned this time. They spotted the new rattler, and as they kept glancing around they noticed other rattlesnakes, invisible to the casual glance, but suddenly popping out of the landscape. There were about a dozen in sight, and they stirred and moved, all of them headed for the big tailwater pit. The air was suddenly tainted with their thick smell. Two doves burst from a cottonwood and flew low, crossing the evening sun.
The hunters watched the snakes move onto a dam that formed one wall of the tailwater pit. They began to disappear into holes in the dam. That’s when Gabriel spotted an enormous diamondback, which he later described as the biggest he’d ever seen.
That remark means something. Gabriel, as it happens, is a lover of rattlesnakes. He used to have a side business catching rattlesnakes and selling them to a restaurant, a whitewashed cinderblock place that usually served burgers and chicken-fried steaks. But in the summer, one night a week, was an all-you-can-eat rattlesnake buffet.
For Gabriel, supplying the restaurant was only a way to make a few dollars out of his hobby. He had already been catching rattlers for years. He eats them, tans their hides, has a quart jar full of rattles. He guesses he’s caught a thousand or so. He worked in the oil fields for a while. The vibrations of the drilling rigs drew rattlers in, and they could be found by the dozens coiled on the shady side of a rig. When I visited his home one time, Gabriel opened his freezer to show me a few of his favorite specimens. One was a five-foot diamondback with a pale greenish hide.
You need to know how much Gabriel loves rattlesnakes to understand what happened next. The giant diamondback dashed for a hole. Gabriel grabbed it by the tail. The snake had stuck its head and part of its body into the hole, but Gabriel had a good grip on the tail. The snake was thicker than his thigh, and the part he could still see was substantially longer than his body. He’s about six feet tall.
It was a bizarre tug-of-war: the snake trying to slide into the hole, the man trying to hold it out. Gabriel had dropped his rifle to go after the snake. He called to his friend to lend a hand, but the friend only offered a candid appraisal of Gabriel’s mental health. Soon the snake outmuscled the man and slipped underground.
With the distraction of the giant gone, the two men noticed something they’d been ignoring for a few minutes. It sounded like a beehive, but louder and deeper. Gabriel had seen a dozen or so rattlers going into the same ground, so he knew there was a den somewhere in the dam, but he’d never heard such a sound before, even from a den. The men looked at the ground beneath their feet and knew it was time to leave.
The owner of the ranch where Gabriel and his friend had been hunting wanted to wipe out the den. He had livestock to lose. He poured diesel fuel into the holes in the dam—a common way of killing out a den, though it pollutes the groundwater. Usually, a few gallons of the suffocating fuel makes the snakes come raging out. The rancher had men standing around with shotguns and garden hoes to finish them when they did.
Nothing happened. The rancher poured more and more diesel in through different holes. He kept trying until he’d used 150 gallons. No one could imagine why the diesel wasn’t bringing the snakes out. The rancher had killed twenty-seven rattlesnakes on his land that summer, and he suspected a few of his cattle had gone down to rattlers. He wasn’t about to give up.
He decided to use a backhoe to open the den. The machine dug six feet before puncturing a cavern the size of a spacious living room. Dark, viscous mud, the kind called “black gumbo” in the oil fields, formed the walls. The floor was a writhing carpet of rattlesnakes, so many no one could count them or even guess their number. Diamondbacks and prairie rattlers crawled across each other’s backs. Branching from the large chamber were scores of small tunnels, and snakes moved in and out of these. Panicked by the vibrations and the flood of sunlight, the rattlesnakes set off a chorus of buzzes that drowned the noise of the backhoe. The nauseous smell of agitated rattlers bloomed in the hot air. One man claimed several of the diamondbacks in the pit dwarfed the giant Gabriel had struggled with before.
The rancher brought around a fuel truck with an electric pump. He sprayed a truckload of gasoline onto the mass of snakes, killing thousands. Hired hands burned the carcasses.
This massacre reduced the number of rattlesnakes on the ranch the next year, though a few still turned up. The tailwater pit was polluted beyond use, the run-off draining into the cavernous den. For a long time, in the evenings a strange smell hung low over the cavernful of water where oily rainbows floated. The hired hands who burned the carcasses have all gone away. The rancher and his sons have died, and only an old widow remains on the family land to remember the troubles they had with rattlesnakes.
When I was a child my father killed a rattler near our yard. He decapitated it with a hoe, and I watched it pulse for what seemed like hours. The snake, a very small one, kept twitching, even after our white leghorn hens came and started to work at it with their beaks. At dusk I came back (I was forbidden to, but I came). It was still alive enough to shrink from my touch. In the morning, it was stiff. The bubble of blood where its head had been was hard as brick.
Folklore says a decapitated rattlesnake doesn’t die until sundown. The restless one I watched as a child was no aberration; beheaded rattlers often make this lore credible. Their movements don’t really stop with the sunset; they diminish gradually, and no moment of death can be specified. But the movements clearly outlast an injury that should, according to everything we think we know, prove instantly fatal. In fact, animal life in general doesn’t end as neatly as we expect it to, but this revelation is especially disturbing in the case of the rattlesnake, partly because of the ancestral hatred and fear that cause us to try to kill it. More important, the rattlesnake, unlike other apparently dead animals, is still dangerous.
People and dogs have died from the reflexive bite of a decapitated rattlesnake’s head. The venom itself has proven potent even after twenty years of storage; dried, it remains potent for at least fifty. We approach the rattler with such an awareness of its deadly potential that its failure to die neatly becomes terrifying and must be explained, if only in the form of a convenient piece of lore that fixes the time of death.
We would like to think death is a crisp fracture: living, and then not living. In fact, there is no clear division between life and death in any animal. People sit up, fart, and twitch long after they are apparently dead, and an arcane lore of medical and legal specifications has grown up to deal with the practical difficulties of this sloppy division. We debate the merits of machine-assisted life and independent life. When should a person be removed from life support—at the stopping of the heart? at the stopping of the brain?
We ordinary people (that is, not medical professionals) generally believe in the principle of brain death. Brain death as a concept frees us from the responsibility of deciding death, because it is a completely invisible distinction. No layman has the equipment to measure brain activity. With the means of officiating out of our hands, we don’t have to decide; we bring our dying to the hospital, a kind of temple, where doctors, in their roles as secular priests, make the pronouncement. They use technology incomprehensible to most of us to make the call, and then they declare a time of death on official documents—as if death happened in an instant. As if it were a crisp fracture from living.
Practical difficulties surround this system. How should we judge cases where the brain still lives, but consciousness and independent breathing and heartbeat are gone? How do we answer the objection that a brain-dead person whose heart still beats can live for many years, as long as someone feeds him? How about the fact that some people who need machine support to live have active minds?
Once a body is declared dead, the difficulties continue. The body may move around. A dead woman may deliver a live baby. Occasionally a “dead” person recovers. In the nineteenth century, one writer estimated that a third of the people buried weren’t really dead. He arrived at this figure by considering the number of people who, disinterred for one reason or another, were found to have clawed at their coffin lids or otherwise struggled to escape. Edgar Allan Poe’s fictions on this subject were probably more frightening to his contemporaries, who knew of actual cases, than to us well-insulated moderns. The EEG and other advances would reduce the possibility of premature burial, if we hadn’t obviated that need by hitting on the idea of embalming our dead and making damn sure they don’t get back up. Current embalming techniques involve, among other things, mechanically sucking the juices out of a corpse and replacing them with preservatives. You can also complete a death by burning the body or signing away its organs.
Americans, at least, have taken steps to hide the slipshod workmanship of death completely. We don’t sit up with corpses anymore. We give the dying over to hospitals and the declared dead to funeral homes. We don’t see our dead sit up anymore; we don’t smell them evacuating their bowels like living people. Embalming gives us a corpse two or three days old that looks much like the living person. But that resemblance is an illusion we grant ourselves. It is part of a larger illusion we maintain: that death is a still version of life.
Death isn’t still. It is a continuation of what has gone before. The digestive juices in our gut lose their inhibitions and go to work on the organs that hold them: we eat ourselves from within in a last burst of appetite. The bacteria that have been part of our bodies go on living. Suddenly freed to partake of the feast they have always dwelt inside, they prosper as never before. Our tissues, if left alone, take on an array of strange forms as microscopic life converts them; one way or another, the meat we’re made of fuels the building of other lives. The blood gels, the breath quiets, the tiny strands of lightning inside the nerve tissues disappear, the form we instinctively like best gives way to other forms; the smells of death and rot are always the smells of small life-forms teeming. Death is real, but it is slow and sloppy; it proceeds in no certain order; its beginning and end are indeterminate; and its causes are not always certain. Dead, we are not stilled; we are activated, changed.
On the highway ahead, I see the sinuous curves of a rattlesnake in motion. He moves on the hot asphalt in liquid esses. He is doomed.
Cars and trucks rush by, some of them holding their course, their wheels straddling the snake, others swerving to miss him (perhaps these drivers know the legend of the mechanic killed by a fang embedded in a flat tire). Soon one of them will crush him, by chance or choice. He halts and buzzes on the yellow line. I pull over and wait my opportunity to chase him off the road, but the traffic is heavy. A one-ton pickup finally swerves to hit him.
I watch his body spasm into twisting arcs, the white belly and patterned back showing by turns. It is the old dance of animal flesh: the dying, and the determination not to die.