‘This House Is on Top of a Rattlesnake Den’

Bobby Stevens, President of Reptile Rescue & Relocation in Ranger, Texas, extracts a western diamondback rattlesnake from a crawlspace near Breckenridge. (photo by Aaron Hedge)

There’s a dilapidated old house in West Texas with a labyrinth of holes underneath it. The gray-blue clapboard is weathering around the window fascia; the front door must be coaxed open with a credit card; the skirting is rotted out in places. The current foundation was poured over a series of old structures forming a mess of busted concrete, a confounding system of openings to the nether world. It formed over time in a haphazard succession of ownership, remodeling, add-ons.

The structure was built decades ago on an old piece of oil patch, says Cindy Frazier, whose mother-in-law owns it. No one lives in it, but Cindy and her partner Guy want to fix it up.

Several years ago, Cindy says, she and Guy noticed a dramatic increase in western diamondback rattlesnakes oozing from under the home. This could be because of much higher-than-average rainfall in three of the last five years in the region, which is good for the rodents and amphibians the snakes eat.

But that’s not the biggest problem. This house will probably always have rattlesnakes under it, says Bobby Stevens, who runs the nonprofit Reptile Rescue & Relocation (RRR) in Ranger, Texas.

Bobby has just emerged from the house’s crawlspace on his belly, his pink company t-shirt a mess of dust and cobwebs, carrying a western diamondback. He lowers the snake, about two feet long, into a red five-gallon bucket with a screw-on lid.

“That’s one,” he announces and brushes himself off just a little.

RRR volunteers Brian Perry and Joseph Wheat are still in the crawlspace chasing down the first snake’s compatriots.

I poke my head into the crawlspace — there is the stench of an opossum carcass, cooler air, and the calls and hoots of the RRR team. I stop at my shoulders and turn back.

I try to imagine what it would be like gripping the snake’s head for dear life, as Bobby has just done, while locomoting on my elbows and knees, shoving myself hands-and-snake-first through a hole the size of a microwave. But then, I have not been slowly immunizing myself to a suite of snake venoms, both neurotoxic and hemotoxic, like Bobby has since 2014. He’s on a venom injection regimen as part of medical research looking for cures to diseases of affluence like cancer and diabetes. He can probably take a pair of fangs in a crawlspace and expect to live.

Bobby and RRR volunteers, like Perry and Wheat, are quick to point out that what they’re doing is not for an adrenaline surge or the attention but for posterity.

Some Texans who corral snakes from basements and under homes bring them to community fairs called “rattlesnake roundups,” where they are paid a bounty for their take. Snake handlers perform bizarre stunts with them, like spending time in a bathtub or a sleeping bag full of western diamondbacks. After the revelry, a buyer pays a markup for the snakes, usually by the pound, executes them, and fashions their parts into curios. In the early 2010s there was a cloying Animal Planet show about some of these snake handlers called Rattlesnake Republic, depicting them as country hicks with little more going for them in life than a willingness to lose a limb at showtime.

That’s the opposite of RRR’s mission, which is to educate the public about snakes and discourage Texans from killing even venomous snakes, like the western diamondback.

Joseph Wheat, Reptile Rescue & Relocation’s training officer, prepares to slither into a crawlspace full of rattlesnakes. (photo by Aaron Hedge)

The snake Bobby put in the bucket will go back to a new RRR headquarters where it will be kept in a climate-controlled drawer with wood shavings and water, marked “VENOMOUS SNAKE.” Bobby will monitor it for respiratory infections, and “milk” it. The venom will go toward the immunological research Bobby is a self-described “guinea pig” for. The snake will be released far from humans.

Guy has an idea. He jiggers the door open with a card and brings Bobby through the house to a porch under which Brian and Joseph are trying to scare up more snakes, at least one of which they have physically seen. Small bits of scat are found in one den entrance. There are definitely more snakes in there.

Guy is keen to cut a hole in the porch floor for easier access — he’s remodeling anyway. Bobby asks if he’s sure and gets to work with a circular saw. They pry up the boards with screwdrivers. Bobby sticks a flashlight in the hole. Then he inserts a snake hook, a snake wrangling tool fashioned from a golf club handle. Its large metal prong — which sticks out where the golf club head would be — is used to pin the snake’s head down while the handler grabs it by the neck.

Bobby rearranges the rubble below the porch, locating snake holes. (photo by Aaron Hedge)

Lying across the remaining floorboards, covered in sawdust, Bobby shifts busted pieces of old concrete around, snake hook at the ready, exposing new holes.

“You ever gass ‘em?” Guy asks.

“We don’t, no,” Bobby says. “We can smoke ’em, but that doesn’t necessarily remove ’em either, because it’s not a strong enough irritant, but it won’t kill ‘em.”

He brushes the dust from his bald head and his red beard and keeps clawing the rubble, now with snake hook.

“If you gas ’em, it causes a respiratory infection. It’s a slow, tortured death.”

Gassing is a harvest technique snake hunters use to drive snakes from dens. They pump petrochemical fumes into a hole hoping the snakes will flee the poison through the nearest exit to find themselves in the grasp of a hunter. It’s used in North Texas in the spring when western diamondbacks are coming out of their winter torpor, which is called bromation. (It’s different from hibernation because the snakes are not technically sleeping.) Gassing is an effective way to maximize the take for roundups. But it doesn’t work in South Texas because warmer weather necessitates no seasonal rest — snakes simply crawl around the brush country all year, where it’s more effective to find them on roadsides.

One reason to oppose gassing is that it’s not in the sportsman’s code. But for Bobby, it’s just bad for the snakes. Though snake handlers at some rattlesnake roundups insist it doesn’t harm the snake or the environment, studies have shown that snakes that breathe gas live only about a month.

Bobby’s trying to make room for Brian and Joseph to get a hook into one of the holes a snake may have absconded to. But with the wealth of escape routes, there’s no way to know where the one that got away went or where any others are lurking.

Most snake calls are to homes that don’t have resident snakes but ones that are only passing through, Brian says. That scenario is much better than having an established rhumba rooting around your home’s substrate. This house, by contrast, has a cool underbelly, a dry atmosphere with many hiding places.

Joseph says zoos design snake habitat identical to the terrain they found in the crawlspace.

“The whole thing has been designed, whether by nature or man, to be a giant snake pit,” Bobby says, shoving his snake hook deep under a slab in the rubble under the porch.

After about twenty minutes of fruitless work, Brian and Joseph crawl up through the hole Bobby cut in the porch and rejoin the walking. Using a digging bar, Guy and the volunteers split a concrete stoop in half just off the porch to see if any purchase is available under it, but there is only a forbidding, inscrutable maw leading into another potential den.

Brian Perry, Vice President of Reptile Rescue & Relocation, investigates a snake hole under the porch. (photo by Aaron Hedge)

It becomes obvious to everyone that clearing the snakes from this crawlspace will require heavy equipment and more than a Saturday of volunteer work.

Cindy asks about the cistern well under the front porch: “Do you think they could be in there?”

Bobby says, “If it’s dry, I absolutely do.”

Someone suggests opening up the cistern, but that seems like a whole ordeal — a useless one, too.

“If we came in and we took a hundred snakes out of here, they’re gonna find it again,” Bobby says. “They’re gonna come because there’s certain things that they look for, certain things that offer them the right kind of protections.”

“Is there a way to seal it off where they couldn’t come back in?” Cindy asks.

“Shy of picking the house up and sealing everything off in concrete, the well, everything,” Bobby says, pessimistically trailing off. The answer is there’s no way to keep the snakes out.

Cindy describes a number of other holes that pockmark the property — an old swimming pool and an old basement — further complicating the task.

“The simple fact of the matter is that this house is on top of a rattlesnake den,” says Joseph, who’s standing off to the side in the house shade, through his cigarette.

“This is one of those situations where we tell people to be vigilant, wear proper shoes, watch where you step,” Bobby adds.

Though Bobby and the crew will later tell me this is “a good one,” it seems like frustrating work. After about two hours of analyzing the property, each piece of new information is discouraging.

“Most of the calls aren’t like this,” Joseph tells me. “Usually these dens like this aren’t right underneath a house; they’re usually out in someone’s pasture near a couple of large fallen rocks … or the backside of an old tractor barn with hay bales and stuff like that.”

At this point, Cindy and Guy, who live in a nearby home that doesn’t have a snake problem, seem resigned to sharing close quarters with rattlesnakes, at least for as long as the house’s underbelly is lousy with snake holes.

“Thank y’all so much; I wish you coulda got the snakes, though,” Cindy says. “It sounds like they’re gonna live here forever — long after we’re gone.”

“Yeah, long after I’m gone, too,” Bobby agrees.

Bobby says he has never seen another house like this. One Cisco home from which RRR extracted snakes had a maze of rodent burrows under a concrete slab that snakes had inhabited. The property owner was remodeling, but before that could happen, Bobby and Brian say, they had to capture about two-dozen serpents.

It’s an ecological truism that ridding individual properties of wildlife opens a niche that the environment will simply refresh. If I kill all the cockroaches in my apartment, more will come because they love the environment I have created — the paper books, the countertop fruit bowls. A year and a half ago, the City of Frisco, a Dallas suburb culled its coyote population after several attacks on joggers on a specific trail. More coyotes, only months later, have reestablished.

What can Guy and Cindy do?

“They just have to learn to live with nature,” Bobby says. “It’s like trying to hold back the ocean. … Mother nature’s gonna win.”

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Aaron Hedge

Aaron Hedge

54 Followers

I like to write about human-wildlife relationships, mostly.