Charming A Lot Of Rattlers

The Early Show, Melinda Murphy grew up not far from Sweetwater and was taught as a little girl to never, ever approach a rattlesnake
CBS/The Early Show
The Early Show's Melinda Murphy grew up not far from Sweetwater and was taught as a little girl to never, ever approach a rattlesnake. As a consequence, she is deathly afraid of them, she says.

So her latest assignment made her skin crawl.

Rattlesnake Roundup is like a bass-fishing tournament, except you really, really don't want a bite.

"I saw a fellow get bit on his finger and his finger swelled up so much that his fingernail popped off," says snake handler Gene Bartlett.

And that's not all that the venom from one of these charmers will do.

"Your hand goes numb, a bad headache and you get nauseous, " says snake bite survivor Rusty Shoot.

You probably won't die - but you may want to.

"The actual fear of it is worse than my bite was," he adds.

It's that fear that drives folks to Sweetwater to gather up each and every rattler. Well - that and the sheer fun of it.

"You know some people like to deer hunt. Some people like to rabbit hunt. I like to do things different, " says Ogle Stoaksbury.

Hunters like Stoaksbury spend months gathering these slithering creatures. Then on the second weekend in March, box after box after box of rattlesnakes are weighed, then dumped into the pit.

To get a feel for the hunt, Murphy went on one and picked up a little rattlesnake wisdom along the way.

Murphy and her fellow hunters combed the countryside, looking for the snakes.

In warm weather, rattlers come out to sun themselves. But most of the time, they hole up, so hunters have to be clever.

"We work that copper tubing all the way to the back of them, spray a little gas and after a few minutes, the fumes will make them come out," says one hunter.

But Murphy and the hunters just weren't having any luck. Of course, they weren't the most experienced bunch either.

Karl Langen came all the way from Germany to do this. Why? "Because it's something I have never done before," he says.

After a while, they headed back to the coliseum to see some more snakes a little too close, if you ask Murphy. She stood right in the snake pit where she learned the rattle is the snake offering a warning.

"Stay away from me. I'm here. Just letting you know that they're here and not to go near them," explains snake handler Donald Kite.

Rattlesnakes would just as soon run away from you, given the chance. They only strike when provoked. Murphy provoked one and, sure enough, it struck back at her boot.

The fact that they're actually not that aggressive has led some animal rights activists to say this whole roundup is cruel, but people in Sweetwater don't agree

"Most of them do not live in this area. They don't have small kids that live here," says one resident.

And speaking of children, the roundup is also a good chance to educate.
A handler shows them the fangs and explains to them how the poison comes out.

Some kids love the snakes and even hold them. Others don't and cry. And still others use the whole thing to socialize.

Of course, nothing is as cool as Miss Snake Charmer, Alana Adams, the queen of the roundup.

"It's just a dream that I've always had. I was born here and when you're from Sweetwater, it's just Miss Snake Charmer, it's all we have," she says.

But if you can't charm them, you can milk them. That's how scientists get venom for medical research and to make anti-venom.

"That's the venom glands and there's a muscle at the end of the glands and when we squeeze the snake right here, we're just forcing the venom past that muscle," says one handler, pointing at the side of the snake's mouth.

Murphy watched a few times and then bravely gave it a try.

But the biggest act of courage of the day, she says, was when her producer, Jennifer Cohen- a native New Yorker – ate a rattlesnake for the first time and had a hard time swallowing it. She said it tasted like chicken.

Of course, the main thrust is getting rid of the snakes. But there's also a big contest involved. This year, the biggest snake was 74 inches long. And there was a total of 4,207 pounds of snakes caught. That means that in the past 45 years, the hunters have turned in more than 125 tons of snakes.