Rattle Royale

If it can be made out of a rattler, you'll find it at John and Sandy's self-serve snake mart

While the gift shop pretty much runs itself, rounding up the raw materials to stock those shelves is another story altogether.

Working three hours a night, the Webers spend virtually every evening from April through September scouring the desert floor for merchandise on the prowl. It's a labor-intensive process. Although Fish and Game law allows hunters to catch up to four diamondback or Mohave rattlers a day, the Webers say they're lucky to find one snake for every ten hours of hunting.

"We've tried hunting from midnight 'til two or three in the morning but have very little luck," explains John. "The best snake hunting is right after it gets dark in the evening."

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Armed with a flashlight, a "snake stick" and a suction-type snakebite kit they've never had to use, the couple roams dirt roads and desert washes in search of the slinky prey.

"We don't go kicking around bushes because that can be a little dangerous," reports John. "The best place to find 'em is out in the open when they're foraging for food--mice, baby rabbits and other small mammals."

So what happens when the Webers finally do find themselves face to fang with one of the poisonous predators?

To hear them tell it, the excitement factor is right up there with, well, landing a blue gill.

"Other snakes are fast but rattlesnakes are almost contemptuous of humans," John explains matter-of-factly. "Nothing bothers 'em. Other snakes will scoot, but rattlesnakes will just keep goin' real slow like a caterpillar."

So slow that Weber claims it's a snap to grab the rattler by the middle of its body with the clamplike end of a snake stick. Then, after pinioning the snake's head to the ground with another device, he carefully beheads the viper with a knife.

Of course, if a snake's a real beaut--like the stuffed six-footer for sale in the gift shop--Weber switches to Plan B.

"When we wanna leave the head on, we have a pair of long-nosed pliers about 12 inches long. You just jam that down their throat and snap the vertebrae."

For the average kill, though, the snake is skinned and gutted on the spot, its head preserved in a jar. Back at the couple's mobile home, the meat will be separated from the skeleton and frozen for future use as jerky, fajitas or, as Sandy jokes, "snake and eggs." (The rattler meat, served up on special occasions, reportedly tastes something like clams.) The skin is refrigerated until later, when it's treated with a tanning solution.

Only the snake's venom goes to waste--the Webers say they don't catch enough snakes to make it worthwhile to collect the fluid used to make snakebite serum. And, of course, a rattler must be alive to produce venom.

Although some conservationists undoubtedly take a dim view of their operation, the Webers don't waste much time pondering the karmic and ecological ramifications of turning snakes into gag gifts and desktop novelties. As they're quick to point out, they don't catch anywhere near their legal quota.

"When we used to sell at flea markets, occasionally we'd hear from people who were antikilling anything," says John. "And, yeah, they'd give us some problems. But most people out West--I'd guess 95 percent--would say 'Kill scorpions. Kill black widows. Kill rattlesnakes. They're a danger to our children.'"

While John is remarkably nonchalant about his own closest call ("A couple of rattlers in a mine shaft struck within two feet of me, which isn't really that close"), the Webers have seen firsthand the effects of a rare lethal rattlesnake bite. Several years ago, a woman who lived near the Webers was bitten by a rattler while horseback riding.

"They flew her into Phoenix and operated on her and all kinds of things," reports Sandy. "It was really a painful death. Her body turned black. About ten days later, she was gone."

If anything, that incident only strengthened the strange love/hate relationship between the Webers and their prey.

"People always want to know if we're afraid of rattlesnakes," says Sandy. "We just say that we have a healthy respect for them."

So much respect, in fact, that the couple has abandoned plans to capitalize on the Arizona Diamondbacks by producing memorabilia featuring the team mascot's hide.

"Actually, we tried gluing snakeskin to a baseball but that didn't go too well," confesses Sandy. "So that was the end of that.

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