Rattling Cages

Some people golf. Some people fish. Some people collect stamps. Dale Burton spends his free time studying and caring for rattlesnakes.

Four rattlesnakes and a king snake lie coiled in Dale Burton's truck as he tools along Shea Boulevard en route to the Mayo Clinic in north Scottsdale.

Two large rattlesnakes--a Western Diamondback and "Mo," a Mohave rattlesnake, the most venomous pit viper in North America--doze in a big plastic bucket that Burton has set close to the air conditioner, so the reptiles will be comfortable.

An Arizona Black rattlesnake and a Great Basin rattlesnake ride in separate containers on the back seat. On the top of one container is a red pillowcase tied in a knot. Inside the pillowcase is Houdini, a clever king snake with a talent for escaping from cages. Houdini is safe with the rattlers--king snakes are immune to rattlesnake venom and on occasion even eat them.

At a stoplight, a motorist frowns as he reads the message on the bumper sticker affixed to Burton's Dodge: "The more people I meet . . . THE BETTER I LIKE RATTLESNAKES."

Advancing the cause of the rattlesnake--among the most feared yet fascinating creatures in nature--is Dale Burton's raison d'étre.

Burton, 38, a former guitarist in a Christian heavy-metal band turned airplane-engine refurbisher, started Rattlesnake Awareness Programs of Arizona in 1996, a few months after organizing a media campaign that defeated a plan to sell baseballs made of rattlesnake hide to Arizona Diamondbacks fans.

After that, Burton began to refer to himself as "the Voice for the Magnificent but Misunderstood Reptiles."

Today he and his wife, Liz, share their apartment with 10 rattlers and a few nonvenomous snakes.

The self-taught herpetologist takes his snakes to schools, hospitals--anywhere he's asked--to try to convince a snake-fearing public that the dreaded rattlesnake is actually a docile rodent eater that bites only when tormented or surprised.

Bottom line, Dale Burton wants everyone to at least appreciate rattlesnakes and leave them alone.

Burton thrives in Arizona precisely because it is home to 11 species of rattlesnakes. He loves it that the state Department of Game and Fish regulates rattlesnake harvesting--it's not regulated in many other states. State law prohibits the hunting of endangered rattlesnakes (the New Mexico Ridgeback), limits the hunting of others, but, to Burton's dismay, permits snake hunters to kill up to four each of the most common rattlers--Western Diamondbacks and Mohaves--each day.

So when Burton rescues Western Diamondbacks and Mohaves from Valley schoolgrounds, backyards and homes, he releases the creatures into secret desert hideaways far from hunters.

Do the primitive reptiles sense Burton is their protector?
"Snakes couldn't care less. They don't show any feelings per se," says Burton as he eases the Dodge into a slot in the Mayo Clinic parking lot.

He looks fondly at the bucket and adds, "I could stick my hand in there and it would be history."

He bounds out of the car, a dark, heavyset guy with a ponytail of wild black hair that dangles to the middle of his back. Burton's cap, decorated with several gaudy silver pins shaped like rattlesnakes, is embroidered with the letters RAPA--the acronym for Rattlesnake Awareness Programs of Arizona.

He's worn a RAPA uniform to the Mayo Clinic. The uniform varies, depending on what's been laundered. Today, he's decked out in a quasi-official-looking cranberry shirt covered with even more silver rattlesnake pins. A plastic pin over the right pocket says: "Dale Burton, Field Advisor."

Even though it's a hot day, Burton does not wear shorts. He respects snakes too much. He's got on long, baggy jeans--belted with a large silver rattlesnake buckle, of course, and sensible boots--just in case one of his "critters" gets loose.

Burton's friend and fellow RAPA member Justin Frear, a burly claims investigator for an insurance company, meets Burton in the parking lot. They tote the large bucket and the cartons into the Mayo Clinic's Ashton Taylor Auditorium.

An elderly woman eyes the bucket. She looks at the lettering on the side: "Sun-Burn Superchlorinator and Shock Treatment."

"Is this the bladder class?" she asks.
When she is told the bucket contains rattlesnakes, she backs away.

By the time Burton has used pistol-grip tongs to transfer Mo and the Western Diamondback to an aquarium so that everyone can see them, about 40 elderly people--the docents--have wandered into the auditorium.

The show begins.
First, Burton shows a clip from a local television news show in which he and the "magnificent but misunderstood" reptiles are featured. In the show, Burton runs through rattlesnake safety rules. Look where you're going. Stop, look and listen if you hear a rattle, then back away. Keep pets on a leash. Don't panic. The rattlesnake is a timid, nonaggressive creature that only wants to escape humans and will bite only if surprised, agitated or trapped.

When the film clip is over, lights go on, and Burton grins at the oldsters.
"Thank you and goodnight," he says, turning to leave, his ponytail flying every which way.

"Just kidding, heh, heh," he says, turning to face the audience once more.
"Everybody say 'Crotalus,'" says Burton.
"Crotalus!" the audience chimes, repeating the rattlesnake's scientific moniker.

"Did you hear about the rattlesnake that was so poor he couldn't find a pot to hiss in?" he says.

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