Rattling Cages

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.

In between jokes, he spews out dozens of rattlesnake factoids.
For instance, male rattlesnakes have two penises, called hemi-penes. Females do not have two corresponding organs. Rattlesnakes can copulate all day. . . . Female rattlesnakes do not lay eggs, but bear up to three dozen live babies. . . . Often, female rattlers give birth together, in the same place, for protection. . . . Baby rattlers are on their own once they are born. . . . You cannot tell the age of a rattlesnake by counting its rattles. . . . Rattlesnakes smell with their tongues. . . . Heat-sensitive pits between the eyes and nostrils of rattlesnakes tell them where prey is, and how big it is, and they control the amount of venom dispensed in an attack accordingly. . . . Rattlesnakes strike at about 150 miles per hour. . . . Rattlesnake bites are rarely fatal. . . . There are two general types of rattlesnake venom. One is a sort of "meat tenderizer" that predigests the rattlesnake's food, usually a rodent, after it has been bitten. Such venom causes major tissue damage in humans. The second type of venom, the most dangerous, is a neurotoxin that can cause respiratory and heart failure. . . . Most people who get bitten by rattlesnakes deserve it, have tried to handle or trap the snakes. . . . People bitten by rattlesnakes should remain calm, immobilize the bitten body part and seek medical attention, hiking if necessary. . . . Baby rattlesnakes are the most dangerous because they have not learned to control their venom. . . . Old-fashioned treatments for snakebites, such as cutting the flesh at the bite and suctioning out the venom, actually do more harm than good. . . . Snakebite kits are a "no-no." . . . Stun guns and tourniquets do not improve rattlesnake bites, but make the victim worse.

"I will now introduce you to your best defenses [for minimizing damage] against a rattlesnake bite," he says, waving a cellular phone and a set of car keys in the air.

"Meet Mr. Cellular Phone!
"Meet Mr. Car Keys!"
It's time for Burton's political rap. He shows photos of rattlesnake roundups, gory small-town affairs in which thousands of hibernating rattlesnakes are gassed out of their dens, piled into pits, tormented, then beheaded and skinned by prom-queen-type girls with titles like "Miss Snake Charmer" in bloody aprons.

Although there are no rattlesnake roundups in Arizona, Burton will tell you he'd like nothing more than to see all roundups shut down--and he'd like to start with the largest, in Sweetwater, Texas.

And since snake dealers often buy rattlesnakes at Sweetwater, one way to shut down the roundups, says Burton, is not to buy any product made out of a once-live rattlesnake. Like keychains made out of rattlesnake heads, snakeskin boots, rattlesnake paperweights and those silly novelty dried snake heads with bunny fur glued on the crown. They are called "road kill."

(Ken Becker, a spokesman for the Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup, likens the snake beheading to a "typical slaughterhouse scene." He says roundups reduce the population of reptiles that bite pets and livestock, notes that in 40 years, 230,000 pounds of rattlesnakes have been harvested, admits local girls "really enjoy the skinning process." Becker says the proceeds from the roundups benefit good causes.)

"Roundups are fun for everyone but the rattlesnakes," Burton tells the docents.

Remember, he exhorts, rattlesnakes are man's friend. Rodent-eating rattlesnakes protect humans from rodent-borne diseases, such as hantavirus.

"Thank you for listening to me blab," he concludes.
For a half-hour more, Mayo docents hover around the snakes, ask questions, even play with Houdini, who seems delighted to get out of the pillowcase.

The rattlesnakes relax in their aquariums. They do not rattle or strike at the humans peering at them from the other side of the glass.

Finally, Burton excuses himself. He needs to get his snakes home.

Dale Burton will tell you he's a man without much formal education.
"I didn't go to college, if that's what you're asking," he says.
He learned about his favorite creature by reading, observing "in the field" (hiking) and picking the brains of professional herpetologists.

Today, Burton's knowledge of rattlesnake behavior, morphology and habitat is encyclopedic. When New Times checked the veracity of the facts Burton dispenses at his lectures, they were found to be accurate.  

"Dale is quite knowledgeable," says New Mexico herpetologist Bob Myers. "If he gives you a fact or figure, you can be sure he's not spouting off misinformation."

"Based on the conversations I've had with him, he seems to be fairly knowledgeable for someone without a formal education," says Jeff Howland, nongame amphibians and reptiles program manager for the Arizona Department of Game and Fish.

"There are certain aspects of rattlesnakes he knows more about than I do--if you want to go out and pick a Western Diamondback, go with him, not me," Howland says. "There are other aspects that I know more about."

Howland, for instance, does not condone Burton's practice of releasing rattlesnakes from the city--rescued from backyards and kitchens and Arizona rooms--into the wild, even though Burton has a state license to do just that.

Howland says he discourages most "translocations" even though "it's kind of nice" that Burton performs such services.

"I don't encourage it because it's biologically not a good idea," says Howland, adding that studies show snakes released into the wild are disoriented and thus more vulnerable to predators, might carry disease, and are often put into snake-saturated environments, thus increasing competition for food and mates.

Burton responds he doesn't release enough snakes into the wild to stress the habitat.

State and federal health officials also confirm that Burton is correct in saying rattlesnakes help keep the rodent population down, which in turn reduces the risk to humans of Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome, which kills nearly half of the humans it infects. The virus is spread to humans when they breathe airborne particles of dried virus-contaminated feces or urine of certain mice.

"It's very fair to say it's a CDC recommendation to encourage natural predators to help eliminate rodents," says Ali Khan, medical epidemiologist for the special pathogens branch of the federal Centers for Disease Control.

"Rattlesnakes have an impact," says Craig Levy, manager of the vectorborne disease program of the Arizona Department of Health Services, "but when you have outbreak conditions of rodents triggered by an El Nino event, I don't think predator populations can keep up with dramatic increase in rodent populations."

Burton turns that argument around, saying that if El Nino spawns more rodents, it's all the more important to save as many rattlesnakes as possible.

Burton's first-aid tips also check out.
Donald Kunkel, medical director of the Samaritan Regional Poison Center in Phoenix, says rattlesnakes bite about 400 people every year in Arizona. Kunkel knows of only one Good Sam patient who died of a rattlesnake bite in the past 20 years, a woman who was bitten in a varicose vein. Poison went straight into her bloodstream.

Like Burton, Kunkel recommends that people who are bitten get to a hospital, hiking out of the desert if necessary. He discourages the use of tourniquets, stun guns, and cutting for first aid. Kunkel urges hikers to look where they are going and dress in high-top boots covered by jeans.

"Most rattlesnake bites are preventable," says Kunkel, adding that about 60 percent of snakebite victims have been handling the snakes; the other 40 percent are careless people who don't see a snake until it's too late.

"Most people get bitten because they fiddle with snakes and they have been drinking," says Kunkel. "As people get drunker and drunker, they tend to lose their fear and their reflexes. The profile of a rattlesnake-bite victim is usually a male, age 17 to 30, who is drunk, who usually gets bitten on the hand."

Dale Burton was never the kind of guy to get drunk and tease an animal. His personal history, as he tells it, is somewhat bland. He was born into a loving, religious family. He was the family clown. He's learned to laugh--or to get others to laugh--when he doesn't know what else to do.

He fell in love with rattlesnakes the first time he saw one--when he was a child in Texas on a Cub Scout outing. What captivated him, he says, was the "courtesy of the rattle," that the venomous reptile had the good manners to "warn" non-prey animals that it was in the vicinity, to keep away.

When Burton's father was transferred to Arizona, Burton was allowed to keep snakes in the house.

But no rattlesnakes.
In the 1980s, Burton graduated from high school in Flagstaff, moved down to Phoenix and started his Christian heavy-metal band, Rizer. He describes his rock 'n' roll days as crazy and wild. But he wasn't exactly Ozzy Osbourne. He played music at ear-splitting levels and abstained from sex, alcohol and drugs. Pastors led the band in Bible studies between rehearsals.  

It was during his guitar-slinging days that Burton met his future wife, Liz.
A softspoken blonde who favors tailored clothes, Liz seems the antithesis of her longhaired husband in his baseball cap adorned with silver rattlesnake pins.

Liz, an accountant, always thought she'd marry a guy with an advanced degree and short hair. Instead, she fell for "one of the most unlikely persons I ever thought of marrying," Liz says.

The two shared a love of the desert, hiked often, became sensitive to the exploitation of rattlesnakes.

"The veil was lifted from our eyes, that there was a great injustice towards rattlesnakes," says Liz. "There are lots of causes for furry animals, but who was there for the animals no one likes?"

Dale and Liz married in 1990.
No rattlesnakes attended the wedding or resided with them for the first few months.

Then Dale started bringing the rattlesnakes home.
Liz approves, although she's cautious. "It's like having a loaded gun in the house," she confides. "You have to know the limitations."

Today, the Burtons live in a small, crowded apartment in west Phoenix with more than a dozen snakes and two cats.

The cats are not allowed in the snake room, of course.
All snakes except for Houdini reside in aquariums in the spare bedroom. (Houdini's aquarium takes up a space between the living room and the kitchen and is adorned with several dozen of Liz Burton's prized beanie babies.)

The snake room is decorated with KISS posters, a portrait of Christ, black-and-white glossies of guitarist Burton (with teased hair and in leopardskin spandex), Liz's Sesame Street collectibles, Dale's antique-train collection and his stash of rattlesnake oddities--rattlesnake bubblegum, rattlesnake pens, rattlesnake pennants, rattlesnake hats.

Dale seems to encounter rattlesnakes even when he's not searching for them.
Take Mo.
"I was out with friends in the Pinnacle Peak and Tatum area looking for hairy scorpions," Burton recalls, "and I found a baby rattlesnake. Bet you dollars to doughnuts he was born just that week. I said to him, 'You're coming home with me,' and he looked at me and I think he wanted to come home with me."

Yet despite Burton's admiration for Mo, he still handles the reptile with long tongs.

"I tell people all the time, rattlesnakes are not pets," he says.
Burton insists his rattlesnakes are not unhappy in their cages. In the wild, their low metabolisms cause them to lie still, waiting for prey. So do cages.

The only difference: Prey is easier to come by in the Burton household than in the wild.

The snakes are fed about every three weeks--either live or fresh-frozen mice, which Dale thaws out in a bowl of hot water.

Frozen mice? You mean rattlesnakes don't always kill their prey?
"They eat road kill," Burton insists. "I've seen it with my own eyes in the wild."

He shoves a thawed mouse into an aquarium, and a curious rattlesnake strikes it, smells it with his tongue. After repeated sniffs, the snake is satisfied the animal is dead. The snake repeatedly stretches his jaws wide in what appears to be a fearsome snarl, fangs bared. "He's just disengaging his jaws," says Burton. "It's like me trying to eat a 200-pound hamburger." He says a large rattler can consume an animal as large as a jackrabbit.

To water the snakes, Burton "spritzes" the interior aquarium walls only occasionally with a spray bottle. "About as often as it rains," he says, demonstrating by spraying the empty side of an aquarium containing the Arizona black rattlesnake.

The snake sticks out its tongue to smell the moisture, then sucks droplets of water from the aquarium wall, puffing its cheeks to hold as much as possible before each swallow.

For Dale Burton, "the day of infamy" occurred in July 1995. Much to Burton's horror, local TV news reported that a snake hunter planned to sell rattlesnake-skin baseballs to fans of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Faster than a rattler strike, Dale Burton was on the phone. Within a week, he'd called or written everyone he could think of who could help him stop the slaughter--journalists, animal-rights groups, Native American tribes, the Sierra Club, Bruce Babbitt, herpetologists, and, of course, the Arizona Diamondbacks, which he understood had more or less endorsed the awful product.

Bruce Babbitt was the only one who didn't respond, he says.
And his account of what happened next is just that--the Arizona Diamondbacks, through spokesman Bob Crawford, refused to comment.

Burton says the Arizona Diamondbacks at first didn't respond to his telephone calls protesting the snakeskin baseballs. After a few more calls, they responded condescendingly. Then a front-page article in the Arizona Republic, planted by Burton, detailed the snake hunter's plans. The newspaper quoted a videotape in which Jerry Colangelo told the snake hunter that the snakeskin baseballs were a great idea.  

After the story, Burton says, Diamondbacks president Richard Dozer called him up and, as Burton tells it, raged at him for giving the Diamondbacks and "Mr. Colangelo" bad publicity. Burton feared that he might be sued.

But Burton had managed to raise enough of a stink to dash the snakeskin-baseball plans, and today the Arizona Diamondbacks do not endorse any products made from rattlesnakes.

"Chalk one up for me, the little guy," says Burton.
Now "the little guy" wants to be friends with the Arizona Diamondbacks, maybe teach a RAPA class about rattlesnakes to the players.

He can't understand why he hasn't gotten any invitations.

Dale Burton figures he spends about $1,000 a year on gasoline to drive to snake rescues, releases and lectures. He never charges anyone requesting his assistance.

One recent Saturday afternoon, Burton, Mo the Mohave, the Western Diamondback and a gopher snake named JJ drove miles into the desert near Cave Creek to speak to 17 inner-city kids who are on a "tough-love" boot camp/desert survival course.

When Burton parked his truck, Steve and Janelle Haff, a Cave Creek couple, see Burton's RAPA sign, and offer him another rattler.

The Haffs had just captured a Western Diamondback on a walk, and put the snake into a bucket so that it wouldn't strike at their dogs.

The rattlesnake has a cholla spine in his head, but Burton says it will come out in a day or two.

"I'll take good care of him, sir," Burton says solemnly, as he removes the snake from the Haffs' bucket and delicately puts the creature in the bucket containing the Western Diamondback and Mo, who don't seem alarmed by the presence of a new snake.

At the boot camp, the kids sit in a circle, waiting for the snake talk. Burton adapts the persona of a drill sergeant to be funny, but the kids don't laugh. He talks at length, carefully leaving out any mention of snake reproduction. The kids seem bored until he passes around the roundup photos. Several remark on the cruelty of the event, and Dale Burton knows he's got some converts.

When the talk is over, someone tells Burton that the kids might eat rattlesnake that night for dinner. After all, it's a desert survival class.

"Well of course they didn't tell me that," says Burton.

It's a cool evening as Dale Burton strikes out for one of his snake-releasing hideaways near Phoenix.

Burton is on a mission to free Murray, a Western Diamondback who somehow got trapped in an attic in a recently built house in north Scottsdale. Burton figures Murray was dozing on building materials and accidentally got transported into the attic.

The young rattler had survived without food or water for months.
He loads him into a plastic container with a handle and airholes. He drives far away from the city.

In the last light of the day, he carries the rattlesnake to an arroyo and releases him beneath a paloverde tree heavy with yellow blossoms.

The snake coils up by a log, flicks his tongue out to get a read on where he is.

Burton is quiet.
"I always say a prayer for the snakes I release," he says. "I ask the Lord to take care of that particular animal. Of course, he may get eaten, but that's just the way it is."

Crickets are singing. Murray takes cover beneath a log as Burton heads up the sandy wash.

Contact Terry Greene Sterling at 229-8437, or online at

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