Rattle Royale

Why did the rattlesnake cross the road?
When a diamondback slithered across the dirt road in front of her a few summers back, Sandy Weber didn't wait to find out.

Instead, the adventuresome grandmother calmly stopped her pickup and did what anyone else in her particular business would have done. She got out, picked up a rock and clobbered the snake, taking care to sever the creature's head from its body. Then, after depositing the bisected reptile into a sack, she brushed the dust from her Sunday-go-to-meeting finery and continued on to vacation Bible school in nearby Tombstone.

"I asked the Kool-Aid lady if I could put it in the icebox along with the other treats," recalls Weber. "Someone opened the icebox a little later and they almost had a heart attack. Even though it was dead, that snake was still thrashing around in there, knocking everything over."

Smiling beatifically, she explains, "Rattlesnakes will do that, you know. They'll thrash around for hours, even though you've gutted them and cut off their heads."

If anyone is familiar with the behavior patterns of rattlesnakes who've left this mortal coil, it's Sandy Weber and her husband, John.

Since moving to the desert wilds of southeastern Arizona from Illinois 13 years ago, the 61-year-olds have lived not off the fat of the land, but rather off the skins, skeletons, rattles and fangs of hundreds of rattlesnakes who've had the misfortune to cross the pair's paths. Fashioning their quarry's remains into everything from earrings and belt buckles to roach clips and jerky, the couple operates the world's only self-serve rattlesnake-o-rama.

Build a better tourist trap and the world will beat a path to your gift shop--particularly if you're peddling something with the poisonous panache of a deadly snake.

"There's almost a mythology surrounding rattlesnakes," theorizes Sandy. "They're dangerous, they're not afraid of man and they're slinking, slithery things from way back when. To a lot of people, rattlesnakes are a symbol of the West."

What's believed to be the world's largest collection of rattlesnake crafts originated as a hobby.

"In the beginning, we were selling out of suitcases at swap meets," reports John Weber, a former aviation company employee who was bitten by the snake-hunting bug while attending college in Florida. "But over the years, it just kind of grew into what you see today. It's a modest living--but out here in the desert, that's enough."

Don't look for gawdy highway billboards touting the quirky roadside attraction. Off the beaten track in more ways than one, John and Sandy's Rattlesnake and Apache Indian Crafts is located on a serpentine back road some 15 miles east of Tombstone, just outside Gleeson. Although the Tombstone tourist bureau steers some traffic the Webers' way, many visitors are simply sightseers who happen upon the herpetological hideaway while cruising Cochise County's ghost-town circuit.

If you're in the vicinity, however, the Webers' rattlesnake ranchero is hard to miss. Surrounded by antique farming equipment, old typewriters, bygone kitchen utensils and scads of other rusting relics the couple has salvaged from dumps in the area, the spread could easily be mistaken for a junkyard Shangri-la.

But the main attraction is the "gift shop"--a weathered travel trailer crawling with recycled rattlesnake parts. Packed from floor to ceiling with all manner of rattlerabilia, the trailer's inventory includes snakeskin earrings, vertebrae bracelets, rattler hat bands and other standard-issue Wild West souvenir-stand fare.

Still, a lot of the Webers' handicrafts look like the sort of stuff that might have been conjured by the inmates of a snake pit after a particularly bad day in shock treatment. Among the more curious curios: A walking stick that appears to have been swallowed by a rattlesnake, a snakeskin clip-on tie, an acrylic belt buckle containing the coiled body of a baby rattler and that aforementioned roach clip--an alligator clip decorated with the head of a menacing snake, complete with drops of fake venom dripping from its fangs.

Who thinks this stuff up? The customers.
"Someone's always saying 'Why don't you make this or that?'" Sandy explains. "Just when we think we've heard everything, someone comes up with an idea for something neat."

The gift shop's self-serve feature evolved while Sandy was on vacation a few years ago. Tired of racing out of the couple's mobile home every time a guest pulled up, John installed a cashbox outside the snake trailer, along with a sign instructing customers to leave payment for any merchandise they took with them.

Perhaps--as the Webers insist--people are basically honest. Or maybe they just fear the repercussions of ripping off professional snake hunters who just might have pets around the house. In any event, the honor system has apparently worked like a charm; the shop reportedly has a perfect loss-management record. The gift shop is now open 365 days a year and plays host to more than 600 visitors a month (many of them German tourists) during the snowbird season.

Chalking up the success of the self-serve gift shop to mutual convenience, John says, "You don't want someone breathing down your neck, pointing to this or telling you that. My gosh! We've got 10,000 things to look at out here."

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."

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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Dewey Webb