On Fourth of July some years back my dad caught six rattlesnakes, played with them, tossed one at my feet and let them go. It was his way of celebrating independence. He said, “Happy Fourth of July.” I said, “What the hell?” Like other holidays in my family, Independence Day wasn’t traditional. Sure, there were cookouts and fireworks, but those outings were far from normal as well.
Around July 4 every year, my dad gets restless and takes to the mountains in search of big, active rattlesnake dens. It’s a tradition. Some folks, including reporters from Field and Stream, have taken interest in this alternative summer hobby. My parents used to throw large Fourth of July parties and my dad was always able to convince a few partygoers to follow him into the mountains.
We lived on a south-facing hill up a gravel road 10 miles outside of the nearest town, so you didn’t have to walk far to find a good rattlesnake den. Sometimes we had rattlers in our backyard. In fact, it was when the rattlers began to become increasingly fond of our backyard that my dad’s initial interest in the venomous serpents was born. Basically, he began killing them. In light of my young age and propensity for hiking, along with our variety of pets, it felt like the reasonable thing to do at the time.
But over the years my dad grew fond of the snakes. He saw that I was aware enough of my surroundings on hiking excursions to avoid the snakes. The same was true for our dogs. So he quit killing them, but kept catching them. He often uses a long stick, but sometimes he prefers to grab them with his hand. One time, when he loosened his grip for a split second, a large rattler struck but missed his hand by an inch, spraying venom on his fingers. My dad licked the venom and said, “it tastes like anti-freeze,” which is interesting.
My dad called me yesterday and announced his intentions to begin killing snakes again – at least for a little while. His rationale is sensible: A rattler bit his cat on the foot the other day. He said the feline’s paw swelled up to the point it looked like the cat was wearing a boxing glove. So this Fourth of July, I’m sure he will again visit his most productive rattlesnake dens and he will surely get in some playing. But one or two snakes may have to go this year, if he can bring himself to do it. It will go a long way toward celebrating his cat’s independence.
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