Bayou Bob's Brazos River Rattlesnake Ranch (Gone) (Gone)
We pull into the Rattlesnake Ranch after 9 o'clock at night. It's pitch black outside and as hot as a sauna, and we park as close to the front door as possible, wary of what might be lurking in the dark.
The front door, thankfully, is unlocked. "Bayou Bob" Popplewell, owner and guru of the Rattlesnake Ranch, is inside.
"I was just out in the swamp, setting turtle traps," he explains. He looks like Cliff the postman from Cheers, except that his face is covered in sweat and he wears a stained t-shirt and big rubber boots.
The large room, which serves as a museum, gift shop, and snake skin drying rack, is filled with a steady hiss. The sound might come from an overtaxed central air conditioning system - but it doesn't.
It comes from rattlesnakes - hundreds of pissed-off rattlesnakes. Bayou Bob has them stowed in flat wooden crates, plastic garbage cans, and ten-gallon paint buckets with air holes punched through the lids, stacked and scattered across the floor. The buckets are topped with chunks of concrete, apparently to prevent escapes. We belatedly realize that we're standing on some of the packing crates.
"These just came in," Bob tells us casually. They're apparently just another day's inventory at the Rattlesnake Ranch, brought here, in part, by local kids who find 'em injured or dead and sell them to Bob for cash. But most he collected in perfect health during the week's turtling forays. Bob reaches into a crate with a hook to hoist a six-footer aloft for our inspection. The snake undulates in mid-air, its rattle buzzing furiously, as Bob waves it back and forth in front of an unfinished wood wall studded with dead animal heads.
Bob, who claims to have been bitten many times, laughs at our fear and insists rattlesnake bites are not fatal, just painful, although "you do swell up a lot." You're in trouble, he tells us, if you get bitten in the face "where all those blood vessels are," and you're also in trouble if you're a kid. But most of the people who get bit are adults, and most of them get bit in the butt. "People go swimming around here, come out of the river, and sit on a ledge that has a rattlesnake. I'm not gonna suck the venom out of that!"
A little terrarium of terrified white mice stands next to the door that leads to the back yard, where the rattlesnake pit is. Bob has thoughtfully directed an electric fan into their glass prison, to give the mice some air, but that's as far as his compassion extends. The mice are dinner. Every paying visitor, Bob tells us, gets a free mouse to toss into the pit and "watch the feeding frenzy."
Bob concedes that "women don't like the smell" of the Rattlesnake Ranch, and there's plenty of smell to go around. It is poop - poop from the terrified mice, poop from the snakes - and it's also the smell of drying skins, hundreds of them, draped and dangling all over the place like brown stalactites in a cave of meat.
Rattlesnakes are valuable chiefly for their skin, and the biggest skin of all, which Bob points to with pride, was used in the Snake Worship Cult episode of The X-Files. Bob has an autographed photo to prove it.
Bob enjoys talking about himself. He once was a professor at an all-girls college in Virginia and "a public official here in Texas," but insists that this is his true calling. ("I prefer real snakes to human snakes.") He was interviewed by a Mr. Hata, "the Jack Hannah of Japan." ("I was seen by 24 million viewers."). His agent wanted him to battle the Crocodile Hunter on Jay Leno ("The Crocodile Hunter is full of croc!"). He's been doing this for 40 years. ("I think like a snake.")
He's writing a book about how to snake proof your dog.
Most intriguing of all, Bob has a working relationship with Dr. Carl Baugh at the Creation Evidence Museum in nearby Glen Rose. Bob explains how he put a couple of rattlers into the Museum's hyperbaric chamber for eight to ten weeks, then compared them to a control group back at the Ranch. The "increased oxygen and electromagnetic force field" of the chamber, Bob insists, "dramatically altered" the venom of the test snakes, making it "symmetrical, like a Navaho blanket." It also made it much more orange. "You could tell it was different just by looking at it. We don't know what it means."
Bob also tells us about his web site, and of his plan to flood the internet with 5 million spam messages: "Feeding time, 4 o'clock!" This announcement will draw people to see "feeding frenzies and strikes and bites and venom" in the snake pit on a live videocam. Anyone can watch for free, Bob explains, but those who want to control the camera will have to pay. As soon as Bob gets his T-1 line installed - a problem, he concedes, in rural Texas - he'll be ready to bring this new form of entertainment to the world.
There are many questions that we were unable to answer at the Rattlesnake Ranch, or perhaps were simply unwilling to pursue at night, in the middle of nowhere, stuck in a room with Bayou Bob. For example: Why was the stove surrounded by a big pile of skulls and antlers? Who buys the big slabs of clear resin in which Bob has embedded entire snakes? Why was one of the big garbage cans filled to the top with empty half-gallon bottles of vodka?
Bob continues to pull live rattlers out of buckets and boxes and wave them at us, our fear supplying him with endless entertainment. When our backs are turned he tickles our legs with his hook and watches us jump.
"Hey, you've got good reaction time."
He is especially amused by our concern that a snake will leap out of one of the garbage cans. Bob throws a rattler onto the floor, then lowers his foot at its head. The snake repeatedly lunges into the boot sole, fangs bared. "See?" Bob says. "A rattler may lunge several feet, but it can't leap through the air." Frankly, that's not all that reassuring. But Bob isn't worried. "I just have to be careful that they don't crawl under the soda machine. Then they're hard to get out."