Standing outside Ken Darnell's house in the longleaf-pine country near Gordon, Alabama, last February, I could hear the rattling coming from a small building in the yard. I approached cautiously, having been warned. The noise grew louder. I turned a corner, and there, inside the building's screened porch, stood a sweaty man, wearing glasses and a ripped and bloody T-shirt. He was talking to a rattlesnake he called Little Girl Hot Pants, "because," he said, "of the way she coils herself." Little Girl was about five feet long, and she looked perturbed. "OK, sweetie," he said to the snake. "Time for your feed."
Darnell keeps 280 rattlesnakes, most of them eastern diamondbacks, in this unmarked building in his side yard. Little Girl was one of two he had named. (The other was called Shot in the Head, because Darnell had saved her from "a Mississippi blonde with a pistol.") A rat oozed out of Little Girl's gaping jaws – Darnell was force-feeding her – and onto her owner's considerable belly.
"I'm not as gross as this appears," Darnell said. "Or maybe I am. But there's a reason for it."
Darnell – who is 67 years old, has curly gray hair, a reddish face, and weighs around 260 pounds – carefully placed the snake back in her box. He turned, favoring me with my first direct look, as I stood nervously in a corner of the porch clutching my pen.
"Don't worry," he said. "I've got an almost perfect safety record."
Darnell lives 10 miles from Gordon, a town with no chamber of commerce, no movie theater, and, most notably, no hospital. There are far more snakes around than people, and they include the largest rattlesnake in the world. The eastern diamondbacks that weren't rattling on Darnell's screened porch, or in the Bioactive Inc. "laboratory" connected to it, slithered around in the nearby brush.
As I watched, Darnell unlatched a plastic bin and removed the lid, momentarily wielding it as a shield. He lifted out a beautiful olive-colored, eight-pound snake, using a jury-rigged golf putter with a C-shaped steel addition on the end. Standing back, he placed the snake on a foam pad. After a tense moment – the rattlesnake was free, the porch small – he pinned it behind the head with the hook, grabbed the head with his left hand, and positioned the body under his right arm. The snake's fangs fit over the side of a film-covered funnel, which it bit, releasing venom with a hiss. The funnel ran into a centrifuge tube on ice. Darnell's meaty thumb and middle finger depressed the two glands near the snake's jaw joint to get out all the milk. It was the venom that Darnell was after. It's worth a fortune, if you're willing to extract it.
"I love that sound," Darnell said of the hissing.