Ken Darnell, Snake Wrangler
Credit: Photograph by Michael Edwards
People bring snakes to Darnell all the time. Some drop them off for free – in the back of a pickup truck, maybe, idling in his driveway – but most he has to buy.

"Ten a foot gets the guys interested," says Darnell. "They bring them here in the yard, honk the horn, and say, 'You want this snake?' They know good and well I do. They'll give me a five-foot snake, and I'll give them six feet for it. They think, 'Boy, we're really taking him.'"

Darnell also makes house calls. One day in February, I accompanied him on a trip to buy 23 EDBs from the Cobbs, a family in nearby Moultrie, Alabama. As we drove, I asked Darnell why he doesn't hunt snakes himself. "It's a waste of time when someone else can do it," he said.

Legally, eastern diamondback rattlesnakes can be hunted as early as November, when they retreat to the warmth of gopher tortoise burrows. In practice, though, not many people try to catch them before the end of deer season, in late January. Snake hunters don't want to get shot, plus most prefer to hunt deer. Warm weather can arrive by the third week of February in this part of Alabama. When that happens, the rattlesnakes leave the burrows and return to the fencerows, brush piles, briar patches, and junk heaps beside the chicken coops and hog barns – places where rodents live.

We arrived at the Cobbs' home in the afternoon. The snakes were piled in wooden crates in the driveway. After some small talk, Darnell removed and inspected each one, drawling his assessments. Tommy Cobb has been hunting snakes for 40 years. His preferred method, he says, is to thread a 20-foot hose into a burrow, place the free end to his ear, and listen for the telltale rattle. As he's telling me this, he reaches into the crate with his stick and pulls out a handsome member of the largest venomous snake species in North America. Its brown and yellow scales glitter like diamonds.

Betty Cobb, Tommy's wife, tallied up the total: one four-footer, two six-footers, the rest between five and five and a half feet. "We'll call it 120½ feet," Darnell announced, handing $1,205 to Tommy.

"Caught one once," said Tommy, "had just eaten a rabbit. Got me a white tie and put it around his neck, gonna make him keep it down. Well, I tied it too tight, and he died."

"That's cruel," said Betty, turning to me. "I told him that's cruel."

"A tourniquet on a snake," said Darnell. "Isn't that something."

"He was a fine snake," said Tommy. He paused, grew thoughtful, and then continued. "There's as many out there now as there's ever been. People clearing up so much land around here, they just moving 'em."

Perhaps, but last August, Bruce Means, an adjunct professor at Florida State University, along with three conservation groups, filed a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, asking to list the eastern diamondback rattlesnake as a threatened species facing a "decline toward extinction."