Ken Darnell, Snake Wrangler
Credit: Photograph by Michael Edwards
It used to be that when people in the South and the Midwest got worried there were too many rattlesnakes around, they would hold a rattlesnake roundup. Imagine a bloody state fair: Snakes are captured and brought in by locals, often for a bounty. Prizes are awarded to hunters for the heaviest and longest snakes. Snakes are paraded around, prodded, harassed, and then, usually, butchered for their meat and skin. Three roundups take place in eastern diamondback territory: in Opp, Alabama; Claxton, Georgia; and Whigham, Georgia. The 82 snakes brought to the Whigham Roundup in January 2011 was the lowest number ever. That same month, the city of Opp offered a bounty of $8 per foot for rattlesnakes, to spur hunting. A local paper published the headline "there's gold in them there burrows."

Ever the opportunist, Darnell still goes to as many roundups as he can, milking the snakes – those about to be killed and those that will be spared – without having to pay the hunters.

"Mistreatment," says Darnell, "is in the eye of the beholder. Just having a roundup drives some people to mouth-foam regardless of the fact that money is raised for scholarships and venom is produced for an obviously good reason."

On January 28, Darnell made an appearance at the 52nd annual roundup in Whigham. Twenty-thousand country folk milled around Confederate reenactment tents, carnival games, face-painting booths, and reptile talks, buying leather belts, pitcher plants, novelty bras, marshmallow guns, camouflage eyewear, snake heads, and stuffed snakes. Inside the rattlesnake corral, a half-dozen Plexiglas tanks held about 20 snakes each. Wearing red suspenders, a black collared shirt, jeans, and glasses, Darnell lifted the snakes out with his special putter, measured, weighed, and milked them. He walked around so the crowd could get a closer look at the snakes that had already been milked. A man dressed in camouflage held his young daughter high in the air to see. She asked if the snakes would bite her. "No, sweetie," the father said. "They're probably more afraid of you than you are of them."