Once every year, in Waurika, Oklahoma, folks from all around engage in the world’s largest rattlesnake hunt and mass slaughter. Jed Strahm’s Snake Hunt: These Rattles Ain’t for Babies documents the event and the footage definitely ain’t for the squeamish, or even less for animal lovers.
We spoke with Jed a week before his film screens at SXSW 2004.
What inspired you to make a documentary on a bunch of snake hunters?
My producer and good friend Rebecca Elliott grew up in Duncan Oklahoma, less than fifteen miles from Waurika. She grew up hearing about the “snake hunt” every year and when we began to discuss possible subjects to cover in our documentary, Waurika came to mind. We contacted Sherri Englund, one of the festival’s organizers, who sent us a flyer. It was then we learned what went on during the “world’s largest and friendliest snake hunt”. Until that point, we didn’t know anything about James White and the Outlaw Handlers, and their extensive snake shows, we did not know what a “picture snake” was, we learned about the sacking contest and we began to fear the butcher pen. The more we learned about the festival, the more excited we became. The topic was both intriguing and, as far as we were concerned, untapped. Of course there have been other documentaries on snake hunting, but none quite like this one.
Are these friendly snake hunters? They’re not making boots out of their finds are they?
The hunters are definitely friendly, although it took some time to earn their trust. They initially thought we were out to exploit them and their practices, which we were. I was asked to pick up a western diamondback rattlesnake bare-handed. Both Christy and I were asked to behead and butcher a rattlesnake apiece; Rebecca and Christy were both coerced into the main rattlesnake pit where they held their breath right smack in the center of the pen as two snake handlers tossed more than a dozen snakes around their feet. So yes, they are nice and very accommodating. And they are very big fans of practical jokes. Apparently snakes are so common in Waurika that at times, people will catch them in their homes. One seemingly popular way to dispatch a slithering intruder is to toss them into the freezer. On one of our first trips to Oklahoma, we were being shown a three foot rattlesnake that had been frozen stiff in a little old lady’s deep freeze. When Christy used the restroom near the butcher pit, David Englund (one of the festival organizers) held the tail-end of the frozen reptile under the gap beneath the bathroom door. Needless to say, Christy’s high pitched screech gave them an immense amount of enjoyment.
How many people get bitten during Snake Hunt?
In an average Waurika festival, at least one individual will suffer a snake bite. We witnessed only one, and it was during the Sacking Contest. The sacking contest begins when a contestant chooses one of two offered bags. Each bag contains three baby rattlesnakes. After dumping the snakes out onto a flatbed trailer, the contestant will arrange them in whatever manner he prefers to make them easier and faster to pick up. As soon as he makes contact with the first snake the stopwatches begin keeping time as he races to barehand the three snakes back into the bag. The professional division is entertaining, these guys have been doing it for years and their skill level is often stunning. The amateur division is an entirely different bird. The contestants have never touched a snake and are often a bit drunk. This is where the majority of the snakebites occur. The year we were there, the first amateur to compete was bitten by the first snake he touched. The bite itself is unimpressive: a tiny puncture wound with a miniscule amount of blood. But the aftermath is where the fun kicks in. Roughly two hours after the contestant was bitten and rushed to the hospital, he returned to the festival proudly displaying his wounded index finger – the tip of which was larger than a golf ball. Typically, within twenty-four hours, depending on how much venom was injected, the swelling spreads up the arm to the shoulder. We spoke with one individual who was bitten on the forehead. A few hours later, his head had swollen so much that he could not remove his cowboy hat. He had to have it cut from his head.
Did anyone on your production team have problems being around snakes?
Before we began, none of us would qualify ourselves as snake lovers. I would guesstimate that Christy had the worst fear of snakes. Not only did she catch and butcher a snake, but she was invited and agreed to step into the snake pit and experienced the feeling of a dozen snakes slithering over her feet. The snake handlers did ask for volunteers from the spectators, and though none of us spoke up, we watched more than one audience member climb into a sleeping bag which was then filled with ten or so rattlesnakes; the individual then had to climb their way out of the bag – slowly and surely.
What are some of the more interesting things you learned about rattlers that you didn’t know before making this film?
Honestly, I am and have been a lifetime devotee to horror & kung-fu films – the sicker the better. “Cannibal Holocaust,” “Snake Fist vs. the Dragon,” “Cannibal Ferox” – any Third-World cannibal film and multiple martial arts films of the seventies that contained real animal mutilation never really bothered me; I never thought they were cool, but I didn’t lost sleep over it. If anything, it made the impossible-to-find titles even more difficult to find. Especially in Oklahoma – nothing controversial ever came to Oklahoma. The slaughterhouse footage in the first “Faces of Death” film really turned me off, but it wasn’t until this documentary that I really lost my taste for anything being killed in front of me. That’s a very westernized way of thinking: we’ll eat damn near anything, but we don’t want to know where it comes from. Just the other day, I heard the best reason ever for someone becoming a vegetarian: my friend just feels bad for the little animals. Not some high and mighty soapbox speech, but that he honestly feels bad for those led to slaughter – I can respect that. I’m not a vegetarian, but I eat far less meat than I ever have in my life. I guess in a sense, one could argue that I am slowly weaning myself off of meat. Much like smokers when they slow their nicotine intake, I’m slowing my meat consumption.
Honestly, the butchering of the snakes was actually pretty fascinating. Did you know that the heart of a rattlesnake, once removed from the body of the snake and placed on a counter, can continue to beat for almost an hour? Did you know that the meat of a snake – the muscle – spasms so much, that once all the flesh and interior organs have been removed, the meat continues to twist and flinch? Even when the meat was being prepared for cooking, as the butcher chopped the snake meat into six inch chunks, the individual pieces continue to move, much like the pieces of a severed earthworm! But what really got to me was the preparation of the picture snakes. Three snakes a day are chosen from the snake pit. These tend to be beautiful snakes: the longest, fattest, healthiest ones are held down one at a time by one or two men while a third, the local physician, pulls all of the fangs from their mouths with a pair of pliers. Sure, this sounds bad, and you’re probably thinking like, two fangs… but no. A snake can have up to eight sets of fangs (16 teeth) in reserve in the event one is lost, backed up in small pockets of flesh in the roofs of their mouths. The doctor pulls ALL of these out, in particularly bloody fashion, especially since the snakes are still alive and fighting like hell to escape. Once all fangs have been removed, the doc begins to stitch up the mouth. Everyone wants the snake to retain the ability to stick out its tongue, so the doctor plans accordingly. He places a stitch on either side of the tip of the head, providing the snake’s tongue enough clearance to slip in and out of its mouth between the two stitches. This couldn’t have been more brutal, sadistic, or repulsive. These people are taking these magnificent creatures, animals that have lived on this planet unchanged for millions of years, and turning them into “picture snakes” so other people can pay $3 for a crappy Polaroid of themselves with said snake wrapped around their neck. We heard PETA was going to make an appearance, picketing the animal brutality during the course of the festival. We were actually hoping for this kind of conflict, to no avail. They didn’t show, we didn’t get their opinions recorded on tape, and here we are, two years later, and in about six weeks, the people of Waurika (and countless other small towns peppering the Bible-Belt of the American Midwest) will rip the fangs from another handful snakes. If this documentary leads to ANY changes or adjustments to the ways these festivals are conducted, that would be the one thing I would like to see banished.
Any upcoming projects?
We finished principal photography on our first narrative feature, “Organic,” last summer and are currently in the postproduction process. We met a man while we were shooting “Snake Hunt” who mentioned that every year during deer hunting season, he sponsors a hunt for mentally deficient kids. He handpicks nearly a dozen mentally retarded individuals and guarantees each of them a kill. He’s rigged a hydraulic lift to raise those in wheelchairs up into the deer stands. Each person has the choice whether or not they want to skin and gut their kill. So this winter, we plan to be shooting our next documentary back in Oklahoma…