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Best Feature "Rattlesnake Rodeo"

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(OPP, Ala.)-- Multiple festivals are taking place across the state as Alabama celebrates its bicentennial. But there is an event that takes place every year in Opp, Alabama that has some people’s skin crawling.  

 

Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, or Crotalus adamanteus, were the slithering stars of the 59th annual Rattlesnake Rodeo about 85 miles south of Montgomery.

 

Mobile may be known for Mardi Gras every year, and Florence strikes up the band for the annual W.C. Handy Festival. But clearly the Rattlesnake Rodeo has its fans too. Opp mayor Becky Bracke is one and was even seen decked out with her favorite rattlesnake earrings at the event. She said the rodeo is an economic boon to her city.

 

“Last year it brought in over 10,000 people, so you’re doubling to population of Opp,” she said. “Even the people outside of the stadium, the convenience stores, the hotels, they see a boost during this weekend.”

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Alabama Public Radio
Opp Mayor Becky Bracke

Bracke said the Rattlesnake Rodeo is one of the more unique events in Alabama, and the fear of being bitten by one of the guests of honor is part of the charm.

 

"Everyone is always interested in something that’s dangerous. And the rattlesnake is dangerous,” she said. “They’re handling them, they will put on around your neck if you really want them to. That’s a draw to get people to come into our community.”

 

That is what brought in Maggie from New York. She is working at an internship in Montgomery and heard about the rodeo.

 

“I’ve experienced fear before, [but] not quite like this,” she said. “I’ve usually been at places where everything feels kid friendly, but here there is this…the snake component is unique.”

 

It’s snake-seeking visitors like Maggie that put a smile on Bracke’s face.

 

“That’s what it’s all about, is showing people our southern hospitality, showing them our great community,” Bracke said.

 

 

Thousands of people make their way to this small town to get the typical festival experience, fried food, music and vendors, along with this event’s specialty.

 

Dwayne McGee runs Skin Shop USA out of Alpine Tennessee. His outfit has been coming to Opp for years to sell his goods at the rodeo. He said his products do well here because they fit the theme to a tee.

 

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Alabama Public Radio
Skin Shop, USA's wares at the Opp Rattlesnake Rodeo

   “We have all kinds of snake skin products,” he said. “Everything from rattlesnake skin knife sheaths, to inlay knives with the snakeskin inlayed into them, rattlesnake wallets, rattlesnake head keychains, rattlesnake rattle necklaces, hat bands belts, buckles with heads on them, just a little bit of everything.”

 

He said while his products are popular, some people have a problem with it, so McGee said they make sure they are careful with how they get their supplies.

 

“What we do is, and what we kind of pride ourselves on, we make use of a natural resource that is going to be killed whether we’re in business or not,” he explained. “We’ve always worked with the game and freshwater fish commission in different areas to make sure the snakes stay plentiful and we do everything we can in that respect.”

 

One of the other experiences people get at the Rattlesnake Rodeo is the opportunity to take a bite out of something most people fear will take a bite out of  them.

 

Donnie Moonie with the Frank Jackson Trail Masters spent the rodeo frying up some rattlesnake in an old deep fryer in the stadium’s concrete concession stand.

 

“We give 21 dollars a pound for that snake,” he said. “We buy 200 pound of it and we sell every bit of it.”

 

Attendees do not eat the snakes they saw slithering around at the event. Those snakes are caught for the rodeo. Moonie said they have to order the ones that wind up on a plate for his customers.

 

“The snakes come out of Texas at a rattlesnake ranch and they skin it, process it. It is USDA approved by the time we get it,” he said.

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Credit Stan Ingold / Alabama Public Radio
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Alabama Public Radio
Fried rattlesnake at the Opp Rattlesnake Rodeo

Cooks at the rodeo get a lot of people trying the reptile for the very first time. Doyle Darby is from Jemison Alabama and took his first bite of rattlesnake at this year’s event.

 

“It’s good…its good…kinda tastes like chicken,” he said.

 

Darby, like most people, came to check out the noisy reptiles.

 

“We wanted to see the snakes and I wanted to see the race,” he said.

 

The race is one of several rattlesnake races that are put on throughout the weekend.

 

“That’s where we take the snakes and put a number, with a piece of tape on each snake. We take them out to the center ring, in a circle, and we pour them out and the first snake out of the circle is the winner,” snake handler Bobby Crutchfield explained.

 

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Alabama Public Radio
Crowd gathering for the first rattlesnake race at the Opp Rattlesnake Rodeo

  The crowd gathered in the stands for the first race as a bin of snakes was carried to the center ring. They cheered on their favorite snake until one makes it out of the circle.

 

As the thrill of the race dies down, Ken Howell took center stage. He is one of the elder statesmen of the rodeo and has worked it for 48 years. Howell looked the part in his snakeskin vest. His job is to give the crowd a quick history lesson on the event.

 

“It started in Geneva Alabama as rattlesnake roundup, not a rodeo, a roundup, which meant they collected probably three or four hundred of them and then disposed of them,” he said.

 

Howell said this gave a local Jaycee named J.P. Jones an idea.

 

“He said, ‘You know, we’re looking for a project. Why don’t we do like Geneva did and have a rattlesnake round up?’ They said “we don’t want kill all that many snakes, let’s just show and teach safety and education.”

 

Howell said not only is the rodeo an educational opportunity, it also helps the medical community. Some of the snakes are used to create anti-venom for bites. But most of the snakes get a simpler treatment.

 

“Most of these will be let go in the wild,” Howell said.

 

He said the wiregrass region is a good environment for these snakes to thrive.

 

“They’re down here, because the sand along the fields, fence rows and things like that are easy for them to adapt to, they live in it. They eat the rats, they’re a great part of our environment here,” Howell explained.

 

He said  in the 59 years the rodeo has been held, no one has been bitten at the event.

 

“We’ve been very fortunate. These people, it wouldn’t do, we’re teaching safety and education and see someone get bit out here. So we’re going to take every extreme caution we can,” he said.

 

The citizens of Opp are already looking forward to next year when the city will host the 60th Rattlesnake Rodeo.

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