This information-gathering program was started largely to satisfy the "earth people," as animal-rights activists are called around these parts. As it turned out, studies conducted at Texas A&M showed that the Sweetwater Round-up has very little effect on the local rattlesnake population. Plenty of snakes, from the rustlers' point of view, are left behind to bite ranchers' cattle, kill their dogs and scare their children out of the pastures all summer long.
The information on the snakes' sex, length and habitat goes to Texas Parks and Wildlife and to Texas A&M. The venom is sold to labs for antivenom serum and for studies of venom's effects as a cancer treatment.
In the research pit Ken Higdon holds a snake by its head and says it is like arm-wrestling a human. Higdon presses the open mouth of each live rattler against a contraption that looks something like a fraternity house's beer bong: The venom runs into a funnel that empties into a glass baby bottle sitting in a bucket full of ice.
Until last year protesters often attended the Sweetwater roundup and decried what they perceived to be the depletion of rattlesnake species and cruelty to reptiles. "We kinda miss the earth people," says Ransberger. "They were the best advertisement for us. Most of 'em were Yankees—you know, from north of the Red River. Then studies were done that showed we weren't hurting the population. That ate the earth people plum up."
At rattlesnake roundups, just as at fast-food restaurants, one is always assured of getting the same product, presented in exactly the same way: good ol boys, bad ol' snakes and even worse novelty items, which include rattler-tail earrings, rattler meat and rattler heads in blue wigs and Dallas Cowboy helmets. And at all events, organizers go to great lengths to tell you just how proud they are of their safety record. Not until they have had a few cold ones at the Knights of Columbus dance does word of this year's bite slip out.
Some people recommend carrying suction cups for drawing out the venom. Others are now carrying stun guns to deliver a concentrated electrical current to the wound immediately after a bite. Vets in the Sweetwater area swear by the stun gun for treating bitten livestock. Theories abound as to just how the high voltage works. Some say it reverses the polarity in venom, rendering it ineffective. Others, among them Ransberger, say the electricity "messes with the proteins in the venom."
"One ol' boy," says Ransberger, "he hooked a screwdriver up to his number 1 spark plug and stuck it on the bite, but you gotta know what you're doing. In any case, you should have a good set of car keys and get to the doctor."
And then, perhaps, to a sanitarium.