Pat McLaughlin has been doing the Rattlesnake Roundup at the Lone Star Fair & Expo for a long time, long enough to know what can go wrong if he doesn’t stay vigilant.
“We were doing a show one time, probably 10 or 15 years ago,” McLaughlin said. “I was pinning a snake, and I was trying to be so careful not to hurt that snake.
“I reached down to get the snake, and when I did, I wasn’t holding him super tight and he turned in my hand and my finger went down his throat,” he said. McLaughlin stood stunned, wearing a headset microphone, looking at the two fangs on either side of his finger. “I’m trying to calm down and think clearly enough to think how I’m going to get my finger out of this snake’s mouth,” McLaughlin said.
Eventually, McLaughlin was able to toss the snake away from himself with both hands simultaneously, not giving the very angry rattlesnake a chance to sink those fangs into his finger. McLaughlin said these days, he doesn’t worry quite so much about being gentle with the snakes.
If you do, he said, “you stand a massive chance of getting bit.”
Pat’s son Patrick, event organizer and head of the Brownwood Jaycees, explained the group’s Rattlesnake Corps that helps with the event every year. “It’s a group of men that are passionate about teaching the community the difference between a rat snake or a rattlesnake, so out in the wild if you come upon a snake, you can know the difference between a venomous and non-venomous snake and what to do if you come across a venomous snake.
“So the Rattlesnake Corps in Brownwood is just basically a group of guys that got together and decided they want to teach the public,” he said. Patrick McLaughlin said all the Expo’s snakes come from third-party vendors and are not cared for by the Corps or the Jaycees.
“I don’t do tricks” with the snakes, said Pat McLaughlin. “I don’t get in sleeping bags, I don’t toss snakes back and forth. I don’t scoop them up or any of that stuff. I’ll pet them, pick them up and show you the fangs. We’ll talk about what rattlesnakes eat and what their enemies are and the dangers of being bit.”
McLaughlin said a brisk walk, for most people, can move faster than a slithering rattlesnake. But people don’t always realize that in the heat of the moment when they see one in the wild. “When the adrenaline’s hitting,” he said, “everything is expanded. But in reality, a rattlesnake only strikes about one-third its body length.”
Knowing facts like this, McLaughlin said, is crucial for keeping calm and staying safe in a snake pit. McLaughlin said it’s important for the Corps to make the snakes accustomed to human presence, find snakes that strike higher than normal and even weed out the occasional “psychotic” snake that attacks incessantly for no reason.
Most snakes will only bite, McLaughlin said, if they’re scared or they think something is food. Still, he said, you can never get comfortable in a pit of rattlesnakes. “You have to be constantly vigilant of everything around you,” he said.
The Rattlesnake Corps will be demonstrating live from the snake pit at the Lone Star Fair & Expo this weekend at the Brownwood Coliseum. The fair is open on Friday from 3 to 8 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday from 12 to 5 p.m. Tickets are $5 for ages 12 and up and $2 for children.