Deadly rattlesnakes are a fact of life in West Texas, and even if you don’t hate snakes or aren’t particularly scared of them, you probably do your best to keep out of their way. But there’s one man in Fort Davis who’s been doing just the opposite for most of his life.
Buzz Ross is the owner of Rattlers & Reptiles, a snake museum in Fort Davis off Highway 17. Inside, the museum walls are lined with tanks of reptiles — a few tarantulas, a pair of Gila lizards, but mostly snakes.
Ross says people just don’t understand snakes and how useful they can be, especially at killing off rodents. Like bees, venomous snakes won’t attack unless they’re provoked.
“None of them are mean or aggressive. They’re all defensive,” he says. “So everything they do in posturing is to make themselves look big. The rattle is to scare things off.”
Myths about the evil of serpents go back to the Garden of Eden. But different cultures have their own particular legends about snakes. In Mexico, the whip snake, or chirrionera, boasts its own spooky lore.
“They believe that it will chase you down, whip you to death, and stick its tail up your nose,” says Ross.
A human fear of snakes goes back to ancient civilizations, and in parts of Texas and the South, rattlesnake roundups are still held annually. During these events, wild rattlesnakes are collected, put on display and slaughtered for food or snakeskin souvenirs. One of the biggest annual roundups is in Sweetwater, Texas.
Ross says roundups have survived because of people’s prejudice against snakes. To illustrate his point, he suggests a puppy roundup would be considered inhumane.
“Put puppies in big pens and kick them and see how loud you can make them scream,” he says. “Cut off their heads, fry them up, feed them to the people, and make key fobs of their feet and their tails.”
Ross first got his start caring for reptiles at the Fort Worth Zoo in the 1960s. He worked for Fort Worth’s Museum of Science and History until 1979, when he decided to move to Fort Davis.
To pay the bills, he worked in taxidermy. Most of the animals he stuffed weren’t snakes, but he remembers one.
“Snakes, when they swallow, their scales in their neck stretch out. So when you skin one, you got all this stretchiness,” he says. “To make them look right, it takes a lot of work.”
To sustain his love for herping — what herpetologists call tracking snakes — Ross regularly led group hunts in the Davis Mountains. Occasionally, he worked as a snake wrangler on movie sets. Once, he helped out with a Brazilian TV show.
“The storyline that I was in was they were smuggling some people into the U.S.,” Ross recalls. “This lady got bit by a rattlesnake and they shot her and left her.”
To make the snake strike on camera, Ross picked out a temperamental one.
Ross has been bitten three times, first by a Western diamondback in 1986, again by a pit viper in 1993. Earlier this year, in May, he got the worst bite of his life — from an Arizona black rattlesnake.
“Blood pressure went up to 160 over 153, heart rate was over 150,” he says. “Slammed some Benadryl, got to the hospital, and they gave me antivenin, life-flighted me to Midland.”
It cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for the medical bill totaled. Ross is still struggling to pay the expenses that aren’t covered by Medicare. Yet he remains drawn to the animal that nearly killed him.
“It’d be a horrible world if we didn’t have snakes, and people don’t realize that. They were here long before we were.”
– Mia Warren