Some folks shudder at even the thought of snakes. Not Robert Ackerman.
Looking down at the chattering pile of western diamondback snakes in the pit, Robert Ackerman takes a deep breath to calm himself before his next stunt. Then he steps into the Plexiglas coffin and lies on his back, while a guillotine-like barrier locks over his neck, preventing snakes from crawling above his shoulders, where a venomous bite would likely be fatal. A large crowd and the Rattlesnake Republic TV crew look on while rattlesnake handlers armed with snake tongs carefully release one hundred rattlesnakes into the coffin, one by one. Robert remains calm and still. In one tense moment, an agitated rattler slips under the barrier, wedging himself under Robert’s neck. Arms in the air, a handler yells, “Stop!” before the snake is carefully removed.
Then the Plexiglas lid closes and the countdown begins; as the five-minute mark nears, the crowd counts off the final seconds in unison and erupts in cheers. Robert’s only movement, as the coffin lid rises, is a huge smile. His extremely risky stunt has set a new world record.
Robert Ackerman lives life on the edge, but he maintains a healthy respect for rattlesnakes and an essential knowledge of their behavior. He’s spent twenty years hunting, studying, and conducting shows and educational programs involving rattlesnakes. Even after a bite that had Robert knocking on death’s door, his passion for snakes continues.
Life with Snakes
Twenty years ago, Robert’s fifteen-year-old son and a friend were caught on the San Gabriel River with beer. An officer gave the boys a ticket, and a justice of the peace sentenced them to one hundred hours of community service. Robert’s son chose to volunteer at the National Rattlesnake Sacking Championship in Taylor. “In order to get in touch with my son and get involved in his life, I volunteered with him,” Robert says. That’s how Robert’s life with snakes began. Soon afterward, Robert, a construction manager by trade, began buying snakes commercially. “It’s a business to me,” Robert says. He buys and sells mostly rattlesnakes, spending thousands each year.
To hunt snakes, Robert explains, people must obtain a hunting license and a non-game collector’s permit through the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. Robert also maintains a commercial buyer’s permit. “I’ve spent as much as $7,000 in one day buying snakes. I once drove down Main Street in Taylor with 2,014 live rattlesnakes in a trailer!” Robert says.
Snake hunters bring live snakes to commercial buyers, like Robert, to sell. Some buyers extract venom for use in research, and others sell snakes for their skins, meat, heads, and rattlers. “I will not buy a dead snake, and I rarely ever kill a snake. The average person probably kills more snakes than I do,” Robert says. Robert keeps several live snakes at all times to buy and sell and to use for his demonstrations. “The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department regulates snakes that are brought in and disposed of. I have to keep records of everything,” Robert explains.
Snakes, especially rattlesnakes, can be found anywhere in Texas. “Rapid movement will draw a strike every time,” Robert advises. “A snake will bite for food or fear. He can’t hear you scream, but jumping up and down will get his attention very quickly.”
In the spring and fall, Robert explains, snakes begin to move from their feeding areas back to their dens: “At 60 degrees they get sluggish, but at 90 degrees they get fast and ornery.” He shares his knowledge of snakes with residents, local companies, and government agencies, including Williamson County, advising them how to keep snakes away from buildings. He makes nuisance calls to homes and businesses, and he’ll crawl under a house with a flashlight and go nose-to-nose with a rattlesnake if necessary.
“When I put on my shows, we educate and show the fangs and the venom. We tell the kids not to do what we’re doing! Then, we get a little crazy,” he says with a grin. Robert performs shows at festivals and rattlesnake roundups, in settings as distant as California, New York, Turkey, and Germany.
“How do you know they’re not going to bite? You don’t,” Robert says. “It’s on-the-job training. If you mess up, it might be the last time you mess up!”
Robert’s knowledge of rattlesnakes allows him to attempt signature stunts such as lying in a sleeping bag while rattlers crawl in, holding a balloon in his teeth while a rattlesnake strikes and pops the balloon, and kissing the top of a cobra’s head. “When you get into the sleeping bag, you lie very still,” he says. “The only sure-enough requirement is that you put rubber bands at the bottom of your pants. It feels awful funny when the snakes get inside your pant leg, and you have to have your pants cut off. That happened, and I had to learn the hard way.”
A Venomous Lesson
“A rattlesnake has the ability to control venom. He can give you a dry bite, which releases a small amount of venom, or he can dump all of it into you. A baby rattlesnake will dump everything he has because he hasn’t learned to control it. It depends on how mad they are, and each of them has a different temperament,” Robert explains.
“I’ve only been bitten twice in twenty years,” Robert boasts, “once in the back of my hand, and the other in my calf.” The hand bite required a few vials of anti-venom and a few nights in the hospital.
The calf bite, however, was a different story. While working for a film company, Robert brought out a snake for an actor who was supposed to pin it down, pick it up, and place it in a container. “When I put the snake on the ground, he went straight at the cameraman, full blast. I grabbed the snake by the tail. He raised his whole body up, and my leg was the last thing he saw that moved, so he bit my leg,” Robert remembers. He woke up nine days later. After forty-one vials of anti-venom and thirty-eight days in the hospital, Robert went back to work with a severely scarred leg. “The initial pain? It feels like a cigarette burn, and it never quits. Morphine merely takes the edge off, and the pain and swelling grow throughout your body,” Robert explains.
Whether we love ’em or hate ’em, snakes are integral part of the ecosystem, Robert points out. “Snakes have a purpose. They eat rodents. There is a reason for them to be on this earth.” With knowledge and awareness, people can coexist with snakes—but the dangerous stunts are best left to Robert Ackerman.
For current and accurate information on licenses for hunting snakes and other wildlife, please visit tpwd.texas.gov.
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