Snakecatchers’ Union Organizer


A typical night at the Local 253 Snakecatchers Hall in Los Angeles, CA.

Most of you reading this know only a stable American world of children running the streets with trundling hoops, friendly butchers tossing scraps to neighborhood dogs, and a snake in every hand on Sunday morning.  It may seem to you that this is the only way that life could be, but it was not too long ago that America looked quite different.  You see, only 80 years ago, there was a certain group of people who were oppressed.  A group of people who were tormented, ridiculed and paid with wooden nickels so that they were often driven to entomophagy of the most disgusting variety– the eating of escargot.  You would not have guessed it today, when these fine countrymen and -women serve on our city councils, are members of our aquatic fish clubs, visit the same tarot readers we do, and even enter into marriage-like unions with our sons and daughters.

I speak of the Snakecatchers.

It is easy to scoff, since snake catching has become such a respectable lifestyle these days, one that has even been romanticized by the entertainment industry.  Just walk into any video rental store and you are sure to find aisle upon aisle of snakecather-themed VHS’s in the Swampdweller section.  And all of you are sure to have a pair of chest waders tucked into the back of your closets just waiting for the next season that snakecatcher fashion comes back into style as it does every 12 years or so.  Yes, snake catching may have moved fully into the mainstream, but few are aware of the rich lore and deep cultural roots of the snake catchers of days gone by. I do not wish to delve too deeply into the subject, and thus rob some starving, faceless professor slaving in the bowels of a two-bit university in Bethesda or Tampa of their chance at celebrity, but he or she is welcome to contact me and quote me extensively or list me as a co-author of the definitive book on the subject.

In more ways than anyone else in this nation, I am the person who brought the plight of the Snakecatchers to light.  Your parents may remember my face gracing the covers of the glossy magazines– Time, Life, American Gun Culture Report, The Cleveland Plain Dealer.  I was known as, “The Face of America’s Snake Catchers.”  (The official term, Snakecatcher, had not yet been codified in those days.)  Why?  I was simply the first person to begin organizing.  I saw the treatment of snake catchers at the hands of bourgeois Pentecostal and Lutheran preachers, and I visited the bogs and lowlands where the humble Snakecatcher set his or her snares, laid long hours in wait for the cottonmouth, the king, the coach-whip, and the cat-eye.  I saw the dignity with which the Snakecatchers carried themselves, and the pride they took in their work… all to be treated lower than their wares.  The injustice of it boiled in me.  I couldn’t let things stand.  I began to stir up interest.

Our first meeting was in an abandoned shack in the middle of a remote salt marsh.  Lucky I had brought a bullhorn, because we overflowed the place.  Word had spread, and Snakecatchers from seven counties had made their way over to be a part of the movement.  The authorities hadn’t yet sniffed us out, but sniff us out they did, and after a few short months they were cracking down harder than ever.  But it was too late.  A sea change was underway, and never again would a Snakecatcher be forced to slither on the dirt for the amusement of a cruel crowd, nor would one be short-changed by a preacher claiming that a snake measured less than two links.  Snakecatchers were banding together and claiming their rights!

Many people have asked me over the years, “Why?  Cyrus, why would you take such an interest in a people so lowly, so different from you?”  I am about to tell you all something that I have never revealed until this moment… my mamas were Snakecatchers.  I spent years covering up the fact, pretended that I was interested solely in the plight of others, when the plight was truly a personal one.  But I’ve run from my past for too long, and it is finally the end of a 12-year cycle when my announcement will be très chic.


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