Postcard from America 3:
Meet Buzz Ross, Snake Lord

Or: a visit to Rattlers & Reptiles,
the largest live rattlesnake exhibit on the planet. 

Fort Davis is deep in west Texas—half an hour north of Marfa, if that means anything to you. It’s a beautiful, even cutesy town with a fort, an observatory, and plenty of hiking. It’s home to 1,200 people, one of whom happens to have the largest collection of live rattlesnakes in the world. 

Buzz Ross was born in Essex, England, during a bombing raid in World War II. He got his name from the German Buzz bombs dropped on England during the war. He moved to Texas with his family at an early age and has been a kinda British, mostly American snake lover since childhood. 

Someplace: So how long snakes, and why?

Buzz Ross: I was three years old. We were digging up some crepe myrtle trees down at the end of the street; I was catching worms in a tin can with this little girl, and this guy picked a little snake up and said, “Hey, kid, you want this worm?” And I went, “Wow! This is cool!” I took it home, put everybody on their chairs. 

They got used to it. By the time I was eight, somebody brought me a dead rattlesnake—I was already keeping snakes by then—they brought me a dead rattlesnake and I thought that was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. I carried it around for three days. They wouldn’t let me put it in the freezer, so I finally had to bury it. 

I was in a science club from the time I was eight, and we went on a field trip up into Oklahoma when I was thirteen. I found a rattlesnake and snuck it home. I wasn’t supposed to, of course. My mother found it and said, “What’s that?” I said, “A rattlesnake,” and she said, “Be careful.”

S: How many snakes do you have?

BR: Total? Oh, I dunno. ’Bout two hundred?

S: How many species do you have?

BR: I have seventeen different species of rattlesnakes.

S: How many are there?

BR: Thirty-three. 

S: Where did you get them from?

BR: I caught a lot of them, about 80 percent. But I don’t hunt much anymore. It’s a pretty stable collection. 

S: Do you breed them?

BR: Yep. I try not to now. It’s getting so hard to get rid of ’em. The permit to sell ’em costs more than you’d make. I had a war with Texas wildlife for years that I don’t wanna get into.

S: How many times have you been bit?

BR: Five. Three times major and two minors. 

S: What’s the difference?

BR: Minor is just a scratch. You have a little bit of a reaction to it, but it doesn’t really do anything. Major you get a whole arm swollen up. 

S: You have to go to the hospital, right?

BR: Only once. The last one. 

S: Is the poison much different from species to species?

BR: Every snake has a different makeup. In each species and then within the species there are different makeups of venom, and it’s all a mix of neurotoxic and hemotoxic venoms. Everybody thinks there’s neurotoxic and hemotoxic, but it’s mostly a slush of the two. 

S: Are they cheap to keep?

BR: Yeah. I raise my own mice, which is about $20 a week in mouse food. 

S: Do you feel like the snakes have gotten accustomed to you?

BR: I think they know who I am. As far as on feed day, they’re responsive. 

S: Do you chuck a live mouse in there?

BR: No, I kill the mice if I have ’em, and if not I give ’em frozen ones. TV dinners! Hahahaha. I hand ’em to ’em on forceps, let ’em hit it, and then drop it in the cage and they pick it up. I have one cage over there with five snakes in it, and each snake will hit its own mouse and then eat that one. It’s weird. They put their scent on it. 

They’ve done experiments: they’ve had a snake hit a mouse, and then they take the mouse away and the snake will look for it for five hours. Even if another mouse comes right across their mouth, they won’t hit it. 

S: Why rattlesnakes and not other venomous snakes?

BR: I dunno, it’s a fascination. Why do some people like Ferraris and some people like Corvettes? Matter of choice. I ran a reptile house in Fort Worth in the sixties, and I’ve handled it all. My favorite has always been rattlesnakes. And the other stuff is really dangerous. You get hit by a cobra out here and you’re probably SOL.