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Rare Reptile Returns

The Journal of Prevarication
Shedding the shackles of fact since 1830

By Jim Cook
Official State Liar of Arizona

Although winter has barely begun, game biologists and herpetologists are impatiently waiting for spring, when rattlesnakes emerge from their holes.

They believe that the fur-bearing Hassayampa rattlesnake (crotalus furious), long feared to be extinct, has returned to the Hassayampa River and its tributaries.

It is the only fur-bearing snake in the world, and its discovery caused a stir in world capitals back around 1830.

That’s when mountain men first discovered the Hassayampa rattler shedding long tubes of luxuriant fur in the spring. The mountain men were interlopers–illegal immigrants, as it were. This land belonged to Mexico, but Mexico had to deal with internal strife, so it which rarely sent soldiers north of Tucson.

Trapper James Ohio Pattie and his brother Iowa Caucus Pattie were the first to report the rare reptile, as they followed the Hassayampa River north from the Gila. Another mountain man, Bill Williams, discovered the furry critters along the Big Sandy River, southwest of present-day Wikieup.

Williams is said to have found one fur tube eleven feet long, enough to make a pair of gloves, or a very skinny fur stole. It eventually became the possession of a scrawny queen of Belgium.

The fur of the Hassyampa rattler is reddish brown on the top side of the snake, and tan on his belly. By having them stitched together, the wives of wealthy eastern industrialists could have sutbly striped jackets to wear to the opera.

What made the Hassayampa rattlers so attractive was that the mountain men didn’t have to trap them, and risk snakebite. Trapping beavers and bears and cougars was a lot of work, but all they had to do to get rattlesnake fur was wait for the snake to shed it.

Mysteriously, the furry Hassayampa rattler disappeared from the scene around 1860. No one worried much about it at the time. Mountain men also had disappeared, and gold was discovered in this part of Arizona. That preoccupied settlers for a good long time.

Historians have tended to ignore stories of rattlesnake fur, fearing the stories were made up by recreational liars. No historian wants to be made a fool of.

In recent years, however, tubes of fur have shown up on the desert from Wikieup to Wittmann. Last spring, amateur herpetologist Elmer Odge saw a Hassayampa rattler shedding its fur in the White Tank Mountains. Odge said it reminded him of an Argyle sock giving birth.

In a world where trapping and skinning animals is no longer politically correct, simply waiting for the snake to deliver its fur is a very attractive proposition.

Experts here at the Wickenbug Institute for Factual Diversity, and the nearby Wickenburg branch of the University of Maryland, are looking at the possibilities of commercial snake farming. It is quiet here, and we tend to get ahead of ourselves–we don’t know yet what the spring crop will be.

Other voices, including PETA, recommend leaving the Hassayampa rattler in the wild, to do as he will, and leave his pelts for energetic entrepreneurs to gather.

Our New Year wish for you is this: If you like snakes, may 2008 be your year to find a fur-bearing rattlesnake. If you have an aversion to reptiles, we wish you a snake-free year.

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