Her name is Edna, and snakes are her game

Posted Friday, Sep. 20, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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In May the phone rang at Edna McDonald’s Central Texas home.

The caller, a man named Jamie Coots, said he heard Edna might have live rattlesnakes for sale and, if so, he was eager to buy them.

The stranger offered $12 a pound.

Edna, who is 97, told him she already had sold her snakes to a friend.

She didn’t discover until later that Coots was a co-star star with a fellow Pentecostal preacher in a National Geographic Channel reality show called Snake Salvation. Preacher Coots needed some venomous serpents to fondle during his spirit-filled worship services at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name church in Middlesboro, Ky.

Edna is also a person of faith. Born in a house not far from where she lives now, this lively, petite woman has attended church for as long as she can remember, and her memory is good.

As a child she traveled to the Methodist church with her parents, and eight siblings, bouncing over rutted roads in a horse-drawn wagon.

Her daddy, she said, regularly read The Holy Bible and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

On this day, a copy of the hymn How Great Thou Art rests on the music stand of the widow’s upright piano.

McDonald was taught to judge not, lest ye be judged. But she can’t help questioning the wisdom of Pastor Coots who believes that Mark 16:18 (”They shall take up serpents …”) is a literal mandate — a commandment to handle these venomous creatures as an act of discipleship and unflinching faith.

“God don’t tell me to put my hand down in a box of snakes,” McDonald said.

Edna shook her head.

“Lor-r-d, no ...”

A dangerous hobby

The woman uses long metal tongs to handle rattlers, never her bare hands, and even then she’s oh so careful.

Experience taught Edna that rattlesnakes will bite anyone because that’s what snakes do — although, she’s proud to say, she’s never been a victim.

“I can tell the good ones from the bad,” she claimed. “A mean one, it’ll bite at anything. He’s just striking, striking. A bad one will turn and bite itself.”

McDonald thought of a long-time friend, Jackie Bibby. In 2011 the Rising Star native known as the Texas Snake Man performed a daring feat at the annual Oglesby Rattlesnake Roundup outside of Waco, an event that Edna has attended for 30 years. As an assistant mopped his brow, Jackie stretched out in a bathtub and sat, very still and very quiet, as tangle after tangle of writhing snakes — a world record 123 — were dumped into the tub with him.

Bibby escaped unharmed, to enthusiastic applause.

Sadly, a year ago a lone rattler hit Bibby’s calf during a performance in Addison and the veteran snake handler lost his right leg above the knee.

Edna told a cautionary tale about a Gatesville man, a friend of her late husband, who came home from work and “plopped down in his Stratolounger.” Little did he know that a rattlesnake had silently entered the house through the pet door, slithered across the floor and settled into the cushion of the man’s easy chair.

The rattler sank its fangs into the man’s back. And … ?

“He died,” she said.

‘Let’s go get some snakes!’

McDonald is known in these parts as the “Rattlesnake Lady.”

Her adventures as a snake wrangler — Edna once bagged a 7-footer — have been documented on the Animal Planet channel.

Edna began fraternizing with snakes as an 8-year-old back in 1924, when Calvin Coolidge was president. Unlike her five sisters who shrieked in horror at the sight of a reptile, Edna Hodo welcomed the promise of adventure when older brother Weldon called out, “C’mon, sister, let’s go get some snakes!”

“I’ve never been afraid of anything,” Edna said.

She married as a teenager and went to work in Dallas for the telephone company. Later she taught communications at El Centro College.

In 1972 McDonald retired and happily returned to rural life near Evant, about 100 miles southwest of Fort Worth.

Besides hunting snakes, she enjoys educating others about the creatures. This spring Edna spoke to third and fourth graders in nearby Hamilton. She showed the children an Animal Planet episode about snakes and invited the kids to handle, and pose for photographs, with three dead rattlers of varying sizes.

Edna stores the coiled critters in her garage freezer where they share space with a pound of deer sausage and several zip-lock bags filled with sliced yellow squash and black-eyed peas, picked from her garden.

‘I been doin’ this 88 years’

Her live inventory reside in a cluttered shed near her residence.

Edna shuffled into the building, which exuded a strong foul odor, and stood in respectful silence before a coffin-sized plywood box. Cautiously, she removed the wire lid. She leaned down, slowly, her blue eyes bright and watchful.

Three Western diamondbacks appeared on the wood-chip floor.

The largest, about 2-feet long, sat coiled in the center of its enclosure, like a tiny gray garden hose.

The pit viper began buzzing, vibrating its raised tail. The others joined in. In concert their message was as clear as a “DANGER, High Voltage” sign.

Employing her long tongs Edna reached into the box.

“I been doin’ this 88 years,” she said, reassuring her backpedaling visitor. Edna grabbed the snake and lifted it from the box, holding it up like a prize.

“Look at that big ol’ head,” Edna said, admiringly.

McDonald intends to feed and grow the snakes — they eat live mice — and maybe “save ’em for the preacher.”

To her dismay, snake hunting is currently on hold.

But as soon as she’s fully mended after breaking her hip two months ago —she fell at church, of all places — McDonald plans to shed her walker and revisit a couple of favorite “dens” on her 1,100 acres of rocky ranchland, Edna’s heaven on earth.

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