APACHE — Sometimes Ron Orf will find one on the road and toss it in his toolbox. Nobody in Apache bothers Orf's toolbox.
“They know me,” Orf said.
They also know Orf likes to catch rattlesnakes.
This weekend, as he has done at this time of year for almost three decades, Orf will lead rattlesnake demonstrations and hunts. More than 50,000 visitors are expected to stream into this town of about 1,400 during what almost became the last annual Apache Rattlesnake Festival.
It began almost 29 years ago when a friend who knew of Orf's knack for wrangling poisonous reptiles suggested a festival. Today, Orf, 68, is the last surviving member of the original board of directors of the festival, none of whom, Orf assures, died of snakebite.
Speaking of bites, Orf has been bitten five times, all during demonstrations at local schools.
“When you pick up dynamite and the fuse is burning, sometimes it goes off,” he said.
None of the bites required medical care, he said, but his youngest son got a $50,000 hospital bill after a bite last year. Still, in all the years of the public hunts and festivals, not a single participant or visitor has been bitten, Orf said.
All the Orfs, including Ron's three sons, his daughter and even his wife, join in. “They've all caught snakes,” he said.
But after this year, the family decided they would step back from the demanding leadership role of the festival.
When no one stepped forward to take over, the board figured they had little choice and voted to disband after this year, Orf said.
Festival boon for town
The loss would be a blow for the community. Growing every year, the festival, which continues through Sunday, features food, demonstrations, guided snake hunts and other attractions. The four-day event is a boon for restaurants, motels and other establishments.
“It brings lots of people to town. They've even come from other countries,” said Joye Wright, editor/publisher of The Apache News. “It's really put Apache on the map.”
Turns out reports of the festival's demise were exaggerated, but they served their purpose.
“More or less an eye-opener,” as Orf put it. It wasn't long before plenty of volunteers began appearing, assuring the festival's future.
And don't worry about the snakes, Orf said. They're everywhere, they know how to hide and the hunt usually produces about the same number of snakes each year, indicating the population is not declining, he said.
However, although his family normally catches about 400 for the festival, this year they caught only 100, a decline Orf attributes to the weather.
Despite criticism of snake hunts (at least five are held each year in Oklahoma) by animal rights supporters who argue the events are cruel, and by some environmentalists who say the events wreak havoc on the natural food chain, Orf said the snakes will be around long after he's “gone back with Jesus.”
“They're here to stay,” he said.
AT A GLANCE
Oklahoma snake events