Wrangling rattlers with Parks Reece

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By JUSTIN POST
Yellowstone Newspapers

Livingston artist Parks Reece holds a prairie rattlesnake he caught on a hillside behind his Cokedale Road residence in July.             Photos by Hunter D’Antuono, Livingston Enterprise

Parks Reece skirts a steep hillside, his eyes and forehead shaded under a straw hat, snaking his way toward the craggy outcroppings some 200 yards away.

The hillside near Reece’s Cokedale Road home outside of Livingston is covered in dry grass that crunches underfoot. Reece wears a black T-shirt that sports the image of a Chinese dragon. 

He carries a pair of metal snake tongs he says are made in Arkansas and points to a nearby rock cluster. Wait here, he says in a hushed voice, advancing slowly, quietly like a hunter who just caught his first whiff of elk during the general season opener.

Most know Parks Reece the artist. Meet Parks Reece the rattlesnake hunter.

Reece’s work often captures and parodies the natural environment he calls home in Montana, where Reece started wrangling rattlers decades ago.

It’s a hobby he picked up as a boy growing up in North Carolina, where he accompanied his father in search of non-venomous snakes.

“One of my earliest memories is when I was 6 years old, he wrapped a 6-foot-7-inch indigo snake around my neck and handed me the head to hold and said, ‘Don’t let go of that head,’” Reece laughed. “I was looking at the snake and it was looking at me and I said, ‘Don’t worry, I won’t.’”

Reece recalled that his mother was playing bridge with friends when he and his father found the big indigo snake, and his father encouraged him to surprise the group with the reptile.

“There was a virtual riot when I walked inside,” he said.

Reece graduated to catching rattlesnakes when he moved west as an adult and said he was attracted to the thrill and danger of catching the venomous prairie rattlesnakes found in the Treasure State.

“I’ve been doing it for 30 years and never been bitten,” he said.

Reece caught, killed and ate rattlesnakes during the early years, following the old Western adage that the only good rattlesnake is a dead rattlesnake.

That changed after Reece caught an elusive rattler roughly 6 feet long near his home and regretted killing the animal after it had escaped capture for about a year.

“I felt bad about that because that snake didn’t want to bother me. He just wanted to stay away,” he said, adding that the hulking rattler could have been 30 years old, if not older. “I figured he was like a library because snakes learn from other snakes.”

It’s been about 20 years since Reece killed the big rattler, but he continues to hike south-facing hillsides in his catch-and-release pursuit of the animals.

On a recent sunny early afternoon, Reece led the way to a series of rock outcroppings where he spotted three rattlesnakes. He pulled the snakes from under the rock using his tongs. One snake slithered into a nearby bush while the other two sat with their bodies coiled and ready to strike. The rattles on the end of their tails whirred as Reece picked one up for closer inspection.

Reece moved on to another outcropping, where the sound of the snake’s tail could be heard from a solitary hiding place. At the next outcropping Reece pulled out two more rattlesnakes, picked one up and dabbed a drop of its venom onto his thumb.

He placed his thumb and venom into his mouth and tasted the fluid.

“Tastes salty,” he said, adding that the venom must be delivered intravenously to have any serious health impacts on humans. “I’ve always been told and read that it has to be injected. It has to get into the bloodstream.”

Back at Reece’s home, glasses of cold, fresh spring water were passed around and Reece draped a rubber snake over the shoulders of a friend visiting from North Carolina. The man jumped as Reece laughed and reflected on another successful rattlesnake hunt.

“Anytime someone sees a rattlesnake, it makes your blood pressure rise slightly,” Reece laughed.

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