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Texas town celebrates St. Patrick and its Irish heritage by racing snakes

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OLD SAN PATRICIO, Texas (AP) _ Start with the legend of St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland. Then give it a Texas twist.

What you end up with is the World Championship Rattlesnake Races, run for the past three decades to celebrate St. Patrick's Day in this tiny south Texas town settled by Irish immigrants.

The basic idea is simple _ pay $20 to rent a rattler, put it down on the ground and do what it takes to coax the reptile along a grassy strip to the finish line 80 feet away.

Racers are equipped with a 6-foot plastic rod _ called a ``gitter,'' as in to coax the critter to ``git'' along. Some use it to beat the ground next to the snake, while others walk behind and scare the snake forward.

There are a few rules, like no smacking the snake. Not only would that be unprofessional, it would also be bad strategy.

``If you get out in front of him, he's gonna stop,'' said Jack Lewis, the race's general manager. ``If you touch him, he's gonna coil up and try to strike.''

The latest winner was Don Burkman, of Austin, who swung his gitter like an ax to urge his rented Western diamondback to victory in 69 seconds.

``I was smacking (the ground) pretty good,'' he said afterward. ``He slowed down on me last time. I wanted to keep him going.''

The racing idea was born in the early 1970s, when some history-minded residents were trying to come up with a way to raise funds to restore structures in Old San Patricio and build a museum to house Mexican artifacts found in the area.

The community 30 miles northwest of Corpus Christii was founded in 1830 as San Patricio de Hibernia _ St. Patrick of Ireland _ by a pair of Irish impresarios.

The town's St. Patrick's Day festival began in the 1870s, and the first rattlers were raced here in 1973.

``It was wild,'' Lewis recalled. ``We didn't know what we were doing. We had these snakes all over the place.''

The event steadily grew over the years. Now the festival, which features carnival rides, live music and food kiosks _ one of which sells fried rattlesnake meat _ attracts as many as 10,000 people each year.

A local snake-handler accompanies the racers down the course for protection, to offer racing tips and to pick up the snake should it veer into another lane. The snakes are not defanged.

The snakes used in the race come from ``rattlesnake roundups'' in west Texas, a decades-old tradition started by ranchers and farmers to reduce the snake populations.

Animal-rights groups have denounced the rounding up and racing of the rattlesnakes.

Teresa Telecky, a zoologist with the Humane Society of the United States, said ``these are some of the most deliberately cruel public events existing today.''

Telecky, based in Gaithersburg, Md., says gasoline is often sprayed into rattler dens to flush out the snakes, which are then captured and kept in large bins, often without food or water.

``You are basically harassing a wild animal,'' she said. ``A lot of traditions in Texas need to be changed, and this is one of them.''

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