SAN ANTONIO — Jim Mendenhall has been bitten seven times by venomous snakes, once by a baby water moccasin that left him with weeks of excruciating pain — "like having your hand slammed in a car door" — along with a hospital bill that was equally unpleasant.
That kind of thing is bound to happen when you spend more than 60 years handling snakes. Mendenhall, who for 15 years has been the main presenter at San Antonio's Rattlesnake Festival, is the guy people have come to call on to remove elusive snakes that have slithered indoors or perhaps a poisonous variety that has gotten too close for comfort in someone's yard. As the owner of Squamata Reptiles, he also has spent a lot of time traversing the state to give educational presentations.
Mendenhall's love for the oft-feared reptiles started when he was 7 and happened upon a coral snake in the undeveloped woodlands of Miami that, to his mother's horror, ended up spending the better part of a day in his pants pocket.
That snake never bit him — "a good thing since there was no antivenin around at the time," said Mendenhall, 72, who now resides in Spring Hill.
But last year, a big diamondback that he was removing from beneath the bushes in a woman's yard got the best of him.
It came back over its body to strike, "which most rattlesnakes never do," Mendenhall said.
He spent seven days in intensive care being treated with copious amounts of antivenin. Snake bites are typically treated with anywhere from six to 20 vials, Mendenhall said. One doctor told him it took 50 vials. Another about 37. He figures it was somewhere in between.
That was followed by another five days in the hospital because his blood coagulation levels had dropped to dangerous levels.
That nasty bite, a hand tremor he developed and his family's urging convinced him that it was time to retire.
Mendenhall will have one last hurrah at the Rattlesnake Festival on Saturday in San Antonio. Helping out will be his replacement, Gordon Cates.
It's a gig Mendenhall has enjoyed in large part because of the wildlife conservation message he has been able impart, informing people about the essential role reptiles play in balancing the ecosystem. Snakes eat rodents, insects, birds and even other snakes, which helps keep those populations in check, he points out, adding that copperhead venom is currently being used to treat some types of cancer.
"I teach people how to identify the venomous and nonvenomous snakes — how to protect the snake as well as the individual," Mendenhall said, adding that mankind's typical reaction when encountering a snake is to end its life with a shovel.
There's no need for that, Mendenhall said, adding that the smart solution is to simply stay out of the strike zone.
Those who attend the festival will get a safe-distance type of encounter. The event serves as the main fundraiser for the San Antonio Rotary Club's charitable programs.
"We really couldn't do this without the help of the community," said past president and festival chairwoman Betty Burke, adding that proceeds have purchased school supplies for local children and playground equipment for the city park. They fund annual college and vocational school scholarships and have helped support drives for local food banks and a mentor program for girls at Farmworkers Self-Help Inc.
While snakes are the main attraction, the festival also features live music, arts and crafts, food trucks, vendors and plenty of fun games and activities for children. Add to that a free Wild West Show by former rodeo cowboy Tom Glasgow, juggling by Nerdy Noah, a 4x4 truck show sponsored by the Sunshine Swampers 4x4 Club of Dade City and the opportunity to join in the annual Rattlesnake Run.
"I'm going to miss it because I really do enjoy talking to people," Mendenhall said, adding that he hopes folks will venture out to see him. "It's a good deal. There's plenty of entertainment, plenty to do, and I think everybody that comes out will enjoy it."
Contact Michele Miller at email@example.com or at (727) 869-6251. Follow @MicheleMiller52.