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Rotary groups take over San Antonio's Rattlesnake Festival

SAN ANTONIO — Dennis Devine recalled the early days of the San Antonio Rattlesnake Festival in the 1960s when they would hold live gopher races and snake-hunting contests.

At 18, Devine became a member of the Rattlesnake and Gopher Enthusiasts Club, known as R.A.G.E., a nonprofit that has been putting on the festival since 1967.

Devine is 63 now and times have changed. Over the years, as the world became more sensitive to animal rights, the festival adapted to using wooden gophers for its trademark races and wowing the crowds with educational shows by snake experts.

The festival thrived through the decades as a regional attraction every October — until this year, when organizers wondered if they could pull it off. Devine said there has not been an influx of young volunteers to take over as the R.A.G.E. board members have aged.

But then a plan was hatched: maybe it was time to turn the page on history and allow someone else to run the beloved festival.

Enter a group of Rotary clubs in East Pasco, which agreed this week to take over for R.A.G.E. in putting on this year's festival.

Running the show will be the San Antonio, Dade City Sunrise, Zephyrhills Noon, Wesley Chapel, and Wesley Chapel Sunrise Rotary clubs. Two area clubs opted out.

"We really wanted to make sure the festival went forward this year and hopefully for years to come," said Zephyrhills Noon Rotary board member Michael Mira, who oversees the seven clubs.

Mira said the Rotary clubs believed in the brand name of the Rattlesnake Festival and its value to the community, and look forward to the proceeds it will develop for the various charitable efforts Rotary supports.

While all the traditional favorites such as excellent barbecue, snake shows and gopher races will remain, festival-goers can expect some new attractions this year, Mira said.

"We really want to modernize the event some," he said.

That will include introducing a beer truck for the first time and extending festivities on Saturday, Oct. 19, until 10 p.m. for a country music show.

The organizers are also considering whether to whittle the festival down to one day instead of holding a second day on Sunday, Mira said.

The idea of a beer truck raised some concerns for San Antonio commissioners, said Mayor Timothy Newlon, but in the end the assurances of oversight given by the Rotary made everyone warm to the idea.

"I'm very, very happy they were able to work out the deal," Newlon said. "It's just the perfect fit for them and it's such an important event for San Antonio."

And don't expect Devine and his buddies from R.A.G.E. to give up on the fun.

Mira said the Rotary clubs fully intend to seek their expertise.

"They have been doing an excellent job of keeping it going for 46 years. They know how to do this, so we want their help," Mira said.

Devine added: "I think it's a great opportunity for the community and for Rotary to continue the festival and make it a wonderful event. We're pleased to see them keep it going."