Rebecca Yarbrough Tucker recalled the day neighbors near her childhood Eastaboga home thought her father had accidentally loosed hundreds of squirrels. Only they weren’t squirrels. They were squirrel monkeys, and they darted through yards and swung from powerlines.
There was always some excitement growing up as a child of the Snakeman, Tucker explained.
Tucker’s parents, Tom and Mary Ann Yarbrough, traveled throughout Alabama and Georgia during the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s giving reptile shows for school children. Their message: Snakes and other slithering things aren’t to be feared so much as respected and admired.
The family home for a time became a miniature zoo, drawing visitors to see the several hundred snakes and other exotic animals.
An early brochure for the Yarbrough Snake Ranch advertises that the "excitement and mysteries of nature are brought to life" — including "cobras (Indian, African and Taiwan), pythons, rattlesnakes, boa constrictors, cottonmouth water moccasins, copperheads, African puff adder, king snakes, rat snakes and tropical snakes."
"I didn’t have a lot of friends who wanted to spend the night," Tucker said.
He’s got snakes in his pockets
The Yarbroughs will be remembered at a special "Reptiles Alive!" show on Saturday as part of the Anniston Museum of Natural History’s annual Museum Day celebration. Museum admission, programs and activities will be free.
Dan Spaulding, curator at the museum, recalled a trip years ago to Tom Yarbrough’s home to see something special the Snakeman had recently acquired.
"He puts on some goggles and opens this cage and a spitting cobra comes out. I can see this venom spewing all over his face, and I say, ‘Tommy. I don’t have any goggles on!’
"He was a neat guy," Spaulding said.
The Yarbroughs held shows at the museum throughout the years. Yarbrough had no degree but was considered by many to be the most knowledgeable herpetologist in the state, Spaulding said.
That knowledge came after a lifetime spent learning. Tucker said when her father was a child he’d carry small snakes in his pockets, and would read all he could on reptiles.
Tucker said it was her father’s belief that "the more you learn about something, the less you fear it," which drove him to hold shows at schools, teaching children how to identify snakes and what to do if bitten.
Some folks, no matter what you teach them, will always hate slithering things, Tucker explained, and that’s OK. There’s room for all sorts of folks, she said.
Although Tucker has never been bitten by venomous snakes, her father, mother and brothers were.
In 1980, her then 18-year-old brother Mark was temporarily paralyzed after being bitten near his right thumb by a Siamese cobra. A snake expert from Miami was flown to a Birmingham hospital in an Air Force jet. Mark was given antivenom and recovered within hours.
The bite made national headlines. In an article at the time, Mark told a reporter that he was bitten because he "got in a big hurry because I wanted to watch the Alabama football game on television. I'm a big Alabama fan and I wanted to see the game. I didn't find out until today that Notre Dame won."
The headline of a 1981 article in the national tabloid The Weekly World News read, "Snakes Alive! This is a s-s-s-scary family."
Mark left snakes and Alabama behind and is now living in Winthrop Harbor, Ill. His brother, Chuck, lives in Jacksonville, Fla.
‘You have to do the snake show’
The construction of Interstate 20 in the 1970s meant drivers no longer travelled by the family’s zoo on U.S. 78 in great numbers. Business slowed, and because her father kept adding shows at schools across the South, he chose to close the zoo in 1974, Tucker said.
Tom and Mary Ann continued to hold shows at schools across the state and in parts of Georgia until Tom was diagnosed in February 1996 with brain tumors. He died a month later.
After his diagnosis, Tom kept Mary Ann busy caring for the snakes, which helped her "get through all that," Tucker said. Mary Ann spent the next 15 years holding shows herself.
Tucker and her husband, Ken, had lived in Florida for 28 years when Tucker said she "got this wild hair" and decided to move back to Eastaboga in 2007.
"I traveled with mom for a year doing shows. We had a blast," Tucker said. Then the family got the news that Mary Ann had stage four cancer. She lived for another 11 months.
Tucker said that before her mother died, she made one request, telling Tucker, "You have to do the snake show for me. Please, Just do them for me."
"I asked her, ‘What am I going to talk about? I’m not a herpetologist,’" Tucker remembered. "And she said, ‘Talk about the things you learned growing up around them.’"
And so Tucker does. She gives several shows each week at many of the same schools her parents did years before.
She gives safety programs for Alabama Power, too. Linemen are constantly coming upon snakes on the job, she said. It’s good for them to know what to look for and what to do if bitten.
"I never, ever planned on being the snake lady. If you’d asked me if I would continue my father’s legacy, I would have said ‘No way,’" Tucker said.
She has help from her husband, Ken, who helps care for the more than 300 snakes and other animals at the family’s home in Eastaboga. Two volunteer assistants — Brittany Shelton and Ethan Gunter — also help Tucker with the shows.
It’s a 24-7 job caring for the animals, Tucker said, and then there’s the scheduling of the shows and the travel. She donates half of the proceeds of each show to the schools, just as her father did.
"We never planned any of this out. It’s just the way it worked out," Tucker said. "I don’t have children. I do have a couple of nieces and a nephew, so I don’t know what will happen to the shows. I’ll go on as long as I can."
It’s at the shows that Tucker is reminded of the importance of her parents’ work. More and more, she said, she’ll meet adults who tell her, "I used to see your dad, and I loved your mom."
"He had a real passion and love for what he did," Tucker said. "There was never a dull moment."
Eddie Burkhalter is a freelance writer for The Anniston Star.