With March here, rural communities in parts of the southern United States are preparing for their rattlesnake roundups. The roundups are annual events that started to “control” rattlesnake populations, provide fundraising opportunities, create a sense of community in these rural towns, and promote tourism.
The original roundups, which started in the first half of the 1900s in Texas and Oklahoma, focused on reducing the number of western diamondback rattlesnakes, Crotalus atrox. People feared (and still fear) the venomous reptiles due to largely exaggerated accounts of human and livestock death from the snakes. Those first roundups incorporated entertainment, an element that has persisted although its role has changed over time.
While entertainment in the earliest roundups focused mainly on target practice with live snakes and people who performed with snakes that had their mouths sewn shut, current roundups have a wider variety of events. The snake hunters compete in categories such as longest snake, heaviest snake, smallest snake, and most rattles. Vendors sell fried rattlesnake meat as well as souvenir heads, rattles, snakeskin belts, and other products. Some roundups involve educational programs where snake handlers discuss safety procedures with the public, who might otherwise underestimate the dangers involved in attempting to handle the snakes. There are also often snake-milking demonstrations where organizers extract the venom. In Sweetwater, Texas, they crown Miss Snake Charmer during the festival, while other roundups incorporate beauty pageants. Most roundups feature pens full of hundreds or thousands of rattlesnakes to fascinate and horrify spectators.
Small communities use this morbid fascination to pull in large amounts of money from these festivals by drawing in out-of-town visitors, charging an entrance fee. requiring vendors to pay for space, selling food and souvenirs to attendees, and by killing the rattlesnakes to sell their parts to the highest bidder. The profit often benefits locals because organizers invest it for purposes such as community programs or scholarships.
Unfortunately, snake hunting leading up to the roundups removes large number of rattlers from the wild. Hunters go out when the weather is cool so that the snakes will be in burrows, and they commonly use gasoline to fumigate the snakes, forcing them to crawl out of their dens. When gas doesn’t work, the hunters destroy the dens by digging the snakes out. In Florida, some hunters set fire to plants, then catch rattlesnakes as they flee. These practices injure other wildlife associated with rattlesnake habitat in addition to their direct impact on rattlers.
Most of those snakes that make it into the festival meet a cruel end.
Traditional roundups often include large enclosures or pits in which snakes are maintained at high densities for extended periods and are subjected to continual provocation, encouraging them to rattle and strike. Inflated balloons are displayed before captive rattlesnakes to provoke a strike to burst the balloon for the entertainment of onlookers. Individuals are kicked, burned with cigarettes, have their rattles removed while still alive and funneled full of liquor. Rattlesnakes may be shipped from roundup to roundup in wooden crates without food or water, and some individuals are crushed to death or die of overheating and dehydration during transport. Snakes are handled roughly and are decapitated and butchered in large numbers in front of an audience, including small children, as entertainment. It is hard to imagine subjecting any other vertebrate animal to such thoughtless and inhumane treatment.
There may be some small hope for the end of this cruelty. Towns can hold more humane, educational alternatives to the traditional roundups while still raising money to better their communities. Claxton, Georgia did just that, and in 2012 held the first Rattlesnake and Wildlife Festival in place of their roundup. Instead of bloodletting, the new festival features conservation talks while still providing entertainment for its many visitors. Hopefully other towns will soon follow suite.
To the Rattlesnake
Old Rattler, we have known each other long-
Both natives of the arid Texas plains-
Where hate is hate, and friendship’s ties are strong,
And red blood flows in every creature’s veins.
In infancy I lay upon my bed
And did not fear that you would do me harm;
I saw you coiled, I saw your swaying head
And heard your buzzing rattles give alarm.
My father clipped your head off with his gun,
My mother pressed me to her, strangely pale.
He turned your shining belly to the sun
And cut the dozen rattles from your tail.
Old Rattler, it is part of Nature’s plan
That I should grind you underneath my heel-
The age-old feud between the snake and man-
As Adam felt in Eden, I should feel.
And yet, Old Rattlesnake, I honor you;
You are a partner of the pioneer;
You claim your own, as you’ve a right to do-
This was your Eden-I intruded here.
-Vaida Stewart Montgomery, 1930 (Hill 1994, pp.178-179)
Brown, R. L. Ghost Dancing on the Cracker Circuit. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1997. Print.
Center for Biological Diversity. 2012. Georgia festival ends cruel ‘rattlesnake roundups,’ switches to a wildlife celebration. http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/news/press_releases/2012/rattlesnake-roundup-03-08-2012.html
Hill, B. B. (ed.) Texas in Poetry: A 150-Year Anthology. Denton, TX: Center for Texas Studies and the Texas Studies Association, 1994. Print.
Mushinsky, H. R. and A. H. Savitzky. Position of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists concerning rattlesnake conservation and roundups. http://www.asih.org/files/positionpaper.pdf
National Geographic American Festivals Project: Rattlesnake Roundup. http://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/places/culture-places/american-festivals-project/rattlesnake-roundup/
Thomas, J. K. and C. E. Adams. 1993. The social organization of rattlesnake roundups in rural communities. Sociological Spectrum, 13:433-449.