for National Geographic News
Rattlesnakes aren't America's most lovable animals, but they're certainly able to draw a crowd. Between January and July, dozens of rattlesnake roundups will take place in at least seven U.S. states, bringing the paying public face to fang with the often reviled reptile.
The roundups feature snake shows, handling exhibits, hunting prizes, and, occasionally, samples of edible rattlesnake fare. Currently, rattlesnake roundups occur in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Alabama, and Georgia.
For many communities that host the roundups, the festivals serve as key fundraising events for civic service organizations. Supporters say the roundups also help mitigate what they see as overabundant snake populations that pose a threat to people and livestock.
But while these fundraising festivals celebrate the snakes that many people love to hate, they also draw the ire of some conservationists and animal welfare advocates who contend that the roundups are dangerous, environmentally destructive, and kill thousands of ecologically-important rattlesnakes.
Roundup, Animal Welfare Advocates at Odds
Bruce Means, an adjunct professor of biology at Florida State University and the head of the non-profit environmental group the Coastal Plains Institute and Land Conservancy, both in Tallahassee, is a snake expert who has studied the eastern diamondback rattlesnake for over 30 years in its shrinking Southeastern U.S. habitat. Means says he has been to many rattlesnake roundups and hasn't liked what he's seen.
"Local hunters are supposed to go out and catch snakes before the event, so that they can win prizes," Means said. "But lots of these roundup guys have been doing it for months, keeping the snakes in barrels without food and water. Half of the animals die from the terrible conditions." The snakes who do live to see the roundup are generally piled in a large, crowded pit and sometimes subjected to "daredevil acts" by handlers, according to Means.
"The snakes are abused. [Roundups are] not teaching appreciation of nature, but exploitation," Means said.
Andrea Cimino, a wildlife department campaign manager with the Humane Society of the United States in Washington, D.C., says that the snakes are sometimes publicly decapitated, an end that she finds problematic in light of the fact that the animal's oxygen demand is so low that severed body parts can remain alive for hours.
But Bill Clarke of the Freer, Texas, Chamber of Commerce says that while exhibitors do handle snakes at the Freer Rattlesnake Roundup they do not abuse them. "The only thing they might do," he said, "is hold an inflated balloon on the end of their hook to induce the snake to strike." That's a display for the crowd, Clarke noted. He added that the roundup also features educational information, like how to respond to snakebite.
Another Texas rattlesnake roundup, held in Sweetwater, Texas, is billed as the world's largest. Ken Becker, of the Sweetwater Chamber of Commerce, said that snakes are not abused at his community's event.
"If you come to our roundup, are you going to see a sacking contest? No. Crawl into a sleeping bag with a snake? No. We stay completely away from those kinds of things," Becker said. "Instead, we have attractions like a safety demonstration pit where we discourage kids [from handling rattlesnakes]. The focus there is, 'What do you do if you encounter a snake hiking?'"
SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES