Each year, tens of thousands of rattlesnakes are taken from the wild to be displayed and slaughtered for entertainment and profit at rattlesnake roundups. Promoted as folksy, family-friendly fun, these events foster disrespect for native wildlife and the natural world, and the result is an unsustainable and dangerous predicament for iconic and uniquely American species.
Roundups, which occur throughout Texas, Oklahoma, Georgia, and Alabama, primarily target western diamondback rattlesnakes (Crotalus atrox) and eastern diamondback rattlesnakes (C. adamanteus). Professional hunters, not bound by ‘bag’ or ‘take’ limits like other game hunting, remove snakes from their native habitats and are awarded cash prizes for bringing in the most and biggest snakes.
Most snakes are caught by pouring gasoline into their winter dens, which pollutes surrounding land and water and may impact up to 350 other wildlife species. Snakes can be kept for weeks or months until the roundup, often crowded together without food or water. By the time they arrive at the roundup, many are weak, bruised, bleeding, dying, or already dead before finally meeting the bolt gun and machete.
The most famous, Sweetwater Jaycee’s World’s Largest Rattlesnake Round-Up, is held every March in Sweetwater, Texas. At the same time, a very different snake festival will be put on in Claxton, Georgia. For more than 40 years, Claxton held a rattlesnake roundup much like Sweetwater, but due to pressure from conservationists — led by a group of forward-thinking children — Claxton stopped slaughtering snakes in 2012 and started a new tradition.
In sharp contrast to the myth-riddled presentations and risky handling techniques demonstrated at Sweetwater, there are no rattlesnakes striking balloons or draped across visitors’ shoulders at Claxton, and snakes are not kicked or decapitated. Instead, captive wildlife are displayed, and local conservationists and professionals teach natural history and safety in the outdoors. This new festival is more popular and financially successful than ever — proving it’s not the slaughter that brings people in, it’s the snakes themselves.
Proponents of rattlesnake roundups claim that they are needed to ensure the safety of our pets, our livestock and ourselves. None of these claims are backed by data. Fewer than five deaths in the U.S. each year can be attributed to snakebite, including people who refuse treatment and those bitten by their own exotic pet snakes. Interestingly, the USDA’s Cattle Death Loss report has logged zero cattle deaths from snakes in more than two decades, and ranchers report that snakes are not a threat to livestock, who usually recover from snakebites, even without treatment. Paradoxically, proponents maintain roundups have no effect on local snake populations, making it something of a mystery how they can also alleviate purported overpopulation.
Science does not support claims that roundups are required to prevent rattlesnake overpopulation in any technical sense of the word. Like other wild animals with natural predators, snake populations are maintained by prey abundance (rodents) and levels of predation and disease. Biologists and conservationists believe that roundups have contributed to the current decline in eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, which have been proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act.
Claxton has not experienced an apocalyptic rattlesnake population explosion since it stopped the killing. Attendance and income for the local community have increased, and instead of condemning the festival, local and national conservation organizations promote and participate in the event.
Domination over nature has been ingrained in the culture of America, but we are now seeing the unintended ecological consequences of those slaughters. Historically, campaigns to eradicate large predators like wolves and grizzlies “tamed” wild areas, making settlement more attractive. Today, the public generally welcomes new efforts to restore wolves, bison, and grizzlies to their former domains. Tourists even travel great distances in hopes of getting a glimpse of these majestic creatures. But efforts to eradicate rattlesnakes continue, and the attitudes that perpetuate them are largely misinformed.
Although snakes are threatened by the same issues that affect all wildlife — habitat loss, climate change, and disease — fear and loathing may be the biggest threat of all, because this is what most impedes conservation efforts. Rattlesnakes are good at getting our attention, and provide a great opportunity to inspire fascination for the natural world.
Sweetwater and other rattlesnake roundups now have the opportunity to respond to critical environmental and conservation concerns, as Claxton has done, by stopping slaughter and instead celebrating our native wild snakes. To learn more visit www.rattlesnakeroundups.com.
Herpetologist Melissa Amarello, an expert in rattlesnake social behavior, is co-founder and director of education at Advocates for Snake Preservation, www.snakes.ngo. She has a bachelor of science in wildlife, watershed, and rangeland resources from the University of Arizona and a master of science in biology from Arizona State University.