Rattlesnake roundups, what are they?
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"Rattlesnake roundups" are the largest public displays of wildlife slaughter in the country. Every year, people in six different states (Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas) gather at "family friendly" events to witness and participate in the killing of rattlesnakes. At the largest rattlesnake roundup in the country, over 33,000 people attend annually from all over the country.
During rattlesnake roundups, skin, meat, and other various parts and pieces of the snakes are sold to patrons (see here for photos - warning GRAPHIC CONTENT). These roundups have multi-million dollar socioeconomic impacts in their respective communities, as visitors to the festival travel to the town and patronize local businesses. Many of these roundups have taken place annually for 50+ years, though data on how many snakes have been killed in total is not readily available. Petitions have been taken to many of the local areas where rattlesnake roundups still occur urging them to shut down their roundup or transition to a wildlife friendly festival, though there has been no sign of a transition from the remaining roundups.
Unsurprisingly, rattlesnake roundups have a major impact on local ecosystems. A recent study indicates that roundups are driving some species of rattlesnakes, such as the eastern diamondback, towards extinction (Means 2009). Though, further study is needed to determine what the impacts are on other species of rattlesnakes.
Notwithstanding the pressure of rattlesnake roundups, many species of rattlesnakes are indiscriminately killed for meat or out of fear. Methods used for collecting rattlesnakes for roundups also have consequences for native wildlife that live in similar habitat. Visitors to rattlesnakes roundups commonly smell gasoline near the "rattlesnake pits", where snakes are kept before being killed. Many patrons unwittingly dismiss the smell, assuming it is from a generator or other machinery at the event. However, what they are smelling is gasoline on the snakes in the pits. “Gassing” is a common method used by rattlesnake collectors, which includes pouring gasoline down crevices, gopher tortoise burrows, or other areas where snakes live, to more easily capture snakes. By using gasoline, many unintended species may be injured or killed that co-exist with rattlesnakes. “Gassing” is a widespread practice in many parts of the country, though some states have outlawed it. Recently, Texas Parks and Wildlife decided not to outlaw gassing (see article here), which has further reinforced the method in that area.
The most common argument is that organizers and patrons are helping control rattlesnake populations; though, no study has supported this claim or shown that rattlesnakes are over populated. Event organizers at rattlesnake roundups also claim to provide educational programs for patrons, but much of the education at these festivals involves learning how to kill, clean, and eat rattlesnakes. Handling of snakes is often rough and irresponsible, which encourages visitors to emulate dangerous behaviors and may result in future harm or injury to patrons. It is also not uncommon to see people taking their children to finger paint with rattlesnake blood, ride tortoises, or learn to skin rattlesnakes. The morals and practices taught at these roundups encourage future indiscriminate killing of snakes and a disrespect for the natural world.
Another claim by roundup organizers is that venom collected from the snakes, often as a spectator sport, is donated for research and antivenom production. After venom is collected from tired and stressed snakes, they are killed and tossed to the side. To date, there has been no evidence that the venom is being used for research or other ventures. All major pharmaceutical and antivenom production companies deny receiving or buying venom from rattlesnake roundups. Venom collected for research and antivenom production must be collected and prepared in specific ways, which is not possible in the current conditions at roundups.
The most compelling argument that roundup organizers provide is the economic impact on their communities. Rattlesnake roundups have huge economic impacts in many parts of the country. In some smaller towns, these roundups may be the largest influx of money into communities annually. We understand the potential economic impact to these communities of shutting down roundups and why many are reluctant to part with a proven way of generating income, especially where other options for drawing in tourists are scarce or risky.
Rattlesnake and wildlife festivals are a sustainable way to bring revenue into communities that does not involve the needless slaughter of countless rattlesnakes. In 2012, Claxton Rattlesnake Roundup, held in Georgia, was the first roundup to convert into a rattlesnake festival. Claxton now celebrates the life of rattlesnakes, rather than their death. The new Claxton festival has been a tremendous success since its conversion in 2012. People come to Claxton from the surrounding counties and out of state to see all of the rattlesnakes on display. The Rattlesnake Conservancy supports this event annually by bringing rattlesnakes to display and educate the public. At the end of the event, these rattlesnakes get to go home alive and continue to sustainably support the event in the future.
Another benefit of transitioning to a wildlife friendly festival would be money saved that is paid to rattlesnake collectors. At all rattlesnake roundups, organizers pay collectors to bring in the snakes. The Sweetwater Roundup in Texas, the largest roundup in the country, pays $4.00 per pound for the first 4,000 pounds of snakes and $0.50 per pound for the next 2,500 pounds. The Jaycees, which is a national professional networking organization, pays $17,250 dollars every year for snakes to be brought in to the Sweetwater roundup and killed. Excess snakes that are brought in for that year are killed and discarded.
By switching to a wildlife-friendly festival, organizers no longer pay hefty fees to rattlesnake collectors and can save large amounts of money. While they may lose the profit of selling snake skins, heads, and meat, new visitors eager to support a wildlife-friendly festival will buy other products such as arts and crafts, plants, food, and educational supplies to support the festival. Importantly, the snakes still go home alive and the event remains sustainable for future generations
The Rattlesnake Conservancy is committed to working with people, instead of against them. All our officers are native Floridians and grew up appreciating wildlife, while interacting with people that did not always agree with our viewpoints. This means we understand the role of rattlesnakes and wildlife in local culture and can communicate with people from diverse backgrounds. We do not expect drastic changes overnight and we will work with people for the greater good of rattlesnakes and communities. If we are going to transform the way people think about rattlesnakes, we first need to change the way we think about people.
Today, we are working to open a dialogue between roundup organizers and conservationists to create a positive working relationship that will benefit wildlife and people.