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A typical scene at many rattlesnake roundups. Photo credit: Sky Stevens
Live snake handling. Photo credit: Sky Stevens
The bloody floor of a skinning pit. Photo credit: Sky Stevens
Live rattlesnakes clutter the floor in a snake pit. By the end of the roundup, these snakes will likely all be dead. Photo credit: Sky Stevens
Rattlesnake roundups date back to 1939, when a gentleman named Orville von Gulker held the first one in Okeene, Okla., operating under the belief that it would help educate the public and contribute toward lowering the number of rattlesnake bites to both people and livestock. It was a success, and from that point on, the number of roundups grew as they spread across the country.
Controversy surrounds them due to the thousands of rattlesnakes that are hunted down and captured to supply the roundups, during which the majority of snakes are often killed during sensationalistic shows and events presented to the public. It is widely believed that roundups have played a significant role in decreasing numbers of rattlesnakes in the U.S., yet there are still seven states — Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Alabama and Georgia — that regularly host rattlesnake roundups, with one held in Sweetwater, Texas, often considered the largest. Some are more humane than others.
In the spring of 2010, I began investigating rattlesnake roundups, primarily those in Oklahoma. I was repulsed to witness the glorification of the killing of these incredible pit vipers. At the first roundup I visited, in Apache, Okla., I was shocked by the number of rattlesnakes that were killed in the name of “entertainment,” operating under the guise of “educational displays.” During my first year of investigating rattlesnake roundups, it became apparent that the numbers of rattlesnakes in the state of Oklahoma was on the decline.
Cruel methods of hunting these snakes are often employed. One of the more controversial, not to mention illegal, methods is the gassing of burrows, during which gasoline or ammonia is sprayed into a rattlesnake burrow, forcing the snakes to emerge prior to being captured. While many roundups claim that they no longer buy gassed snakes because it is illegal, you can sometimes smell gas or ammonia on them, especially if you’re having your picture taken with one at a roundup.
Gassing is particularly destructive because it not only destroys a den site for rattlesnakes, but also for gopher and bull snakes, tortoises, rabbits, burrowing owls and other animals that may otherwise inhabit that burrow. In the eastern United States, the gassing of burrows is thought to have led to the sharp decline of the indigo snake.
Another method of collection is “snagging,” which is done with a treble hook attached to a long pole, used to yank snakes from their burrows. Hunters use mirrors to angle reflected sunlight into a burrow to see if there are snakes inside, while others insert a plastic tube into the burrow to listen for the sound of rattles. Almost all hunters employ the use of snake tongs and hooks. Some use makeshift spring-loaded devices (the Okeene Rattlesnake Roundup Museum has many of these archaic tools on display).
Dangerous stunts performed with rattlesnakes vary from roundup to roundup. The roundup in Waurika, Okla., has a sacking contest in which a man dumps snakes on the ground where they are pinned, often with excessive force, and then thrown into a burlap sack held by another man. Other shows feature daredevils kissing rattlesnakes, handling rattlesnakes without protective devices, and putting rattlesnakes in their mouths and biting down on them with their teeth.
While roundup organizers claim their events reduce the number of rattlesnake bites by controlling rattlesnake populations, it is believed the reverse is actually true, due to the number of bites resulting from people mishandling the snakes. The fact that this often occurs while the handlers are under the influence of alcohol greatly increases the risk of bites.
Other roundup stunts include people crawling into sleeping bags containing rattlesnakes, people agitating rattlesnakes into striking at and popping balloons, and the “pancaking” of rattlesnakes, in which a person presses a coiled rattlesnake between their bare palms.
|Rattlesnakes the right way |
Some rattlesnake roundups in Florida and Pennsylvania are now known as “festivals.” They feature true educational displays and are more ecologically sound because they don’t rely on over-the-top hunting methods to supply large numbers of snakes that are killed during the event.
Bill Rulon-Miller, a fellow rattlesnake sympathizer, attended the Noxen, Pa., roundup earlier in the year and reported that no snakes were killed, and that hunters pit-tagged and released the snakes back into the areas where they were captured. Bill also noted that, unlike roundups in Oklahoma, the snakes that were on display were provided with adequate water and shelter.
Replacing the revenue generated at more traditional roundups may not be easy, but alternative events such as these certainly warrant further consideration.
Conservation aspects to be considered in the wake of rattlesnake roundups are the decline of rattlesnake species due to the unlimited harvest of the snakes at certain times of the year, and, as mentioned, the potential for other species to be affected by the collection methods employed by rattlesnake hunters.
In Oklahoma, the number of rattlesnakes an individual may remove from the wild during the months of March through June is unlimited. The take is unregulated, and hunters can collect as many timber rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus), prairie rattlesnakes (C. v. viridis), western diamondback rattlesnakes (C. atrox) and western massassauga (Sistrurus catenatus tergeminus) as they wish. This, plus the repeated harvesting of the same ranges, can lead to the wipeout of entire den sites. The Apache 2010 hunt yielded 400 western diamondbacks, but according to local newspapers the same hunt in 2011 only resulted in 100 snakes. Residents who attend this hunt have told me that the same mountain range is repeatedly utilized, which would prevent the area’s snake population from replenishing its numbers.
Not only are the numbers of rattlesnakes being captured getting smaller, but apparently so are the actual snakes themselves. I spoke with a roundup worker in Okeene, Okla., who admitted that the roundup where he worked had to import “big ones” from Texas. It has long been suspected that western diamondbacks have been brought in from other areas to be used in Oklahoma roundups. While I personally have no solid proof of this, I do have video footage of people confessing to it, and this is one reason why the roundup organizers’ argument that roundups perform a useful public service by controlling local rattlesnake populations does not set well with me and other conservationists.
In a 2006 paper stating its position on rattlesnake roundups, the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists revealed that 125,000 rattlesnakes were being harvested annually for roundups at that time. It was estimated that between six and ten thousand snakes were collected per year to supply five Oklahoma roundups, and roundups in eastern states such as Georgia and Alabama were thought to account for one to two thousand eastern diamondback rattlesnakes (C. adamanteus) being taken per year. While extensive research has been done on roundups and their effect on the environment, however, the numbers of snakes taken from the wild today would be guesses, as roundup organizers are not always cooperative when providing these numbers.
Politicians have stated that because the western diamondback rattlesnake is protected in certain parts of its range there is no reason for alarm over possible population decimations as a result of supplying roundups. In a state the size of Oklahoma, however, where game wardens are few and far between, I wonder how much time is truly devoted to protecting these animals. One could easily draw a parallel to the Texas horned lizard, which was very common over the entire state of Oklahoma until the 1980s and which is now an International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species of Special Concern. Will the western diamondback rattlesnake have to be eradicated, or nearly eradicated, from Oklahoma before serious attention is drawn to this issue?
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Rattlesnake skin products, such as hat bands, are popular items for sale at roundups. Photo credit: Sky Stevens
Dead rattlesnakes for sale, posed for maximum fear factor. Photo credit: Sky Stevens
Snake heads for sale. Photo credit: Sky Stevens
Rattlesnake meat is of course the featured menu item among the food stalls at rattlesnake roundups. Photo credit: Sky Stevens
Safety and Cruelty Concerns
Public safety at rattlesnake roundups may also be questionable. I have often observed children petting snakes at roundups, yet I never see any hand sanitizer being used. Rattlesnake meat is sold at most roundups, and it isn’t always prepared under the most sanitary conditions. Snakes may be decapitated and skinned in makeshift butcher shops that are not designed for food preparation. While I have seen a State of Oklahoma Health Department car at a roundup, I’ve never seen any actual personnel.
Stunts and contests often put people in close proximity to an animal that can harm them and which is best left alone. Something else to consider: A person who is bitten at a roundup will likely need antivenin, which would lessen the local supply. Should there be increased risk that a zookeeper or other qualified handler who may suffer a bite be deprived of antivenin treatment?
The cruelty exhibited at roundups is an area of concern, as well. Often, children are permitted to witness and even participate in the execution of rattlesnakes. A worker at the March 2011 Apache roundup told me that rattlesnakes have been frozen in order to have their mouths sewn shut prior to being used for photo opportunities. To have your photograph taken with a live rattlesnake might cost $3 to $5, with the snake possibly expiring within a few hours after being exposed to the stress of constant handling on top of the experience of being stuck in a freezer.
Rattlesnakes may also be dropped, fall off of tables or kicked, which may lead to broken ribs and other injuries.
Battle for Respect
Not surprisingly, many residents of towns that host rattlesnake roundups value the events because of commerce they bring to their communities. Much of the money resulting from rattlesnake roundups does go to worthy causes, such as support for local fire departments, the Jaycees, or to help people in the community, but there are other ways to raise money. Why must doing so contribute toward the eradication of one of America’s most iconic apex predators?
If the situation doesn’t change, pro-roundup towns may find themselves without the snakes that protect them from rodent-borne diseases, such as hantavirus. People in rural communities may be faced with rodent population explosions that could potentially cause havoc on their farms.
A decrease of rattlesnakes may also hinder medical research, as reptile venom is used in the research of a wide variety of human ailments, from hypertension and heart disease to diabetes. On a recent episode of NOVA, it was stated that for every person who died of snakebite, more than 350 human lives were saved by medicines derived from reptile venom.
The good news for the rattlesnakes is that roundups are on the decline. Over the past decade, some Texas roundups have ceased operation due to either a lack of interest, a lack of snakes or snake hunters. The irrational fear of snakes may also be on the decline, due to the influence of science and education about these majestic animals. We can only hope that by the time most people, including the organizers and patrons of rattlesnake roundups, realize these animals are worth conserving, there are some rattlesnakes left to conserve! REPTILES
Todd Autry is a reptile enthusiast in Tulsa, Okla., who has been researching rattlesnake roundups for five years. He is dedicated to the preservation of animals in their native habitats and has worked with reptiles for much of his life, both in keeping them and through zoological institutions.