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Wildlife Slaughter Persists at Rattlesnake Roundups Despite Conservation Efforts

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.

Photograph by Jo-Anne McArthur
Photograph by Jo-Anne McArthur

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.

Photograph by Jo-Anne McArthur
Photograph by Jo-Anne McArthur

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.

Comments

  1. Melissa Amarello (ASP)
    Arizona
    October 14, 1:56 pm

    As it states above, the USDA tracks statistics on livestock death in their annual Cattle Death Loss report – there are no deaths attributed to snakes in any of the publicly available reports.

    Sorry about the loss of your horse; I know it’s hard to lose a member of the family. This is unfortunately a risk of having free-roaming animals in snake country. Killing or moving snakes won’t alleviate this risk and in fact may increase it.

    The loss of limbs related to bites from native US snakes is extremely rare with proper and timely treatment. Strange these incidences didn’t make the news.

    Most advocates for reforming rattlesnake roundups, including me, live and work in rattlesnake country. We have learned how to safely co-exist with them. It is possible and is the only sustainable thing to do.

  2. C Miller
    Ks
    September 29, 2:50 pm

    I’m not sure where all of your information is coming from. You saying that no cattle have died in 20 years is totally untrue. We happen to have cattle and lost one last year to a rattlesnake bite. We also have horses and this summer we’ve had 3 bit by rattle snakes. We were lucky none died. One of the mares came very close to it though. When they get bit it is usually on the nose, therefore that is where they swell and it cuts off their breathing. If any of you think that is a pretty sight to see you are very wrong. After treating this mare for two weeks my husband went down to the pasture barn to have her put down. Thank god we had gave her one more day as she made a small turn around. This was after many days of IV’s and many other drugs. She was skin and bones it made me sick to see her. A week or so later she finally had enough strength to load in a trailer and we got to bring her home. She looks great now but we do not know if we’ll ever be able to ride her because it effects their organs. The other two horses we caught fairly quickly and they came through it fine. We have also had more than one dog bitten. We are lucky to have caught them all and they are alive. Animals are actually the least of our worries. Our children and grandchildren are our biggest concern as we’ve killed rattlers around their houses We also know a woman who got bit on the hand and had to have her finger amputated. This summer a young man was working and got bit on his leg and at first the Drs didn’t know if he’d survive. His leg was amputated. We’ve killed many snakes this year and will not apologize for it. Those that think it’s terrible need to get you a few and enjoy them. I don’t enjoy them and never will. There are many of them out there. It’s obvious to me those of you that think these snakes should be protected don’t live around them. If you are that worried come get a few. We will be more than glad to share them.

  3. C
    March 24, 10:27 am

    Let’s first remember that these are snakes. Dangerous ones at that. They are not humans or furry little dogs! Despite the millions of snakes exterminated at this particular round up, there is no shortage of rattlesnakes in the area. The snakes are a problem in this particular area due to it’s unique location and local geograpy. If you lived there you might have a different opinion of the practice. Bottom line, just leave these locals alone to protect their area as they see fit. If you want to save the snakes, go get a bunch and take them back to where you live. Otherwise be quiet.

  4. Theresa raines
    olympia, washington
    March 15, 11:23 pm

    It’s wrong to do this animals should not be abused

  5. Robert R. McBride
    Roscoe Texas
    March 15, 12:22 pm

    30 years ago as I could leave out for a spring drive in the evenings on the country roads around Sweetwater and run into a handful of rattlesnakes. I left for a 21 year Army career after high school, retired, and moved back home. I found that if I drove those same country roads like I did in my youth I could still run into a handful of rattlesnakes. The only real change to the wildlife around here is the feral pigs that are so common now as opposed to non existent in my younger years.

  6. Liv
    Pittsburgh
    March 14, 12:08 pm

    I recently saw an advertisement of this kind of ‘event’ here in Pennsylvania. I thought that was a joke – but am so sad to discover that these things happen and are promoted. This is very cruel, and should not happen at all. We would not do it to other animals, I don’t see why we would do it to snakes – which also have their place in the ecosystem!

  7. kevin raynard
    florida
    March 14, 12:06 pm

    there is nothing more stupid or more dangerous than a group of ignorant people.
    And these “roundups” are a classic display of such.
    Would love to round up all the “dumbf#$%^” who organise and participate in this and stomp on their head and decapitate them.
    These wonderfull creatures belong here more than we may do and certainly do not deserve such a horrendous fate at the hands of redneck hicks!

  8. Lewis Lowden
    Michigan
    March 13, 7:08 pm

    David Sager told the New York Times in 2014. “The rattlesnake roundup is our ways and means.” Well Texans will be upset–as would any American living in any of America’s other great States– when someone tries to take-away or otherwise end one of their primary “ways and means” of putting food on the table and a roof over their head. But what most Americans do find agreeable is when ‘other’ Americans share their way of doing the same thing in a better way all around. In this instant it is Claxton, Georgia, with a third way that may appease both rattlesnake handlers and animal rights advocates while increasing the tourist attraction and proceeds received. Since 2012, Claxton’s rattlesnake roundup has involved no killing; instead, handlers teach visitors about snake safety while rattlesnakes and other wildlife are available for viewing and local conservationists and professionals teach natural history and safety in the outdoors. Claxton’s new festival has proven more popular and financially successful than ever — proving it’s not the slaughter that brings people in, it’s the snakes themselves.

  9. Asshole
    Colorado
    March 13, 10:56 am

    I’m from South Texas and RT now I’m kinda sad to say it, and that’s never happened, but these ppl killing am these snakes for show is just fuc#%ed . I hope one day ask you get bit by one of these things when they’re all gone cause ppl like you killed them all and there’s no more anti venom..

  10. Lester Humphreys
    Royse City, TX 76189
    March 12, 10:51 pm

    I lived in West Texas for 32 years and never have encountered a “rattle snake”. I have heard them a couple of times, but never encountered them “face to face”. It has always been my feeling, that they have been more afraid of me than I was scared of them. I feel that “Nature” would take place without the interference of man.

  11. graziela dezanet
    March 12, 3:13 pm

    this is a crime and how is it possible it is allowed? so crazy. the world belongs to animals and humans and nobody has the right to destroy our world!