Photo opportunity: The jaws of one of the snakes are prized open.
Each year they are hunted, gassed and crammed into containers before being milked and finally beheaded. Even after death, they may be skinned for cash and the amusement of a throng of spectators. The unwilling stars of this bloody spectacle are the rattlesnakes of Sweetwater, Texas, which are rounded up every March by hunters who receive about $5 a pound for the unfortunate reptiles.
A shot of the skinning station.
The Sweetwater Rattlesnake Round-up is not the only event of its kind (round-ups are prevalent throughout the South and Midwest US), but it is certainly the largest. Since it began in 1959, the Sweetwater Round-up has collected over 300,000 pounds (136,000 kg) of rattlesnakes. At roughly 3 pounds (1.36 kg) per snake, that amounts to about 100,000 snakes — definitely not a record to please reptile lovers.
A rattlesnake gives a warning rattle, but sadly for the snake that won't keep round-up hunters away.
The rattlesnakes' ordeal starts in their dens, where licensed hunters often use gasoline fumes to drive the snakes out. Only the smallest amount of gas is used as snakes are highly sensitive to it in liquid form, which can easily kill them.
Trophies are given to hunters for the longest snake, and the most snakes caught.
The gas leaves the snakes dazed, and may even kill them. The remaining gas may also poison other wildlife and leave the empty snake dens uninhabitable for years. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is considering banning the use of gas in snake collection, but as yet has failed to do so.
Being captured is only the beginning of the rattlesnake's troubles.
The Sweetwater Jaycees, sponsors of the round-up, will only pay for live rattlesnakes, which means the suffering is drawn out for captured snakes. They are packed into cramped boxes or sacks without any water or food, and may be crushed or suffocated under the weight of their fellow snakes. Many do not even survive the journey to the event grounds. But what awaits them may be considered even worse.
Snakes are weighed and measured before being left in large holding pits.
Once the snakes enter the round-up, held at the Nolan County Coliseum in Sweetwater, they are thrown into public pits to await their fate. Some may consider the coliseum an apt name for the venue, where brutality is showcased as entertainment for an eager crowd. Although the snakes are the main attraction, the site also hosts a flea market as well as gun and knife shows, adding to the carnival atmosphere.
A handler taunts a snake into biting a balloon for the audience's amusement.
Handlers walk through the piles of snakes in the pit wearing protective gear to keep them safe from bites. The snakes are measured and weighed before being distributed to other parts of the venue. Some snakes go into mini-arenas to be part of demonstrations, where audience members can get up close to the reptiles. Adults and children alike are — perhaps unwisely — encouraged to feel the snakes and experience the thrill of being so close to a dangerous animal.
Snakes on display for curious onlookers.
The Humane Society describes these demonstrations as an example of extremely dangerous behavior and a source of misinformation. They claim that, after seeing such demonstrations, audience members may try to reproduce the handler's interactions with the snakes, with potentially disastrous results. The society also accuses round-ups of reinforcing the negative image of snakes, with handlers quoting exaggerated bite statistics.
Although touching snakes puts children at risk of dangerous infections, audience members of all ages are encouraged to handle them.
Handling snakes also poses another risk, particularly for children and those with lowered immune systems. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention warns that contact with live reptiles can spread the salmonella bacteria. It recommends that after touching snakes, or even surfaces that have come in contact with snakes, people should wash their hands immediately and thoroughly. Children under 5 years of age should not touch snakes at all. Unfortunately, hand-washing facilities are often lacking at round-ups.
A snake is milked of its venom shortly before being beheaded.
Another attraction at the Rattlesnake Round-up is the venom collection center. Here, audiences can watch the snakes being “milked” for their venom, which is done by hooking the snake’s fangs over a funnel and putting pressure on the poison glands. The organizers claim that the collected venom is then frozen and sold for research and antivenin. However, Carl M. Barden, director of the Medtoxin Venom Laboratory in DeLand, Florida, states: “To be useful, venom must be produced under sterile conditions, centrifuged and kept cold. We have never purchased EDR venom from a round-up.”
The snake skinning takes place in public so the audience can watch the gory spectacle.
Moving on from the milking, the snakes are taken to their final destination: the killing area. Here, one handler uses tongs to hold the snake on a stump while another beheads it with a machete. Reptile experts say that this is neither a quick nor a painless death for the snake, which can live up to an hour after the beheading. One witness reports seeing the heads wriggling and biting in the bucket where they had been discarded for hours. “They are virtually helpless, frightened and going to die,” is how biologist Clifford Warwick describes it.
Snake skins and parts are sold to souvenir hunters.
Once the head is removed, the snake’s body is taken to the public skinning station where it is gutted and the valuable skin is removed. The snake’s rattle and heads are kept and used to create novelties, while the skin goes on to make boots, belts and other items. The meat is butchered, cooked and sold as food. This poses another danger to people, as snake meat prepared in unhygienic conditions can easily be contaminated by salmonella and other harmful bacteria.
A handler grips a snake by the head, a dangerous stunt for those without experience.
According to the Humane Society: “No other wild animal in the United States is as extensively exploited and traded without regulation or oversight as the rattlesnake.” And yet the animals form an important part of the ecosystem — both by preying on potential pest species like rodents, and by themselves being prey for raptors.
Snake heads on display in jars.
Records are not kept of the round-up’s impact on rattlesnakes in Texas, but far fewer snakes were collected at this year’s festival. Weather conditions were blamed for the shortage, but it isn’t hard to imagine that the enthusiastic over-hunting of the snakes may also contribute to lower numbers.
Every year a "Miss Snake Charmer" is crowned.
The Sweetwater Rattlesnake Round-up is a popular event. People come from all over the United States to take part in the annual festival, where the town’s normal population of just over 11,000 swells by thousands. In 2009, an estimated 40,000 people attended the festival.
To earn her title Miss Snake Charmer must milk and skin a snake.
In 2012, the event raised around $40,000 to $50,000, which organizers say goes to local charities. Those defending the Rattlesnake Round-up point to the charitable donations as a justification for the event. As 16-year-old 2012 "Miss Snake Charmer" Kayla Chowning says, "It's a big deal. It brings business to town." But at what cost?
A young boy holds up the skinned and gutted meat of a snake, which will later be cooked and eaten.
One more reason to object to the Rattlesnake Round-Ups comes from nature writer and environmental educator Sandy Beck, who believes: “One of the most harmful consequences of these round-ups is that children get the message that wildlife is there for humans to use and abuse as they see fit.”
We couldn't agree more. It would surely be better — both for the snakes and for future generations — for people to find more productive and ecologically conscious ways to experience this interesting and important reptile.