Rattlesnake with its mouth sewn shut. Would you do this to a dog?  (Photo: Kim Laforest)

Last week John F. Taylor asked me if I was aware of the practice of Rattlesnake Roundups. I was not, so he sent me a couple of links and what I learned horrified me.

Ok, so I’ll be the first to admit, rattlesnakes are not the most endearing creatures. Snakes, in general, scare people. Add venom, a bad reputation, and media hype to that, and sure, I can understand not feeling the love. I can also see not wanting them in your yard or on the playground. So sure, sometimes removal of a single snake or the relocation of a den is necessary.

But rattlesnake roundups involve the wholesale capture, torture, and killing of thousands of animals in the name of sport and entertainment. And quite honestly, I thought we were past that kind of cruelty today.

After a few days of doing my own research, I was shocked again. This time because I found that people have been fighting against rattlesnake roundups for YEARS and yet still they exist.   So, rather than rehash all the same information that’s already out there, I’m going to do a summary here, provide links to lots more information, and list relevant sources.

What are rattlesnake roundups?

Rattlesnake roundups take place from January through July in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Alabama, and Georgia.  These are community festivals, sometimes several days long, featuring thousands of rattlesnakes that have been taken from their dens by bounty hunters. The hunters deliver live snakes to commercial dealers who are contracted by event organizers to supply the animals as a source of entertainment. The snakes are sold by the pound.

“The Jaycees have released that they will be paying $10 per pound for live Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes. The Jaycees have collected more than 300,000 pounds of Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes since the start of the Round-Up in 1959. Ray stated “this price will be paid all three days with no weight limit on number of pounds brought in.”” (Sweetwater Reporter, Feb 2012)

 

“It gets in your blood,” said Wells, 73. “If you’re doing it for the money, you’re going to go into the hole. We do it more for the sport.”  (James Wells, rattlesnake hunter)

The purchased snakes then become part of sensationalist demonstrations and events.  In a carnival atmosphere snakes are handled live, posed and photographed with visitors, featured in stunts and contests, and are beheaded and skinned in front of crowds of onlookers. Some are also cooked as part of a celebratory BBQ.

The public don’t seem to realize that the “brave” snake handlers they are watching are working with normally reclusive animals that are exhausted, gassed, overheated, dehydrated, injured, disoriented, and often near-death.

Blatant Cruelty to Animals

 

Most rattlesnakes in roundups are driven out of their dens with gasoline, then stored without water or food in unhygienic conditions, and crammed tightly into containers for transport to and display at roundup events. Many snakes arrive at these events starved, dehydrated, or crushed to death.  (Humane Society)

Gassing is illegal in some states, but the practice continues. In Texas it is still legal to gas snakes.  Unfortunately, rattlesnakes often share their burrows with a variety of other animals, including turtles, small mammals and other kinds of snakes, all of which get gassed at the same time.

Abusive practices at the roundups include:

  • Freezing snakes for up to 2 hours render them immobile
  • Sewing their mouths shut so they can’t bite.
  • Pulling fangs out of live snakes.
  • Severing rattles from live snakes
  • Filling snakes full of liquor to sedate them
  • Tormenting snakes with sticks and objects to induce them to strike
  • Performing “daredevil” stunts such as biting snakes and “pancaking” snakes, where a handler presses a coiled snake between his palms.
  • Leaving snakes crowded for days in hot dry snake pits or cages
  • Packing snake cages so full that the bottom snakes get crushed
  • Holding or dangling snakes in such a way that it injures their spine
  • Treating snakes roughly – kicking them, tossing them into piles
  • Burning snakes with cigarettes
  • Using live snakes as accessories in contests and games.

 

Individuals are kicked, burned with cigarettes, have their rattles removed while still alive and funneled full of liquor. (American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists)

“They really drape it over your shoulders but they are defanged and their mouths are sewn shut,” England said. “(The Duncan Banner, Apr 9, 2012)

  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. (ReptileChannel.com)

During the organized hunts, hunts participants are set loose on two pieces of property outside of town, on which four marked snakes have been released. Hunters that turn in these snakes get $25, and various cash prizes are available for contests involving longest snake, most rattlers, shortest snake and snake sacking. (The Duncan Banner, 2012)

 

Mythbusting the danger of rattlesnakes

Rattlesnakes are not the dangerous killers lurking around every corner that the rattlesnake hunters would have you believe. Take a look at this great video by Orry Martin, Texas Snake Hunter. Martin explains the nature of rattlesnakes and why the roundups are wrong:

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. (ReptileChannel.com)

Sure, if a rattlesnake bites you and you don’t get treatment, that’s dangerous.  But what are your chances of being bitten or killed by a rattlesnake?

According to the CDC it is estimated that 7,000–8,000 people per year receive venomous bites [from all venomous snake species] in the United States. On average, about 5 of those people die. Of those, 1 or 2 deaths occur in Texas.

However, roughly half of all venomous snake bites are “dry.” That is, the snake does not inject venom into the victim.  Additionally, of people who are bitten by venomous snakes, it is estimated that a large portion (up to half) are people who were handling or harassing  a snake.  In fact, two predictors of a snakebite incidence are  being male and drinking alcohol.

According to one study, of almost 10,000 snakebites treated in emergency rooms between 2001 and 2004, only 32% were bitten by known venomous species (usually rattlesnakes).  Of venomous snakebite victims, almost 80% were male. Of all victims, 67% of the interactions were intentional (the human approached or handled the animal) and 40% of the incidences involved alcohol.

Another study states (bold mine):

Two populations at special risk are identified: (1) young children (12/36) who sustain lower extremity bites, and (2) adults who consume alcohol and handle snakes (10/36) who sustain upper extremity bites.

In other words, snakebites are largely preventable. A roundup does nothing to protect the average person from being bitten by a rattlesnake. Yet at rattlesnake roundups, the incidences pile up:

“[being bit by a rattlesnake]  happened two or three times before, so it’s nothing to him,” said his sacking partner James Cmerek.”(KXAN News)

“Stephanie Smith of Brownwood was bitten twice by a rattlesnake as she stood in the pit participating in a snake recount for the contestants during the Cowboy’s Last Ride Casket Contest” (Brownwood News, 2011)

“Being bit, according to Kite is not an uncommon occurrence at Rattlesnake Roundups. “When you get in a pit full of rattlesnakes, it’s not uncommon to get bit.” (Brownwood News, 2011)

 

How do I help stop rattlesnake roundups?

The Humane Society has conveniently put together a list of roundups [pdf], the regulating agencies, and the sponsoring organization for each event.

Demand that regulating agencies start doing their job. In some states, while there are no laws preventing the hunting of rattlesnakes, the snakes do fall under animal cruelty laws. Those laws need to be enforced.

There are also laws against transporting live snakes across state lines, however, because the roundups have depleted local populations, and because, for example, Texas rattlers are much larger than ones found in other states, many snakes are transported illegally to roundups. Those laws need to be enforced as well.

Hold sponsors accountable: Contact the sponsoring organizations and ask them for their annual report. Find out how much money they are making on these allegedly “educational” events.Then follow the money.

Escalate: It may also be worth contacting the parent organizations, for instance, The US Junior Chamber (Jaycees) to find out if they condone the roundups. Or ask them on Twitter

Join a group that’s working to end rattlesnake roundups: Facebook Group: RARR – Rise Against Rattlesnake Roundups

Protest sensationalized programming where the dangers of rattlesnakes are exaggerated and snake killers are glorified. For example Animal Planet’s “Rattlesnake Republic.

And educate: Spread the word on rattlesnake roundups. Make sure people understand the cruelty that these events condone. Whether you like snakes or not; whether rattlesnakes are dangerous or not, there is never an excuse to treat an animal this way.

RESOURCES

American Assoc of Poison Control Centers – Annual Data reports

Effects Of Rattlesnake Roundups On The Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake

Facebook Group: RARR – Rise Against Rattlesnake Roundups

Kingsnake: Sweetwater Texas: Leaders in animal abuse since 1958

Position of The American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists Concerning Rattlesnake Conservation and Roundups

ReptileApartment.com

RARROKLA – Youtube Channel Protesting Oklahoma rattlesnake roundups

ReptileChannel.com

Texas Rattlesnake Roundups (book)

Citations

Means, Bruce D. (2009). Effects Of Rattlesnake Roundups On The Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake Herpetological Conservation and Biology, 4 (2), 132-141

Seifert SA, Boyer LV, Benson BE, & Rogers JJ (2009). AAPCC database characterization of native U.S. venomous snake exposures, 2001-2005. Clinical toxicology (Philadelphia, Pa.), 47 (4), 327-35 PMID: 19514880

Langley RL (2005). Animal-related fatalities in the United States-an update. Wilderness & environmental medicine, 16 (2), 67-74 PMID: 15974255

Walter FG, Stolz U, Shirazi F, & McNally J (2009). Epidemiology of severe and fatal rattlesnake bites published in the American Association of Poison Control Centers’ Annual Reports. Clinical toxicology (Philadelphia, Pa.), 47 (7), 663-9 PMID: 19640239