Thousands of people in the Texan town of Sweetwater gather each year to take part in the local festival known as the "World's Largest Rattlesnake Roundup," where they hunt and collect western diamondback rattlesnakes (Crotalus atrox).
While organizers of the annual event claim that it is done to help keep their population in check and prevent the snakes from attacking people and cattle, some animal rights groups argue that it is unnecessary as the reptiles are not as big a threat as they were made to look.
Hunting events, such as Sweetwater's rattlesnake roundup, are common occurrences in several states such as Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma and Texas. Participants typically hunt western diamondback rattlesnakes, but sometimes they can also include the eastern variety of the reptile (Crotalus adamanteus) in their list of targets.
In Sweetwater, the roundup was first organized by members of the Junior Chamber of Commerce, or "Jaycees," 59 years ago in order to control the spread of rattlesnakes in the region, which were being blamed for snake-biting incidents on humans and cattle every year.
What began as a form of animal control practice later became part of the town's tradition, drawing as many as 25,000 tourists each year from other parts of the United States. Many of those who visit the town are snake hunters looking to take part in the rattlesnake roundup.
In 2015, some 3,780 pounds of rattlesnakes were gathered as part of the event. These reptiles were placed inside a makeshift pit made from what appeared to be an aboveground swimming pool. They were kept there, until members of the Jaycees came and started lopping the animals' heads and skinning them.
According to the organizers, parts of the rattlesnakes that were killed off went to good use. Their meat was given to people as food, their venoms were offered to researchers and their skins were sold, likely to be used as materials for making shoes and bags.
Criticism Of Rattlesnake Hunting Events
Sweetwater's rattlesnake roundup has received much criticism from animal conservationists who view such events as promoting cruelty toward the reptiles.
Melissa Amarello, an animal rights activist and co-founder of the Advocates for Snake Preservation in Tucson, Arizona, said that many of the rattlesnakes gathered during the event are often bloody and swollen because of how they were handled by participants.
Roundups also tend to involve reptiles that are too stressed or weak to even defend themselves or those that are already half-dead.
Amarello pointed out that rattlesnakes mostly use their rattle to signify that they are afraid. They don't rattle when they are angry or about to attack. She added that the rattling sound that is often heard during such events is the snakes' way of screaming because they are terrified.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that out of the 7,000 to 8,000 people in the United States that get bitten by venomous snakes each year, only five of them end up dying. This suggests that snake attacks are not as menacing as many people believe.
People who are usually bitten by snakes are exterminators, those who are intoxicated or anyone who would not let these snakes be, says David Steen, a wildlife biologist from the Auburn University.
"If you don't do any of those things, the risks of getting bitten by a snake are really low," Steen said. "If we respect their place in the environment and also respect their space, then I think we can live alongside them with no problem at all."
Supporters of the Sweetwater's rattlesnake roundup, however, maintain that the event doesn't serve to decimate the population of western diamondback rattlesnakes in the region. It only helps to control their spread.
The Parks and Wildlife Department of Texas is already considering placing a ban on using gasoline or fumes in driving rattlesnakes out of crevices and caves because of its potential toxic impact on the environment, a move that roundup participants plan to prevent.
Photo: Bernard Dupont | Flickr