One of the most fearsome and intimidating sounds to hear is the “rattle” of the Western Diamondback Rattlesnake. In Texas, the Diamondback is one of at least ten venomous snake species and is the most common, reaching an average length of four feet and living for about 20 years. It is the second-largest venomous snake in North America and is responsible for many fatal snake bites in the United States. A Texas town is hosting their annual Rattlesnake Roundup this weekend from 11 to 13 March, 2022.
Sweetwater, Texas, hosts the world’s largest Rattlesnake Roundup, a three-day event that brings an average of 25,000 visitors to the town of fewer than 11,000 residents. The event infuses about $8.5 million into the local economy. According to the Sweetwater Jaycees who host the Rattlesnake Roundup, it began in 1958 when local farmers and ranchers sought to control the reptile population known to attack livestock, pets, and people.
While the Rattlesnake Roundup has morphed into an event that features a beauty pageant, a flea market, and a gun and knife show, the main draw is the killing and skinning of thousands of rattlesnakes. Despite being the most popular event in town, the Rattlesnake Roundup has drawn widespread criticism from animal rights activists and conservationists who decry the slaughter of the animals for what amounts to nothing more than entertainment in their view.
“The [Rattlesnake] Roundup does not teach children respect towards nature, but rather encourages cruel treatment of animals,” said Shelby Bobosky, executive director for the Texas Humane Legislation Network, in an interview with The Dallas Express. “Moreover, the methods used to round up the snakes, like gassing, have a detrimental effect on non-targeted animals and the water table.”
Organizers claim that the number of snakes captured during the Rattlesnake Roundup does very little to impact the venomous snake population. Rattlesnakes primarily prey on mice, prairie dogs, rabbits, other reptiles, birds and is even known to scavenge dead animals, the only venomous snake ever observed doing so.
“There is no way that you are going to eradicate the population. We just take a dent out of the population and are trying to control the population,” Rob McCann, a member of the Sweetwater Jaycees, told NPR during the 2020 event. McCann said that proceeds from the event are directed back into the community that fund Thanksgiving and Christmas meals, toy drives, and provide college scholarships for students in the region.
Organizers state that the rattlesnakes that are killed provide skins for boots, belts, and wallets, while heads and rattles are sold as souvenirs. The meat is cooked and eaten, leaving very little waste. Despite the backlash, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) can do very little to alter the event, according to John Silovsky, the TPWD Wildlife Division Deputy Director.
“Currently, Rattlesnake Roundup events are not regulated through TPWD. Any regulation authority of the events lies with local authorities,” Silvosky said in an email. “In order to regulate the animal welfare at the events, the TPWD Commission would require authority be granted through the legislative power of the Texas State Legislature. The next Texas legislative session is set for January 2023.”
TPWD supports community education and fundraising events and recognizes the value of such events to local communities.
Numerous animal welfare organizations have pointed out that the Rattlesnake Roundup does very little to educate the public about the benefits of rattlesnakes and may even create situations where individuals put themselves in harm’s way by attempting to handle rattlesnakes in the wild. These organizations are pushing for a change to the Rattlesnake Roundup events that would eliminate the killing of snakes and instead focus on teaching people how to live in areas with high snake populations safely.
The Texas Department of Health and Human Services claims that around 7,000 Americans are bitten by snakes each year, while only one or two people in Texas die each year. Livestock such as cows and horses are more frequently bitten but seldom die due to the large body mass of the animal.