As abhorrent as rattlesnake roundups are to many of us, we cannot dismiss them as evil events run by bad people. Instead, it may be helpful to consider why people would poison the environment with gasoline to hunt animals that they then stockpile and later mistreat and then slaughter in front of an audience, much like a circus of animal cruelty. If we understand what factors allow and encourage these events, we may have better ideas about how to oppose them. If we would like to see roundups changed, and if we would like to see support for the current roundups disappear, then part of our strategy should include understanding as much as we can about what makes people do such things. I offer the following comments in the hope that they will contribute to that understanding.
There are several factors that I believe are relevant to the reasons a person may participate in or support rattlesnake roundups. These factors may also have broader relevance to destructive and exploitive attitudes toward wildlife in general.
Whether the animal poses a threat
Western diamond-backed rattlesnake
While snakebite death is rare in the U.S. and the safest approach to living around rattlesnakes is usually to leave them alone, it cannot be denied that a rattlesnake poses some potential danger to those who encounter it. Even setting aside the foolhardy attempts to catch or harass a rattlesnake, there is some risk of stepping on one, unknowingly putting your hands near where one is concealed, or having a young child try to pick one up without knowing what they are doing. Well-intentioned people may try to eliminate anything that could hurt their family or neighbors, and this is reported to have been part of the original idea behind rattlesnake roundups. These same people may forget that driving a car entails more risk than living near rattlesnakes. The everyday risks that people accept without a thought include things that have value to them (cars get you places) and things that do not seem to be trying to harm them. Many people have the mistaken belief that rattlesnakes will attack out of “meanness” or animosity, even though we know that rattlesnakes avoid confrontation whenever possible.
Roundups perpetuate the belief that rattlesnakes “want” to harm you by staging antagonistic encounters whenever possible, such as taunting the snakes with balloons (or even the backside of a daredevil Jaycee) to provoke strikes. The show is only attractive to spectators if the stars of the show are staring down a deadly threat and living to tell about it. Unfortunately, other snake enthusiasts who would not align themselves with the roundups do something similar by emphasizing stories of buzzing, enraged rattlesnakes and circulating photos of rattlesnakes in full defensive mode, ready to strike. While this is a part of reality, it only reflects a small sliver of what rattlesnakes are and how they live.
Those of us who have spent time around rattlesnakes could tell stories of times that we walked past one that made no move, and we could describe times when we moved one off the roadway or photographed it without provoking any aggressive response from the snake. We know that this kind of encounter is common, and it would be nice if the public knew it as well. We should not try to conceal the fact that rattlesnakes are potentially dangerous and should be left alone, but at the same time we should educate people that these animals eat, sleep, mate, seek shelter, and generally live their lives without constantly rattling and seeking to strike at something.
Whether its life is of direct benefit
We often value things in proportion to what they can do for us. Proposed conservation actions may be met with the question “what good is it?” People may scoff at the protection of an endangered minnow somewhere, while they contribute tax dollars to the management of game species that support hunting and fishing. It may seem selfish to insist that a wildlife species justify itself by benefitting us, but this is the reality for many people. If it’s no good to me, the thinking goes, then if others want to round them all up and kill them it does not matter to me.
It could be argued (and maybe should be argued) that nature is good regardless of whether it directly benefits us. We share the earth with millions of species and the only reason for thinking that we are the most important is that we are the ones making that judgment. Ask the armadillo what is the most important being on the planet and there might be a different answer! We could argue that all species are of at least indirect benefit. As John Muir said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” It is diverse and interrelated communities of plants and animals that sustain all our lives, not a handful of favorites that we designate.
However, another argument can be made for the rattlesnake alongside the argument for biodiversity. That argument is that rattlesnakes are of fairly direct benefit to humans. Rattlesnakes prey on rats and mice – thousands and thousands of rats and mice, which eat the farmer’s crops and carry hantavirus that can cause life-threatening illness. According to the CDC, infected rodents (especially deer mice) or their urine or droppings can pass the virus along to people, who may develop Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome that can be fatal. The initial outbreak in the southwestern U.S. followed a season in which the deer mouse population was unusually high. Rattlesnakes are among the predators that control rodent populations.
Additionally, venom from rattlesnakes and other venomous reptiles is a growing source of medicines that directly benefit us. Those medicines help with high blood pressure, dissolve clots that lead to heart attacks, and fight cancer. That should make rattlesnakes and other venomous snakes more valuable to those who are not interested in nature for its own sake. Unfortunately, rattlesnake roundups try to take advantage of this, issuing questionable claims that their venom is for medicine and research. The venom extracted from roundups is from an unknown mix of snakes from different localities, snakes that have often been contaminated by gasoline exposure, with venom collected in primitive and often dirty conditions. Venom experts tell us that the roundup venom is useless and pharmaceutical companies have said that they do not knowingly use roundup-collected venom (Harrison & Wiley, 2014, Fry, 2014).
What others around me do with the animal
I have wondered what it would be like to have grown up in Sweetwater, where somebody among your friends, family, or extended family probably hunted snakes for the roundup. We humans tend to imitate those around us, especially those who are like us and those who we like. If they are admired in the community, we are even more likely to try to do what they do. If, instead of hanging around at museums and nature centers, I had come of age hanging out with those who go out gassing dens at the end of winter and performing stunts at the roundup, what would I have done? I probably would have wanted to earn the praise of the roundup guys by being able to slip a hose far into a crevice so the gas could be sprayed deep. I would have wanted to learn how to grasp a rattlesnake behind the head just like my mentors, to examine the fangs and make it bite a cup or a jar so I could see its venom. I would try to decapitate with one well-placed strike of the machete, and be able to skin the snake in one smooth motion, just like the guys I grew up with. I am no different from the kids who grew up where rattlesnake roundups are a normal part of life, but thankfully I grew up around people who appreciated nature and understood that snakes were a part of it, and not to be hated.
To the extent that kids in Sweetwater, or anywhere else, see role models who treat wildlife with respect, they are less likely to be in the stands cheering the slaughter and growing up to be the next generation of roundup guys. The more they see someone like Steve Irwin, or (closer to home) Orry Martin, treating snakes as wonderful animals that are not “out to get you,” the more they may want to follow their lead. (And this highlights the need for such role models to avoid their own version of daredevil antics, which Irwin was often thought to engage in.) Every one of us who is part of a community is a potential influence on the other members of that community. The things that we say, the shows we watch, and the actions we take all contribute in some way to what others will do.
Financial and other incentives
Skinning western diamond-backed rattlesnakes at Sweetwater
Rattlesnake roundups are one part of what is, in large part, a financial enterprise. The Jaycees buy rattlesnakes from hunters, and not just a few at a time. The Sweetwater website states that for hunters to enter some of their contests, they must have “at least 100 pounds of snakes sold to the Sweetwater Jaycees.” Fitzgerald & Painter (2000) estimated that, at Sweetwater, between an average 7,275 pounds of rattlesnakes were brought in each year from 1971-1991. Rattlesnakes are sold to meat and skin processors, the rattles and other parts are sold as trinkets, meat from the gasoline-contaminated snakes is fried and sold, and thousands of spectators are charged admission. Roundups bring thousands of dollars to the local communities yearly. Most hunters for the Sweetwater roundup have stated that they do not believe the roundups are affecting rattlesnake populations (Fitzgerald & Painter, 2000), contradicting the claim that roundups are for the purpose of controlling a dangerous pest. A Jaycee at the 2001 Sweetwater roundup told me that when they find small rattlesnakes, they toss them back as “seed snakes,” to contribute to the population of this economic resource.
One important implication is this: when a community has a strong financial incentive to continue a practice we find destructive, some alternative should be offered that provides similar financial incentives. It is not realistic to expect that they will give up something that is a substantial part of the livelihood of the community just to “do the right thing,” especially when most are not convinced that roundups are a bad thing. In Georgia, the rattlesnake roundup in Fitzgerald was replaced with a wild chicken festival that has reportedly been very successful. Elsewhere, the roundup in Claxton, Georgia converted to a “wildlife friendly” event, the Claxton Rattlesnake & Wildlife Festival. It is supported by wildlife organizations such as the Orianne Society and state wildlife agencies, and it features parades, races, pageants, and celebrity appearances which undoubtedly draw many paying visitors. It is easy to imagine that the same thing could occur in Sweetwater or Freer or other places in Texas where communities currently rely on roundups for an infusion of money. It would help if there was pressure from citizens and Texas Parks & Wildlife Department to stop some of the harmful practices such as gassing dens, combined with a willingness on the part of everyone to work with rural communities if they chose to reform the roundups.
Our capacity for empathy
Roundup opponents have sometimes angrily talked about how there could never be a puppy roundup modeled after rattlesnake roundups, highlighting how we may behave toward some animals so differently than we do toward others. The supposed images of puppies being kicked around, decapitated, and skinned would evoke revulsion and anger in virtually everyone. This is related to our capacity for empathy, which is the ability to imagine what another’s experience would feel like. Certain animal organizations raise money based on commercials featuring sad-eyed dogs and cats, shivering in fear or pain. Looking at the faces of such animals, it is easy to imagine the depth of hurt, fear, and pain that they experience. The organizations that broadcast these commercials count on our ability to empathize with those animals and our urge to do something to alleviate that suffering. Most people feel none of that empathy toward rattlesnakes, not because they are cold and unfeeling, but largely because rattlesnakes are so different and lack the kinds of social expression that a species such as the dog shows. We sense when dogs are playful, sad, fearful, and dejected, because their postures and faces make it easy for us to empathize. Rattlesnakes, on the other hand, seem foreign, different, and un-readable. These snakes are vertebrates with a well-developed nervous system, and are capable of experiencing a range of emotional and behavioral states. However, a rattlesnake’s face does not convey emotion, and lacks the “equipment” to change its expression to sad-eyed or frightened. Thus, there is much less basis for humans to empathize, and some might kill a snake with no more thought than we would have in stepping on an ant.
And yet, rattlesnake natural history includes a number of things that could make us think of them as less foreign, and a little more able to be understood from our frame of reference. Research is showing, for example, that female timber rattlesnakes stay closer to each other if they are siblings, perhaps recognizing and seeking each other out. There are observations showing mother rattlesnakes keeping their young close and presumably safer for a short time after they are born. Sharing such emerging information may help combat the notion that rattlesnakes are mindless automatons, incapable of the things that make a creature a conscious, feeling being.
We can also do whatever we can to promote the capacity for empathy in general, so that we do not see others as merely tools or obstacles. The ability to understand and care about another person’s experience is not so dissimilar to the ability to understand that an animal might feel pain or fear, and that even snakes should not be thoughtlessly abused. We can encourage empathy for animals without being emotionally manipulative (like the sad-eyed dog commercials) or too anthropomorphic (as if the mama snake cooks breakfast for her babies). We can simply point out that any animal would be frightened of something much bigger than itself, and would try to get away or defend itself if it thought it was being attacked. We can teach that even some snake mothers have ways of caring for their young, and that reptiles often recognize the landmarks for the areas where they live, have “home ranges,” and try to find their way home if moved. Such information makes the animal more understandable in terms of what humans can relate to, and so we may have empathy for it.
Fitzgerald, L.A., & C.W. Painter. 2000. Rattlesnake commercialization: Long-term trends, issues, and implications for conservation. Wildlife Society Bulletin, 28(1), Pp.235-253.
Fry, B.G. 2014. Statement from Bryan Grieg Fry. Texas Field Notes, 8(1), Pp. 12.
Harrison, J., & Wiley, K. 2014. Statement from the Kentucky Reptile Zoo. Texas Field Notes, 8(1), Pp. 11.