On the weekend of March 8th and 9th, an event took place that embodies mis-education and cruel exploitation of the western diamond-backed rattlesnake; it was the roundup that took place in Sweetwater Texas. Some 260 miles away, in Round Rock, was its polar opposite: the first Texas Rattlesnake Festival, an event with real education and celebration of wildlife. The festival in Round Rock featured world-class experts (and I was a speaker as well, but not in that league) and beautiful snakes. We can all hope that the Texas Rattlesnake Festival is the start of something that will grow and become better known.
While our neighbors in Sweetwater had been busily spraying gasoline into places where snakes were sheltering and collecting rattlesnakes for the roundup, the festival organizers were busily preparing to display healthy animals that were well cared-for. While the folks in Sweetwater used their poisoned and debilitated snakes for daredevil stunts that model extremely unsafe behavior for onlookers, the experts at the festival did the very opposite. People like Tim Cole used healthy rattlesnakes to show what to do if you come across a venomous snake. Jim Harrison and Kristen Wiley gave a professional demonstration of what they do at the Kentucky Reptile Zoo, extracting venom from a number of rattlesnakes and copperheads. They simply did what they do so well, obviously with great skill and therefore with no manufactured drama. Pinning and picking up these snakes, having them bite through a membrane into a collection container and gently massaging the area above the venom glands, Jim talked about what he was doing and how their snakes provide venom over the course of a long and healthy life.
Festival-goers were able to look into safely secured enclosures and appreciate these reptiles with their incredible evolutionary adaptations. No other animal has a rattle, with specialized muscles in the tail to shake this appendage at up to 60 cycles per second to create its sizzling buzz. Rattlesnakes and other pit-vipers have facial “pits” that sense infrared, allowing them to locate a rodent by the heat it produces. The various species have a wealth of different color patterns that may be fairly subtle and are often beautiful. A visitor can see and appreciate these things while looking at individual animals in secure displays, while at the roundups they mostly see piles of dying snakes. If they see roundup snakes up close, it is in the context of someone holding the snake and parading around with it, or milking its venom, or chopping off its head. Inevitably, the focus is on the human conquering an animal that is simply portrayed as a menace.
What will next year bring? Another festival in Round Rock, building on the success of this year’s event. And, sadly, another festival of cruelty in Sweetwater. However, I was immensely proud to hear a man say, at the end of my presentation in the Round Rock festival, that he and his family had been planning to go to Sweetwater but came here instead, and after hearing me he was glad they did not go. That’s how we will accomplish our goal of having the public seeking out appreciation rather than exploitation: a few people at a time, looking past the myths and fear and seeing these fascinating creatures as they really are.