SWEETWATER, Texas – Conservationists want to ban the “World’s Largest Rattlesnake Roundup”, an event that takes place once a year in Sweetwater, Texas. More than 30,000 visitors come to the small town to see thousands of rattlesnakes being beheaded and skinned. Advocates argue that it represents a profitable tradition to the people in Sweetwater, but others see it as unnecessary animal abuse.

Thousands of rattlesnakes are killed in front of customers who come to the town from near and far. The event, which ended on Sunday, is led by the city’s Junior Chamber of Commerce, also known as the “Jaycees”.

Miss Snake Charmer Kayla Chowning shows off a rattlesnake during the 54th annual Rattlesnake Roundup at Nolan County Coliseum in Sweetwater. Credit: Michael Miller

Visitors watch as the animals slither together in a pit before snake handlers behead and skin them, but they can also take part in the show by skinning the rattlesnakes and using their blood to make handprints on a wall.

The Jaycees claim that the roundup is necessary to curb overpopulation and ultimately protect human safety and keep local livestock alive, according to a report by National Geographic (NatGeo).

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that 7,000 to 8,000 people in the United States are bitten each year by venomous snakes such as rattlesnakes, copperheads, and coral snakes. Around five of them die, the report says.

However, conservationists say there’s no overpopulation. Melissa Amarella, co-founder of Advocates for Snake Preservation, wrote for NatGeo that conservationists and biologists see roundups as contributors to the current decline in eastern diamondback rattlesnakes. She added that these species have been proposed for being included in the list under the Endangered Species Act.

David Steen, an amphibian and reptiles biologist at Auburn University, told The Washington Post that he also believes the “human safety” argument has no sense at all. He explained that rattlesnakes usually bite only those who deliberately threaten the snakes’ habitats. This includes professional exterminators and drunk people.

Steen affirmed that the risks of getting bitten by snakes are really low for people who don’t interfere with them. “What does a snake have to gain by attacking you? It’s not going to try to eat you. 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”, Steen said.

Additionally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture didn’t report any cattle deaths caused by rattlesnakes last year, according to The Washington Post.

Profitable tradition

Last year’s roundup brought in nearly $8.4 million to Sweetwater, as reported by the Jaycees. More than 100 full-time jobs were created for the event and every sector of the town’s economy benefits from the event’s business. Over $3.2 million was brought into the town’s lodging establishments and nearly $5 million was brought into retail shops and restaurants.

Back in 2014, snake handler David Sager told the New York Times that it would be devastating to the people in Sweetwater if the roundup were banned. He called the event “our ways and means”.

The rattlesnakes’ meat is eaten and their venom and skin are sold. Roundup proponents say the money is put to good use, noting that the Sweetwater Jaycees use the revenue to feed local families on Thanksgiving, help local students and finance development projects.

Snake show without killing might be a viable third way

Handlers in Claxton, Georgia, have been doing since 2012 a rattlesnake roundup that involves no killing, but they teach visitors about snake safety and let them view the interesting animals. According to a report by NatGeo, Claxton’s roundup remains highly acclaimed and profitable.

“It’s a really important source of revenue for the local economy. It’s part of their culture and their tradition, and we don’t want to take all that away from them. We just want them to stop killing snakes at the roundup”, Amarella told the El Paso Herald-Post when referring to the event in Sweetwater.

Source: Christian Science Monitor