Sweetwater Jaycees clean and skinned rattlesnakes during the rattlesnake roundup in 2015. (AP/Odessa American, Courtney Sacco)
The little city of Sweetwater, Texas, has 11,000 residents and one very big event each year. It features a pageant, food stands and contests, but the centerpiece is a bloody hunt: Thousands of Western diamond rattlesnakes are rounded up, milked of their venom and then beheaded and skinned in front of crowds at a county coliseum.
Sweetwater’s “World’s Largest Rattlesnake Roundup” ends Sunday, 59 years after the Junior Chamber of Commerce, or “Jaycees,” launched it as a way to ostensibly control the region’s abundant population of rattlers, which were accused of killing cattle and biting dozens of people each year.
These days, it draws more than 25,000 visitors, among them out-of-state snake hunting teams and foreign tourists who stop by to see the Wild West in action. Last year, 3,780 pounds of snakes were netted, and they were first thrown live in a pit — it looks something like an above-ground swimming pool — where a man in what must be very sturdy boots stood among them, stirring the pile of reptiles to keep them from suffocating each other. The 2014 Miss Texas joined him for a bit.
A reporter for the Midland Reporter-Telegram described the spectacle as “a spaghetti of writhing angry reptiles” that emanates “a strange dense smell with an evil vomit-like edge to it.” Then, he wrote, “denim-clad Jaycees lob off their heads, strip their skin and disembowel their gizzards. The snake’s tiny hearts are set aside into a gory pile, each one still beating out its own rhythm — a hundred little pebble-sized hearts still twitching with life.”
There are other events, including a Miss Snake Charmer contest, which nets the winner a scholarship. And the snakes, the Jaycees note, aren’t sacrificed for nothing: Their skin is sold, their meat is eaten — plates of fried snake are a highlight of the event — and their venom is purchased for research.
But while the Sweetwater roundup boasts of being the world’s biggest, it’s also one of a dying breed. Six states, five of them in the South, still host rattlesnake roundups, but the hunts have fallen out of fashion amid urbanization and complaints that they promote cruelty and a dysfunctional relationship with wildlife.
“At these events, it’s common to see snakes swollen and bloody from being restrained or thrown by handlers, dead and dying snakes, snakes too weak or stressed to defend themselves, unsanitary conditions, cruelty and dangers to the public,” Melissa Amarello, cofounder of the Tucson-based Advocates for Snake Preservation, said in a statement. “Rattlesnakes rattle when they are terrified, not angry or preparing to attack. … The sound of rattling at these roundups is in fact a thousand snakes screaming.”
Larry Martin, right, lets visitors touch a live rattlesnake at the 2016 roundup. (Nellie Doneva/The Abilene Reporter-News via AP)
Critics note that snakes aren’t really much of a menace. Each year, between 7,000 and 8,000 Americans are bit by venomous snakes, the Centers for Disease Control says, and about 6 die. Four times more people were killed in lightning strikes in 2015.
David Steen, a wildlife biologist who specializes in amphibians and reptiles at Auburn University, said rattlesnake bite victims include exterminators, drunk people and others who somehow mess with snakes.
“If you don’t do any of those things, the risks of getting bitten by a snake are really low. What does a snake have to gain by attacking you? It’s not going to try to eat you,” 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.”
It’s unclear, too, whether snakes pose a threat to livestock. While snake venom typically can’t kill a large animal, bites to a cow’s or horse’s muzzle can cause swelling that can lead to suffocation, according to the website Progressive Cattleman. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most recent reports on cattle deaths does not indicate any were felled by snake bites, though it’s possible they were counted as deaths caused by “unknown predators.”
Dennis Cumbie milks a snake at the roundup. (Nellie Doneva/The Abilene Reporter-News via AP)
There’s no question, however, that the roundup is a crucial money-maker in a town where there’s not much else going on. An analysis found that last year’s event pumped $8.4 million to the local economy, and the Jaycees use the profits for community projects, including feeding people on Thanksgiving.
Backers also argue that the roundup — unlike some in the southeast, where the quarry is a dwindling population of Eastern diamondbacks — is only controlling snake numbers, not decimating them.
“We’re not cutting the population any,” Rob McCann, a Jaycee spokesman, told the Midland paper. “I’ve been hunting the same dens for 25 years — the exact same dens. I get from 10 to 20 every year from the same dens.”
Visitors, including children, can make rattlesnake blood handprints at the roundup. (Jo-Anne McArthur)
The method used to gather those snakes may ultimately spell the end to the Sweetwater roundup. Hunters typically fill a garden sprayer with gasoline, then pump gas or its fumes into caves and crevices in rocks where snakes spend time, forcing them out. But the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is considering banning that process, as several other states have done, amid real concerns it is toxic to the environment and lots of other wildlife, some of it protected.
Rural lawmakers have said they’d fight a ban. Supporters have filed letters in support of gassing, many arguing that the roundup will be doomed without it.
“It would be a devastating blow to us,” David Sager, a snake handler at the roundup and a member of the Jaycees, told the New York Times in 2014. “The rattlesnake roundup is our ways and means.”
Whatever happens, the department said in January, “there are no studies suggesting that rattlesnakes will become overabundant in the absence of this means of collection.”
By Karin Brulliard