Despite criticism, the last of the rattlesnake roundups hang on

Public outrage has caused many rattlesnake roundups—killing contests held in the name of public safety—to go out of business or convert to no-kill wildlife festivals. But in Texas and Oklahoma, these annual events continue, with thousands of snakes being slaughtered.
Katie Tyson, 18, first runner up for the Miss Snake Charmer pageant poses for a portrait in a snake pit during the 2021 Rattlesnake Roundup at the Nolan County Coliseum in Sweetwater, Texas on March 13, 2021. - The town of Sweetwater holds the largest rattlesnake roundup in the world, launched in 1958 with the sole purpose of getting rid of rattlesnakes, killing an average of 5,000 pounds of snake each year. (Photo by PAUL RATJE / AFP) (Photo by PAUL RATJE/AFP via Getty Images)
Katie Tyson, runner-up in the Miss Snake Charmer pageant, at the 2021 Rattlesnake Roundup in Sweetwater, Texas. PAUL RATJE / AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

This story originally appeared on Yale Environment 360.

In 1958, the Sweetwater Jaycees, of Nolan County, Texas, had trouble killing the 3,000 western diamondbacks captured for the group’s first Rattlesnake Roundup. When they pumped pickup-truck exhaust into enclosed pens, the animals refused to die. Next, they went to garden hoes, then lawn-edging blades. Today they use machetes.

In 2016, the roundup killed a record-setting 24,262 pounds of rattlesnakes. More recently, the kill has been around 5,000 pounds. Hunters get $15 per pound for the first 3,000 pounds, after that $10.

Rattlesnake roundups, said to have started in Oklahoma in 1939, are wildlife-killing contests. For months in advance, hunters fan out through the countryside, extracting hundreds of thousands of snakes from dens, then hold them in crowded, filthy conditions until showtime. Organizers claim their roundups protect humans by removing rattlers from the wild.

In addition to snake killing and public entertainment, roundups have recently become money-making operations, providing business opportunities for people hawking traditional medicine, curios, and rattlesnake meat.

Handlers entertain the crowds by marching through pits packed with snakes festering in their own excrement.

While roundups may have helped reduce local rattlesnake populations, what they haven’t done is protect humans. The most frequent victims are the roundups’ snake handlers. When Texas handler Cotton Dillard died in 2012 at the age of 78 (not from snakebite), he’d been envenomed 45 times, including on his lips and nose.

Roundups now target western diamondbacks almost exclusively. Handlers entertain the crowds by crawling into rattlesnake-filled sleeping bags; marching through pits packed with snakes festering in their own excrement; playing catch with live snakes; “sixpacking” (holding aloft at least three snakes in each hand); “sacking” (racing to stuff snakes into burlap bags); “ballooning” (using metal rods to prod snakes cowering in defensive, non-strike position until they pop a balloon); and “stacking cow pies” (placing snakes coiled in the same defensive position onto a handler’s face, head, shoulders, knees, arms, and crotch).

“Rattlesnakes rattle when frightened,” says Melissa Amarello, executive director of Advocates for Snake Preservation (ASP), based in Silver City, New Mexico. She describes the constant buzz heard at roundups as “the sound of a thousand snakes screaming.” And she routinely sees snakes swollen and bloody from being prodded, kicked, or thrown around by handlers; dying snakes; dead snakes; and snakes too stressed and weak to defend themselves.

But there’s good news, too. Roundups are fading from the American scene. In 1980, Texas had at least 40, today five. Five others persist in Oklahoma, and there’s a killing contest for all snakes, venomous or not, at Lake Providence, Louisiana.

According to Amarello, roundups are being forced out of business by lack of interest and public outrage. Others are transforming to no-kill educational “festivals,” where the public is taught that if the whole of nature is good, no part can be bad.

Festival visitors learn that roundups may have contributed to reducing populations of timber rattlers and eastern diamondbacks, both of which are endangered in fact, if not by federal decree. Timber rattlers persist through most of the eastern U.S. but have been extirpated from Maine, Rhode Island, and Delaware; eastern diamondbacks are now limited to 3 percent of their historical range, in the southeastern States, and are under review for endangered species status.

Bruce Means, founder and president emeritus of the Coastal Plains Institute and Land Conservancy, analyzed data from four eastern diamondback roundups from 1959 to 2008, finding that numbers of snakes and their weights declined.

“Stomping”—a competition to see how many snakes handlers can crush to death—no longer happens anywhere.

While there’s no proof that roundups diminish total western diamondback populations, retired Cornell University herpetologist Harry Greene believes they’re impacting populations “at least at local levels and in terms of things like age-size structure.”

The Earth-Day generation and its children are increasingly offended by the cruelty and by the damage done to native ecosystems by removing important predators, notes Todd Autry, an Oklahoma snake advocate who monitors roundups. And the old guard is bored by the sideshow repetition, or dead.

In 1990 the Opp, Alabama, Rattlesnake Rodeo reported that it averaged 50,000 visitors a year. According to event coordinator Pam Kyser, it now gets “10,000 in a good year.” The rodeo shifted to no-kill more than a dozen years ago, but that had nothing to do with the drop in attendance, because snake butchering had been done in private.

Festivals are more popular than the killing contests they replaced. A good case study is the Claxton, Georgia, Rattlesnake Roundup, which went to no-kill and education in 2012. Leading the charge for reform was the group One More Generation (OMG), founded in 2009 by Carter Ries, then eight, and his sister Olivia, seven.

“We started OMG because it hurt our hearts to know that there were so many animals in danger of becoming extinct,” Carter told a reporter in 2011.

The siblings lobbied the governor and met with their state legislator and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR). They collected 1,200 signatures on their petition to stop the slaughter.

Today, the Claxton Rattlesnake & Wildlife Festival attracts people and groups who opposed the old roundup and wouldn’t have dreamed of attending. Now they’re part of the event. Sponsors include herpetologists, environmental and animal protection groups, the University of Georgia, the Georgia Reptile Society, and the Georgia DNR. “The festival gets much better attendance, and it’s making more money,” says ASP’s Amarillo.

Georgia’s last roundup that captured rattlesnakes — the 64-year-old event in Whigham — went to the same educational format in 2022.

Public opposition has also diminished some of the more offensive roundup entertainments, such as chilling snakes in freezers, pulling out their fangs, and sewing their mouths shut so visitors can be photographed with snakes draped around their shoulders. And as far as Amarello can determine, “stomping” — a competition to see how many snakes handlers can crush to death with their cowboy boots — no longer happens anywhere.

Hunters once flushed snakes from dens by dumping in gasoline. Texas is one of the last states where gassing is still legal.

Public opposition may also end the roundup at Lake Providence, Louisiana, where prizes are awarded for shooting the most snakes of any species. The most recent available data put the collective body count for 2018-2019 at 388 snakes. Only 68 of these were venomous — all of them cottonmouths. Last December, the state wildlife commission proposed a regulation that would outlaw such wanton waste. It’s currently under economic analysis.

The Opp roundup still stresses eastern diamondbacks by forcing them to “race” from the middle of an arena toward the edge. It also serves fried rattlesnake. I choked some down when I visited the roundup for research in 1990. It tasted like freezer-burned chicken neck with an essence of gasoline. Back then, hunters in Alabama — and other states — flushed snakes from dens by dumping in gasoline. Texas is one of the last states where gassing is still legal.

When I asked Kyser where the fried rattlesnake served at the no-kill event comes from, she said, “A USDA-approved store in Tennessee.” All commercial rattlesnake meat is collected from the wild; there are no rattlesnake farms.

She then explained how Opp hunters capture snakes: “We run a hose down [a gopher tortoise] burrow and listen, and if we hear rattling, we put a grabber down and catch the snake. We try to release them back in the area they were caught.”

Autry says that Opp “is not truly reformed. Rattlesnakes don’t adapt well to new homes, and I wouldn’t trust these guys to get the right snake back to the right burrow.”

But the roundup’s transformation has been dramatic. I got to see gassing in action when J.P. Jones, founder of the Opp roundup, invited me snake hunting in 1990. “Everybody uses gas,” he told me. “We make like we don’t, but we do.” If you hear “poof, poof, poof,” he said, that’s the gopher. But if it’s “poof, poof, poof” and “buzza-buzza-brrrraaap,” fill her up with the regular.

Jones ran a hose with an attached treble hook down a gopher tortoise burrow. When he hauled out the eastern diamondback it was missing skin and could only move its head. (Hooks are rarely used now because roundups want snakes in relatively decent condition for public entertainment.) Jones revealed that the snake would have been in better shape had it not also been gassed and hooked earlier in the day, then placed in a burlap bag and shoved back in the burrow to ensure footage for a film crew from the Sportsman’s Showcase.

In 2013, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) received a petition to ban gassing. It assembled a study team, which stated in a FAQ file, “Gassing is an indiscriminate means of take. TPWD is concerned about the impact of gassing on wildlife and habitat, particularly on non-target organisms, including rare karst (cave/crevice-dwelling) invertebrates that inhabit caves and crevices along with rattlesnakes.”

Western diamondbacks kill about one person in Texas a year. The single death in 2022 was a handler at a roundup.

After public hearings, the agency received 9,312 comments on its proposed ban, only 743 of which were in opposition. But the proposal infuriated the politically powerful Sweetwater Jaycees. So Parks and Wildlife backed off.

Gasoline damages or kills at least 350 species that share rattlesnake dens — whole communities of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and arthropods. “Anything in the den will come to the surface or die inside,” says Amarello. “And some of those amphibians and invertebrates can’t just come to the surface. Being on the surface could also kill them.”

Like other roundup sponsors, the Sweetwater Jaycees offer three justifications for their event: public education; public safety by killing rattlesnakes they claim would otherwise overpopulate; and procurement of venom for antivenom production.

But the quality of this “education” is questionable at best. Besides reciting canards about rattlesnakes, officials invite children to skin snakes that aren’t always completely dead, then rub their hands in blood and make prints on paper.

The public safety argument also rings hollow. As herpetologists attest, rattlesnakes self-regulate; they can’t overpopulate. And gassing dens may actually decrease public safety because it forces snakes to leave, stay aboveground, and potentially move closer to human habitation. There was never much danger anyway. Most bites occur when people intentionally mess with rattlesnakes or refuse to move away from them. Western diamondbacks kill about one Texan a year. The single death in 2022 was a handler at the Freer, Texas, roundup.

Does collecting venom by forcing snakes to inject it into glass beakers in the “milking pit” produce anything other than entertainment? No, according to ecologist Jacquelyn Tleimat, a PhD student at Texas A&M University. “To create antivenom, snake venom must be collected in extremely sterile conditions, which are not present at roundups,” she reports. “CroFab, the only antivenom in the U.S., is created using the venom of snakes raised in captivity in two sterile laboratories.”

While most of the Jaycees’ claims have been debunked, the roundup remains a popular, “family friendly” and, to some, a venerable Texas tradition. It annually draws about 40,000 visitors, pumps at least $8 million into the local economy, and funds charities.

Despite mounting opposition — including children’s letter-writing campaigns organized by conservation organizations, bashing by environmental groups, condemnation by mainstream media, and petitions to end the slaughter — it seems unlikely that the Jaycees will implement any significant reforms in the foreseeable future.

But that may not be the case elsewhere. “The public’s attitudes toward snakes are changing,” says Todd Autry. “Also, younger generations don’t want to keep the tradition going. Lots of these roundups started in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and the ones left are having problems finding people who want to run them. I think we’re going to see a lot fewer in the next 10 years.”