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Rattlesnake Roundups Take 2 Paths, Drawing Praise and Scorn


FILE - Noah Marquez, left, touches a live rattlesnake at the Texas Capitol, Feb. 5, 2019, in Austin, Texas.

An annual rattlesnake roundup in the U.S. state of Georgia recently changed the format of this month's event to celebrate living snakes without skinning and butchering them, earning plaudits from animal rights activists.

But no such changes are occurring at a huge rattlesnake roundup beginning this weekend in Texas, a festival that the activists say is barbaric. The two events are a marked contrast in how rattlesnakes are handled. They also show the huge divide in how they are seen by some, with the Georgia festival heralded by animal advocates and the Texas roundup shamed.

“A few rattlesnake roundups still persist,” the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity said in a statement full of scorn for the Texas festival, which is “notorious for openly killing and skinning western diamondback rattlesnakes by the hundreds in front of crowds.”

Plans for the “World's Largest Rattlesnake Roundup” this weekend in the Texas town of Sweetwater are full-scale ahead, with snakes set to be skinned and others “milked” of their venom. There's even a pageant for local young women, Miss Snake Charmer. The town of 11,000 is expected to swell to around 30,000 during the festival that runs Friday through Sunday, said Dennis Cumbie, one of the organizers.

“It's the biggest event in this town every year,” Cumbie said. “It's very much part of our culture.”

A sidewinder rattlesnake moves with little effort up sandy inclines (Tim Nowak)
A sidewinder rattlesnake moves with little effort up sandy inclines (Tim Nowak)

The same is true in the south Alabama town of Opp, where an annual rattlesnake festival that has drawn thousands for nearly six decades opens March 25. While organizers say the snake hunters who bring in big rattlers get rid of nuisance reptiles, opponents say Eastern diamondback snakes are declining in population.

Sweetwater has held its rattlesnake roundup for more than six decades, “and what we have figured out over 64 years is that we're not damaging the population of the snakes whatsoever,” Cumbie said. Rather, organizers liken snake hunting to how other hunters keep deer numbers in check.

In Georgia, organizers say the more humane format they launched for the first time last weekend was a success. Exact attendance figures are unknown because many people such as children are admitted free, but “I've heard anywhere from 7,000 to 15,000,” said longtime volunteer Jeffrey Cox, who has been helping to organize the Whigham Rattlesnake Roundup for the past four decades.

“Everybody was nervous about it and didn't know how it would go,” Cox said.

Then came perfect weather for the one-day Georgia show, “and there were no complaints whatsoever,” he said. “We probably had more actual snakes there this year, even though it was a different format than what we've had.”

In Texas, the Sweetwater roundup is intertwined with the town's culture and draws visitors from all over the world. It began 64 years ago to keep snakes from overtaking the town and attacking livestock, pets and people, organizers say.

Karen Hunt grew up in Sweetwater and recalls fellow Texans asking her about her hometown. “Yes, we're the rattlesnake town,” she would say. Now, as director of the Sweetwater and Nolan County Chamber of Commerce, Hunt fields calls from people in England, Germany and other parts of the world inquiring about the festival and making plans to visit.

“This does put us on the map,” she said. “What it does for our community is give us a sense of place.”

Hunters gather the snakes -- there's a contest for those capturing the largest ones -- and they're brought to the Nolan County Coliseum, where multiple parts of the snakes are harvested, Cumbie said. He's the chairman of the milking pit, where venom is extracted and then used to develop various drugs for a range of illnesses. The snakes' skins will eventually show up on cowboy boots, belts and other western wear. Rattles are used for souvenirs, as are the heads, Cumbie said.

“There's literally no waste,” he said. “We also butcher about 1,000 pounds (454 kilograms) of them each year that we actually cook on the spot.”

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