‘…If you are thrilled by the idea of gawping at a giant vat of writhing rattlesnakes, taking part in a rattlesnake-eating competition or witnessing a beauty queen decapitate a rattlesnake, then west Texas is the place to be this weekend.
The world’s largest rattlesnake “roundup” kicks off in the remote town of Sweetwater on Thursday. The four-day event attracted 20,000 paying spectators – double the town’s population – last year, with a bumper haul of snakes set to draw large numbers again this time around.
For a $50 weekend pass, attendees are treated to the sight of rattlesnakes, and plenty of them. An expected 3,000 snakes will be captured from their nearby nests and placed in large pits, where their writhing tangle of bodies will produce a cacophony of rattles.
The public watch as the snakes are weighed, milked of their venom and then removed. The animals are decapitated, their heads and tongues still twitching afterwards, and flayed of their skin. They are fried up in cooking demonstrations for the hungry hordes.
Other attractions include a competition for the longest snake, a snake-eating contest and the “Miss Snake Charmer Pageant”. High school beauty queens are regularly on hand to lop the heads off snakes. A gun and knife show helps round out the entertainment.
The annual Sweetwater event, held by the junior chamber of commerce, or “Jaycees”, has become a part of the fabric of the town, stretching back to to 1958. Organizers claim it’s not only an economic boon for a rural area, it has helped curb rattlesnake numbers and therefore saved life and limb of humans, pets and livestock.
But opposition to the roundup, and others like it, is mounting. Animal welfare group Advocates for Snake Preservation and photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur have documented what they claim to be a cruel charade dressed up as folksy, southern fun.
“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,” said Melissa Amarello, co-founder of the group.
“Rattlesnakes rattle when they are terrified, not angry or preparing to attack as many think. The sound of rattling at these roundups is in fact a thousand snakes screaming.”
Opponents of the event claim that the cruelty starts much earlier, however, when snake catchers fan out in the months from February to September to pluck rattlesnakes from their dens. A common trick to achieve this is to pump gasoline fumes down a copper pipe into the cracks of rocks, forcing the snakes out…’