Conservationists Try to Stop Rattlesnake Slaughter

Thousands of the reptiles are gassed out of their dens, decapitated, and skinned in the name of livestock safety and population control.

A western diamondback rattler prepares to strike during the 51st Annual Sweetwater Texas Rattlesnake Round-Up in Sweetwater, Texas, on March 14, 2009. (Photo: Richard Ellis/Getty Images)

Mar 23, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

For parts of the American West, March means rattlesnake-hunting time.

Hunters search outdoor nooks, caves, and crevices where rattlesnakes den over the winter months, spray gasoline down their holes, and wait for the noxious fumes to force the animals to slither out for fresh air.

The bewildered snakes are then snatched up and transported to various “rattlesnake roundups”—dozens of mass snake executions that the public is invited to attend in Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas.

Sweetwater, Texas, claims to hold the largest annual event, where thousands of western diamondback rattlesnakes are put in a single pit. The event set a new weight record this year, with hunters bringing in nearly 25,000 pounds of rattlesnakes. Each year, handlers put on shows for the audience, baiting snakes into striking balloons before the animals are ultimately killed. Their skin, meat, heads, and rattles are sold to the public.

Rattlesnake roundups are done in the name of safety, organizers say, to keep local rattlesnake populations in check and help protect humans and livestock from venomous and deadly snakebites.

RELATED: Ready, Set, Gas: Texas Town Set to Kill Thousands of Rattlesnakes

But conservationists contend the roundups are nothing more than a display of animal cruelty toward a misunderstood and understudied reptile.

It’s the type of treatment typically reserved for invasive species such as the Burmese pythons infiltrating Florida’s Everglades National Park or the Asian carp plaguing American rivers and threatening to reach the Great Lakes, said Melissa Amarello, a herpetologist and cofounder of the nonprofit group Advocates for Snake Preservation.

“There may be some species population controls that are conducted by wildlife agencies, but there is no other native species that gets this type of treatment from the public,” she said. “It speaks to the negative public perception of snakes and the lack of conservation efforts on their part.”

To change the perception of snakes—often thought of as heartless, cold-blooded killers—Amarello starts with the facts.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, venomous snakes bite about 7,000 people each year in the United States. Five people end up dying from snakebites, including those who refuse antivenom treatment and those who keep snakes as pets. Bee stings, lightning strikes, and dog attacks are all more deadly in the U.S.

“Not to mention that most snake bites are reported by exterminators who handle snakes all of the time, or when people are trying to handle them, like during these roundups,” Amarello said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has not reported a single cattle death by snakebite since 1991.

The problem, according to Amarello, is that people don’t view snakes the way they see other native wildlife—and sometimes scientists don’t either.

New research shows that snakes like the western rattlesnake have far more advanced social lives than biologists realized.

“We’ve got new video footage from research work that shows the social bonds that snakes form with other individual snakes—like friends,” Amarello said. “They don’t look like or express emotions like we do, but they’re shy, and they want to be left alone.”

Even the definition of a rattlesnake is changing.

Researchers at the University of Arkansas found that six out of the eight known subspecies of the snake—which include the prairie rattlesnake, Arizona black rattlesnake, and great basin rattlesnake—are actually distinct species.

“Before, these snakes were all just part of one great rattlesnake complex,” said Michael Douglas, one of the researchers. “But these distinct species, in different distributions, can be evaluated on individual levels to determine if they are threatened or endangered on a state level.”

“For most people, snakes fit into two categories—poisonous or not poisonous—and that’s enough for them,” he added. “So they can end up getting a raw deal when it comes to protections being put in place for them.”

Douglas doesn’t see evidence that rattlesnake roundups have a negative impact on overall rattlesnake populations, but he also disagrees with the notion the events help curb “overpopulation” of snakes.

The six new rattlesnake species were previously classified among the nine subspecies of the western rattlesnake. (Photo: 'PLOS ONE')

“How do they know there’s an overabundance anyway?” he asked. “There’s a lot of natural controls that impact snake populations. Just because you see a lot on a hot day doesn’t mean the area is overpopulated.”

And while western rattlesnake populations might be holding steady despite the roundups, the gasoline spraying tactics used by rattlesnake hunters can wreak havoc on other animals living in the caves and crevices with the snakes. Advocates for Snake Preservation estimates that gasoline spraying could impact as many as 350 other wildlife species while also polluting the surrounding environment.

Multiple state wildlife agencies have banned using gasoline or fumes to drive rattlesnakes out of their homes. Texas’ Parks and Wildlife Department proposed a ban in 2014 that was not enacted. Now, the Center for Biological Diversity has filed a petition to put the proposal back in front of the agency.

“It’s indefensible that Texas still allows gassing to hunt wildlife,” Collette Adkins, a scientist and attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “Using toxins to hunt rattlers risks contaminating groundwater and harms hundreds of other animals, including 20 endangered species, that also live underground in Texas.”