Rattlesnake Roundup

» March 31st, 2014

Sweetwater, Texas has a less-than-charming tradition of letting loose village folk into the foothills to gas innocent rattlers out of their dusty dens before slaughtering them with impunity. The dubious rationale for this springtime massacre is to grant locals an exclusive bounty on the venom, skins, and meat that endow these sleek creatures with a modicum of economic worth. Some advocates insist that, without these ritualistic killing sprees, the citizens of Sweetwater would find themselves at war with a plague of serpents.  Back on planet earth it’s sinister proof that barbarism begins at home.

Media coverage of this annual affair typically tends toward a pandering patois of local color and hayseed mockery. There’s too much weirdness at play not to write the piece as a bemused outsider stuck in yokelville. Duck Dynasty and Bounty Hunter comparisons thus abound alongside snippets of crankiness over carpetbagging urbanites and their effete environmental notions. Rarely if ever are the interests of, say, the snakes mentioned, much less the ecological role they play in these arid ecosystems.

That said, the Times obligatory piece on this year’s roundup was mixed. Manny Fernandez certainly gets off on the wrong foot when he identified rattlers not by their scientific name or ecological significance, but rather as “a creature that bites and frightens ranchers and others” before making the unlikely claim that West Texas is “as infested with western diamondback rattlesnakes as New York City is with rats.”  Nor did it help matters that he then indulged the lazy trope of “outraged animal activists”— crazed maniacs!—raising holy hell over such venomous villains.

What saves the piece, and actually makes it a decent example of animal writing, is Fernandez’s decision–despite his mention of “outraged” animal lovers–to couch his article in the sober testimony of wildlife experts. He quotes Kristen Leigh Wiley, a curator of the Kentucky Reptile Zoo, as saying, “The behavior that occurs at the traditional roundups is animal abuse. Just because it’s a rattlesnake and not any other animal does not mean that it cannot experience pain or suffering.” Likewise, a Dept. of Wildlife official says, “I liken this to fishing with dynamite. It’s about a means of take, a means of collection.”

These quotations place a fair-minded framework around the bungled justifications offered in support of killing thousands of rattlers with infusions of unleaded fuel. “It just helps thin out the population,” says one supporter of the roundup.  “The rattlesnake roundup is our ways and means,” says another.  Yet another:  “If you’re into the Bible, snakes have intimidated people from the beginning, and I don’t think that’s changed to this day.” Fernandez’s decision to juxtapose this pap with the assessment of wildlife experts helps keep the reader’s focus on the fact that animals and their ecological significance, if not their inherent right to exist, are at stake amid this rhetorical lunacy.

Other strengths in this piece include the mention that the snakes are slaughtered “in front of the men, women and children at the event,” that the roundup has over the decades killed “enough dead reptiles to equal the weight of a small locomotive,” and that many of those who condemn the event “oppose not only gassing, but the roundup as well.” It’s understandable to want the writer himself to lambaste the roundup for its senseless brutality, but it is, of course, a news report, not an opinion piece. Even so, Fernandez lends supporters of this senseless slaughter a fair share of rope to do themselves in.

Grade: B-

9 Responses to Rattlesnake Roundup

  1. Lisa LeBlanc says:

    If they were furry, four-legged or ran in packs…this kind of species hatred is, like wolves, coyotes and wild equines, bred in the bone.

    So I have to wonder, with their numbers decimated in this fashion, if the rattlesnake’s biology responds in a similar fashion as that of the wolf, the coyote or the wild equine and induces a ‘traumatic’ breeding in order to replace what was lost.

    Take any apex predator out of an environment, and the prey animals breathe a collective sigh of reproduction of their own. But you can’t explain – or justify – this to a group of folks who hate these animals on general principal; ‘advocate’ has become a dirty word, an application toward humans who are stupid and uninformed.

    I am neither dirty, stupid nor uninformed, though I probably feel as negatively toward those who brutalize animals under the guise of ‘tradition’ as they toward me. I applaud and appreciate this article, James, but sometimes another cog in another machine that seeks to dominate by destruction those species viewed as ‘lesser’ gives me pause:

    In my heart and in my head, I am every bit as brutal as those I rail against.

  2. EponaSpirit says:

    Working for the Cincinnati Zoo (along with my husband) brought a new appreciation for these beautiful creatures. He was in charge of the HVAC for humans and animals, I was the Data Processing Manager for membership. At lunch, he would swing by the main office in his “Gator” and pick me each day for lunch and take me to meet a bevy of beautiful animals, along with their keepers.

    One memorable trip was to the Historic Reptile House for a behind- the-scene visit. As I we start the tour, in the rotunda, I see all of the cages are marked with bright, neon signs with the word “HOT” on them. As the keepers explained to me, all snakes hate to bite, and will avoid it at all costs, as it uses up vital energy that is much needed to survive.

    Misunderstood by all, they are indeed always and will continue to be at-risk to not only pure ignorance, but also due to man’s inherent fear of their presence. After my visit with these “hot” souls, I no longer feared them but instead, advocate for them by asking anyone who posts negative comments about them, to please avoid them and leave them be. They are a vital part of the Circle of Life. So very sad to see how cruel we are as beings, if for the only reason being is because we can.

  3. Elaine Livesey-Fassel says:

    It is truly so profoundly demoralizing to witness in all forms of current media the constant penchant of Man for cruelty and sadism in all its permutations both delivered upon his fellow species and, especially for us, toward all animals. The snake roundup is such a sickening example! Everyday I read and see videos of torment and torture -cock, bull and dog fighting,pig-sticking,rodeo,circus and factory farm cruelties et al., until I cant take it anymore. I donate, write,call and plead their case as do we all and yet the forms of cruelty THRIVES. This knowledge is truly a burden on the soul and our empathy is stretched to its limit. Oh, the ignorance! Bring on the FLOOD!!!

  4. Seth Tibbott says:

    My experience with rattlesnakes fits exactly with EponaSpirit’s. I have encountered a fair number of them in the hills and forests of Eastern and Western America and find that they are gentle creatures whose first instinct is to escape and cause no harm when disturbed by people.

  5. Elaine Brown says:

    I truly dislike snakes and most reptiles. And I live in rattle snake country where horses and dogs are bitten, but what I have learned over the years is that the dogs and horses that are bitten live in filth. Those who do not keep their properties rat-free attract the rattlers and wham their animals get bitten. So we do everything we can to keep rats away-no grain hay and loose grain monitored for rats, and we have few problems with rattlers. To kill one snake that is too close to domestic animals is one thing. To kill them in mass via killing contests is repulsive even to me the one who dislikes them.

  6. Melissa says:

    Thanks for covering this article, although I think you were a bit kind to the author :-) I have studied rattlesnakes for more than a decade, so it is easier for me to pick out misinformation and demonization of rattlesnakes and this piece was FULL of it. We published our response here (and submitted a shorter letter to the NYT):
    http://blog.socialsnakes.org/nyt-letter/

  7. Hey James – just a technical FYI: When I tried to share this on FB, the link only shows a number, not the title of the piece nor the photo. No one’s going to open a link when they don’t even know what it’s about, and the visual is important for attracting attention.

    • James says:

      Louisa,
      I’m confused. But what else is new. :)

      • Louisa Dell'Amico says:

        I just tried again – went to your “Share this,” clicked on FB and shared. All that appears on my FB page is a little box with http://jamesmcwilliams.com/?p=5080. No title, no description, no photo, like what you have here. We all get lots of posts on our FB newsfeed, so we kind of need something to jump out at us to grab our attention, like the photo. Maybe it’s just my computer and my FB page, but even when I copy and paste the address from your browser, the only thing that appears on my FB page is the link (as mentioned above).

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