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Thursday, October 22, 2015

Carnivals of Cruelty

As a species, our history with venomous snakes is a long, multi-faceted, and often violent one.  We've worshiped them and persecuted them, killed them and been killed by them.  A perfect example is the most iconic of American reptiles, the rattlesnake.  The rattlesnake served as one of the first national symbols of the fledgling United States, it's virtues extolled by Ben Franklin - "She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage."  

Patriotism aside, they are still dangerous animals, potentially lethal ones, and have been feared and hated accordingly.  Some species are now endangered, and efforts are being made to restore them, largely by changing public perception, which is never an easy task with venomous animals.

Through all of our interactions with rattlesnakes, there is no aspect more bizarre, more controversial, and, in my humble opinion, more twisted than that of the Rattlesnake Round-Up.

The first rattlesnake round-up was held in 1939 in Okeene, Oklahoma, when Orville von Gulke decided it would be a great way to educate the public while reducing the number of what he saw as a local pest species.  They are now held in several states, with the largest being in Sweetwater, Texas.  

A rattlesnake round-up is, for lack of better word, a celebration of killing.  Rattlesnakes are rounded up in large quantities, brought into a carnival-like atmosphere, handled, posed for pictures, weighed, measured, poked, prodded, and then killed.  Their skins and meat are sold, their body parts made into trinkets and souvenirs.  Even snakes that are not killed outright are often highly stressed as a result of the handling and lack of proper care.  Profits often go to local charities, which is nice, but I can't help but wonder if there is a better way to raise money for a good cause than by slaughtering countless animals.  I mean, I know the Girl Scouts already have the cookie market cornered, but really?  This is all that's left?

The removal of vast numbers of rattlesnakes from the wild for slaughter has serious ecological consequences, to say nothing of the obvious ethical ones.  First of all, you're removing a lot of predators from the wild, which can cause a decline in those species (the western diamondback is the rattlesnake that bears the brunt of the round-up trade).  Secondly, you're doing this with who-knows-what impact on their prey?  Rattlesnakes are predators of mice and other rodents, which can not only overpopulate and destroy food supplies, but can also carry a variety of diseases, such as hantavirus.  Thirdly, rattlesnakes are often captured through a process called gassing, where gasoline is dumped down burrows, the snakes being driven out by the fumes (technically outlawed, still practiced).  Rattlesnakes aren't the only animals living in those burrows, however - a host of other species do to, including endangered ones, such as the indigo snake and the gopher tortoise.  

Finally, there's the question of what impact round-ups have on their human visitors.  Cruelty to animals is degrading for those who participate it, desensitizing them to brutality towards other living things.  Plus, all of that cavalier snake-handling can lead to more bites, which is the exact sort of thing a round-up was meant to prevent (and then they go and beg antivenom from the local zoos and hospitals, depriving accident victims and professional caretakers of their supplies).

When I first visited the Dallas Zoo, years and years ago, the first thing I saw when I stepped into their excellent Reptile House was a display on rattlesnake round-ups for all to see, complete with some pretty graphic pictures.  It was a gutsy move, I thought - Dallas is, after all, a fairly conservative city in the heart of Texas, one of the last strongholds of the round-ups.  It's likely that more than a few of the residents who strolled through those doors had been to a round-up before.  Secondly, zoos tend to attract lots of parents with kids, an audience never known for their appreciation of gory photos (the parents, anyway... the kids tend to love them).  The exhibit could easily have lead to a backlash against the zoo.  Still, the zoo apparently felt that it was more important to advocate on an issue than it was to sweep it quietly under the table.

I sometimes feel way too prone to see things from all sides, which can make it hard for me to take a stand on issues.  SeaWorld and orcas in captivity?  Still undecided.  Circuses - good or bad?  Eh.  Free contact vs protected contact for elephants?  You're asking me?  With that being said, it takes a special issue for me to feel very firm.  Rattlesnake round-ups are evil, and they are wrong.  I'm not saying that all of the people participating in them are evil, but they are all certainly wrong.  I'm not opposed to hunting, or culling, or people wearing snakeskin boots.  I am opposed, however, to the mass slaughter of a species without any concern for its environmental impact, and I'm certainly opposed to doing it in a celebratory carnival atmosphere.

Fortunately, I'm not alone.  The tide seems to be turning slowly against rattlesnake round-ups, and more counties and cities are ending theirs.  Others are replacing them with more serious, educational rattlesnake programs, which teach people about snakes without endangering the former or slaughtering the later.  There may yet be hope human-rattlesnake relations yet in this country, even if it's only an uneasy peace.

Until then, I'll hope that the day comes when we look at rattlesnake round-ups like we do the Roman games in the coliseum, or bear-baiting, or several other once-acceptable acts of animal cruelty - just another embarrassing, unfortunate episode from the past.

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