Last weekend was a bad time to be a rattlesnake, especially if you happen to live in Sweetwater, Texas. During the second weekend of March, every year since 1958, the community of Sweetwater has sponsored the annual Rattlesnake Roundup. Apparently, it’s a pretty common event in the South, but Sweetwater takes pride in claiming to host the “world’s largest” rattlesnake roundup.
The basic idea of a rattlesnake round up is this: rattlesnakes are hunted, driven out of their winter hibernation burrows, trapped, milked of their venom, tortured, petted by children, killed, skinned, fried, and served for dinner. According to the event’s website, there are booths and games and the smell of frying rattlesnake permeates the air. Every year, over 40,000 tourists join the local community to celebrate the torture and murder of thousands of snakes.
The organizers of this family event say that it came about as a way to control the population of the venomous snakes. The serpents were dangerous, biting their cattle and harming their profits. Scientist counter that the whole idea is unnecessary. Biologist Stephen Spear told Popular Science magazine that, despite how common rattlesnakes are in Texas, snake bites are very rare, “unless you step on one or it has nowhere to go.”
Plus, says Spear, “A rattlesnake might eat 15 to 20 rodents in a year,” providing a valuable service for the ranchers. If you multiply that by how many snakes it takes to feed 40,000 gaping tourists, that’s a lot of rats running around that didn’t have to be. You’re enabling a pest by destroying a fear.
My problem with this is not necessarily in the hunting and killing of snakes. I’m no vegetarian. I eat meat. I like meat. I’ve had rattlesnake meat and have found it quite tasty. I feel that responsible hunting, done in a smart way that maintains the delicate balance between predator, prey, and vegetation, is a very good idea. From what I know of the practice, however, it usually ends up in the hunting of herbivores. Still, if there truly is an overpopulation of rattlesnakes in Sweetwater, and I mean rattlesnakes so starving from a dearth of rodents to ea
t that they are attacking everything from cattle to humans, then I would support the Rattlesnake Roundup.
The trouble I see here is twofold. First, it’s in the method used to hunt. According to Rebecca Boyle at Popular Science, hunters “pour gasoline into the sinkholes and burrows, so the fumes will drive the reptiles up from their winter hiding places and into waiting nets.” As a Pagan, this screams at me: “Stop right there!” Pouring gasoline into the ground every year for 56 years? Talk about poisoning the land – the very land the farmers and ranchers need to succeed in business. At some point, this practice will destroy both the earth and the local economy. How much worse could it get?
Add to that the collateral damage. There is no discrimination here. Biologist Melissa Amarello says that the gasoline fumes drive everything out, from tortoises to burrowing owls to lizards. It’s just not a smart long-term hunting technique.
The second issue I have here is the knee-jerk reaction to snakes. We’ve seen it with other predators. When Yellowstone National Park was created, all animals except predators were protected from hunters. Wolves were eliminated from the land, but that caused an overpopulation of elk, which proceeded to overgraze the entire landscape. Without anything to keep the herbivore population in check, the elk almost destroyed the ecosystem.
Suburban areas deal with a similar, less drastic version. As communities expand, they take over coyote territory. Coyotes naturally adapt to new conditions and they begin to hunt within the neighborhoods, taking down family pets for their meal. Of course, homeowners hate this and lead anti-coyote campaigns.
At the same time, rabbits proliferate in suburban communities. They destroy the area’s greenery, and- if left to their own devices could eat the entire community’s lawns and gardens. Without coyotes, there is not natural predator to keep them under control. But rabbits are cute, so no one bats an eye.
The problem is an overall misunderstanding of the function of predators. We Pagans and those who study the earth know that all things are connected. Every species exists for a reason, for a function. Overhunt one, and another will cause havoc. It’s just the way the earth works.
We need the darker animals, the ones that cause us fear, in order to have the lighter ones that are fun and cute. We need a good balance of both of them to have a healthy earth that provides us with a sustainable future.
I know, snakes are scary. Especially the poisonous ones. I’ve even read arguments that primates have a natural fear of snakes, and we, as primates, carry that on. When you’re afraid, you don’t think rationally. It’s so tempting to kill the scary reptiles and forget about the long term consequences. But what does that lead to? More rodents on your ranch, which means more rats in your house, which means more rat poison to kill them, which means more poison seeping into the earth, which gets into either your crops or the water you and your cattle drink, which means you drink and we eat that poison…………….
Never mind the gas they keep pouring into the ground.
The Rattesnake Roundup is dangerous and unsustainable. It stems from an irrational fear of rattlesnakes and a centuries-old misunderstanding of the value of predator animals. It is a sad leftover of a time when humanity’s greatest goal was to “conquer” nature rather then understand it. Sure, hunt a few snakes and eat them if you can do so in a fair, balanced, sustainable way. But don’t sacrifice your grandchildren because of your atavistic fear of scaly reptiles. Think about the consequences.