'A thousand snakes screaming'

By Karin Brulliard

Western Diamond Rattlesnake. Photo / Sourced from Wikimedia
Western Diamond Rattlesnake. Photo / Sourced from Wikimedia

The little city of Sweetwater, Texas, has 11,000 residents and one very big annual event. It features a pageant, food stands and contests, but the centrepiece is a bloody hunt: thousands of Western diamond rattlesnakes are caught, milked, and skinned.

Sweetwater's "World's Largest Rattlesnake Roundup" ends today, 59 years after it was launched to control the region's population of rattlers, which were accused of killing cattle and biting people.

These days, it draws more than 25,000 visitors, including out-of-state snake-hunting teams and foreign tourists.

Last year, 1714kg of snakes were netted and thrown live in a pit where a man stirred the reptiles to keep them from suffocating each other. Miss Texas 2014 joined him for a bit.

A reporter for the Midland Reporter-Telegram described the spectacle as "a spaghetti of writhing angry reptiles" that emanates "a strange, dense smell with an evil vomit-like edge to it".

Then, he wrote, "denim-clad [officials lop] off their heads, strip their skin and disembowel their gizzards. The snakes' tiny hearts are set aside into a gory pile, each one still beating out its own rhythm - a hundred little pebble-sized hearts still twitching with life." The snakes' skin is sold, their meat is eaten and their venom bought for research.

Six states, five of them in the South, still host rattlesnake round-ups, but the hunts have fallen out of fashion amid urbanisation and complaints that they promote cruelty.

"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," Melissa Amarello, co-founder of the Tucson-based Advocates for Snake Preservation, said.

"Rattlesnakes rattle when they are terrified, not angry ... The sound of rattling at these round-ups is in fact a thousand snakes screaming."

Each year, between 7000 and 8000 Americans are bitten by venomous snakes, the Centres for Disease Control says, and about six die. Four times more people were killed in lightning strikes last year.

How to hunt rattlesnakes

• The method used to gather snakes may ultimately spell the end to the Sweetwater roundup.

• Hunters typically use a garden sprayer to pump gas or its fumes into caves and crevices in rocks, forcing snakes out.

• The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is considering banning that process, as several other states have done, amid concerns it is toxic to the environment and other wildlife.

- Washington Post, Bloomberg

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