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Researchers question the ethics of Sweetwater's Rattlesnake Roundup

Kaysie Ellingson, Texas Tech Public Media
A western diamondback rattlesnake in Sweetwater, TX.

For 65 years, the Sweetwater Jaycees, a civic organization, has put together the Rattlesnake Roundup, bringing in attendees from all across the state. The community event features demonstrations, such as collecting the venom of snakes and showing how they lunge at their prey. But, there are also stations to watch the skinning and beheading of the animal, right in front of a wall with handprints made from snake blood.

Chris Soles is a member of the Sweetwater Jaycees and works with the weigh-in portion of the roundup. He wants the event to be educational.

“Our main goal is to teach people what to do, if you encounter a snake, which is stopped standstill and get the snakes next to you, it will move away from you,” Soles said.

However, snake researchers and advocates across the country don’t believe this event is as educational as it’s presented to be. In fact, some argue it perpetuates negative and even untrue stereotypes about the serpents.

Melissa Amarello is the executive director of Advocates for Snake Preservation. Their mission, in short, is to make snakes less scary.

She said Rattlesnake Roundups, like the one in Sweetwater, solidify the fear and misunderstanding people have about these reptiles.

“The educating that they're doing are kind of the same sort of myths and misinformation that is frankly, like a lot of what the education about snakes is about even outside of roundups,” Amarello said.

Something the Jaycee’s stress at the roundup is how the event is necessary for population control. The roundup first began because the town was overrun with rattlesnakes in the late ‘50s.

But, Emily Taylor, a professor of biological studies at Cal Poly who focuses on snake research, explained that rattlesnakes don’t necessarily NEED their population to be controlled.

“Rattlesnake populations are self-regulated, there's predators that eat them. There's droughts and other pressures that limit how much food they can get. And it is not true that rattlesnakes would overrun the town,” Taylor explained.

The western diamondback rattlesnake isn’t just found in West Texas. They slither from Central Oklahoma to Southern California and all the way down to Northern Mexico.

"If you look all around the rest of the United States, in places where there's not round ups, or in even in some places where snakes are protected, you'll see that it's no different there than anywhere else,” Taylor said.

While the Jaycees aren’t trying to eradicate the western diamondback from West Texas, Taylor thinks they can accomplish their educational goals without the torture.

“It just does not make sense, we can educate people about rattlesnakes, without cutting off their heads and skinning them alive and subjecting them to horrific conditions," Taylor said.

At the Rattlesnake Roundup, attendees can watch a Jaycee milk the venom from a snake. Rattlesnake venom is used to make a variety of different medications. It’s also used to make antivenom. The Jaycees said the venom collected at the roundup is sold to pharmaceutical companies to make antivenom.

Kristen Wiley is a co-director of the Kentucky Reptile Zoo and has worked with snakes for 25 years. She said the zoo used to provide snake venom to a pharmaceutical company that made antivenom when the product was new. Now, Wiley said labs use their own snakes for milking.

"The vast majority of anti-venom producers have their own production in-house. It is it's actually not real common for them to buy venom from outside sources," Wiley explained.

Still, organizers of the Sweetwater event said it’s an economic boom for the tiny town. Without it, Chris Soles said the Jaycees couldn’t give back to the community.

“If we didn't do the roundup, we wouldn't make money, and we would not be able to assist those agencies and therefore the people and the kids that are involved with those agencies and clubs and teams would be the ones that suffer, not us,” Soles said.

Other Rattlesnake Roundups across the country have transitioned in recent years to a no-kill event, such as the one in Wigham, Georgia.

Julia is the Morning Edition Host and a radio producer with Texas Tech Public Media. She graduated with her bachelor's in electronic media and journalism from Texas Tech University, and her master's in mass communication also from Texas Tech University. She also is an adjunct professor of journalism at TTU's College of Media and Communication. You can follow her on Twitter @_julsew_.