About 60 years ago, someone figured out that by pumping a little gasoline vapor into gopher tortoise burrows you could drive out the inhabitants and roundup a ton of rattlesnakes.
Rattlesnake roundups enabled farmers and ranchers to rid their land of dangerous reptiles and make a little money. Prizes are awarded for the most snakes and the heaviest snakes. Only three roundups persist in the 21st century: Opp, Alabama, and Whigham and Claxton, Georgia.
While the eastern diamondback rattlesnake (EDR) used to range widely over the Southeast, Georgia and Florida is the species’ last stronghold.
Ecologist D. Bruce Means, Ph. D. analyzed data collected from the 1959 to 2008 roundups – size and numbers of EDRs and statements from roundup officials and hunters. He conclusion: Because of the roundups their numbers are plummeting here too.
Today, snake hunters must drive hundreds of miles to find rattlers. The snakes they capture are tossed into overcrowded barrels and stockpiled – hungry and dehydrated – until the winter roundups.
Gassing makes the burrow uninhabitable and is toxic to the EDR and other species with which they peacefully cohabitate, including gopher tortoises and indigo snakes, both threatened species in Florida and Georgia.
John Jensen, senior wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, says that gassing is illegal. “However, it’s still their primary method. Snake hunters couldn’t get the numbers any other way. A fairly substantial skin trade market drives the roundups,” says Jensen, who is vehemently against them.
Roundup promoters sensitive to potential bad press, stress the “scientific and educational value” of the roundups and money raised for non-profit groups.
Venom extractions are heavily promoted in an effort to legitimize the roundups. Snake handlers “milk” the venom, which, purportedly, is sold for medical purposes.
In a phone conversation, Carl M. Barden, director of the Medtoxin Venom Laboratory in DeLand, Florida, said, “To be useful, venom must be produced under sterile conditions, centrifuged and kept cold. We have never purchased EDR venom from a roundup.”
BTG is the largest producer of rattlesnake anti-venom. In an email, Ashley Tapp, BTG communications manager, wrote, “BTG has never purchased venom produced at any rattlesnake roundup.”
Clearly, venom collected at roundups has little or no scientific value. How about education?
When vendors hawk snake heads and handlers tear rattles off live snakes and hand them to children, the lesson is clear and disturbing: Wildlife is here for humans to use and abuse as they see fit.
This tradition has outlived its original purpose and needs to end, or at least change.
One roundup, held in San Antonio, Florida, has evolved into a Rattlesnake Festival. Education programs feature snakes that are not abused or harassed, the crowd is enthralled and children go home with a new appreciation and respect for vipers. The event draws 30,000 visitors and raises thousands of dollars for local nonprofits.
Chet Powell, manager of Reed Bingham State Park in Adel, Georgia, is planning a Rattlesnake Festival to draw people away from the roundup relics. Contact him if you are interested in participating or sponsoring this event.
The Whigham roundup was held Saturday. The Claxton roundup is planned for March 13 and 14. If we don’t attend, organizers will get the message that it’s time to support another type of event that encourages conservation and preservation, rather than the wholesale slaughter of wildlife and the destruction of their habitats.
Sandy Beck is a nature writer, environmental educator and director of The Wild Classroom in Tallahassee, Florida, www.wildclassroom.net.