Warning: Disturbing photos of innocent animals being tortured by humans abound. I truly hope you will look, though. It’s important that everyone sees this.
Imagine a festival where tens of thousands of people from all over the world flock each year to laugh, smile, eat fried food, and dismember, torture, slaughter and decapitate thousands and thousands of dogs.
When you walk into the open arena, the first thing you hear is the whimpers and screams of terrified dogs. Thousands of them are kept in cages on top of each other. They’ve been kept like this for weeks, starved, sick and already dying. The unique smell of dog feces and fried Twinkies pricks your nose, and you watch as children string puppies up by their necks and skin them alive, painting a wall behind them with the blood on their hands. Don’t miss the beauty pageant! A new Miss Dog Charmer 2018 is crowned and she poses happily with a dead, mangled dog, smearing blood across her crown as she straightens it with red, sticky fingertips.
The dogs are a danger, claim the townsfolk, that must be controlled. The furs of the dogs are sold, the meat cooked and eaten, and their organs are harvested for research. That makes it okay, right? The laughing, sweating, blood-coated faces of the children. The doting parents, watching on as their little ones happily slaughter innocent creatures— it’s normal, right? Just for fun, no harm done.
Thankfully, a festival like this doesn’t exist in the United States— if it did, the entire country would be fervently fighting to end such a barbaric practice. People wouldn’t sleep until these festivals were outlawed. Across social media we’d be having discussions about the mental health of the children exposed to such violence, about the relationship of these people with animals and why it is so utterly wrong. Why we, as humans, have a responsibility to be kind to innocent creatures we share our world with. Surely no civilized society would allow such atrocities to occur. Surely no civilized person would want to partake in such despicable cruelty.
Well, except if the animals we torture are snakes. Then it’s totally cool.
Revision the festival. Replace dogs with snakes. The blood. The laughing children. The bloody handprints. Thousands of innocent, terrified animals being slaughtered for human entertainment. Feel better? As long as it’s not something cute and fluffy it’s okay, right? If you’re open to the concept of animal torture as long as the animal isn’t one you think is cute, I urge you to do some soul searching. Or maybe just keep reading– that seems easier.
Every year in the city of Sweetwater, Texas, thousands of rattlesnakes are ripped out of their homes, thrown into a pit and left to scramble desperately, exhausting themselves as they try to find a way to escape, defecating on each other for weeks without food, water or warmth. If they survive this, it is only to endure some of the most unspeakable tortures modern day humanity has been allowed to inflict upon innocent, living, breathing, feeling, thinking creatures to this day. But more on that in a bit.
This weekend, despite being hospitalized just a few days earlier and feeling deeply exhausted by Friday, on just a few hours of sleep I packed up a few of my own personal pet snakes to drive almost four hours, from my home just north of Atlanta to a little south Georgia town called Claxton. The exhilarating weekend that ensued was worth everything I had to fight through— there was no way I was missing my favorite event of the year.
I spent the weekend surrounded by rattlesnakes. Live rattlesnakes, many of which only rattled their tails when you got up really close to them— otherwise they seemed comfortable in their soft, sandy pens, located in what once was a pit used to slaughter snakes just like the ones we celebrated all through the weekend. Alongside fellow conservationists, biologists, herpetologists and reptile enthusiasts, my colleagues and I educated and inspired thousands of people from all across the Southeast about wildlife and the important roles each and every living thing plays to keep our world balanced and beautiful. Visitors were taught how to safely coexist alongside the native venomous snakes they encounter from time to time, and their questions were answers as we lifted the air of mystery that all too often skews the layman’s perspective when it comes to venomous snakes. After I got home from Claxton I felt great. Exhausted, but great. While most people spend their weekends relaxing, hanging out with friends and recharging for the coming week, I worked my butt off, but I helped make a difference. I helped make the world a better place, at least for the wildlife of those who came to Claxton with open minds and left with a better understanding and appreciation for their own wild neighbors.
It didn’t take long for my good feelings to turn sour, though, because this weekend was also the weekend of the 61st Annual Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup, the largest and most vile and obnoxious mass murder of wildlife in America. It’s an event so utterly sickening, you honestly have to see it to believe it could actually be a real thing that modern day “civilized” human beings do for fun.
I’ve been tossing and turning these past few nights as articles and photos begin to surface from this past weekend in Sweetwater. One of the most sobering quotes to emerge is one from the perfectly penciled lips of Miss Snake Charmer 2018 herself, 17 year old Cyera Pieper.
“They don’t feel pain like humans because they are cold-blooded. Once I learned that, I didn’t have any sympathy,”
I read it over and over, maybe five times in a row, trying to will the words to rearrange themselves into something less heartbreaking, and, of course, completely untrue. Of course, Cyera was taught these things by the generation before her, and so on since the beginning of this practice 60 years ago by cowardly men who couldn’t stand to coexist with nature. One thing is for sure, the continuation of the Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup is startling proof of humanity’s deeply damaged connection with the natural world around us, not only of the people of Sweetwater, but of all of these people who flock to the small country town each year to witness atrocities I could never fathom finding joy in.
Spectators, many of whom travel from all over the world to see this event because, as I am still trying to wrap my mind around, there are actually real human beings who would rather come do this instead of going to the beach or Disney world or somewhere actually fun and not completely evil on every level. I have no idea how people are able to eat so much amidst the overpowering aroma of snake musk, a potent pheromone released as a defense mechanism when snakes are scared that, if I had to compare it to anything, sort of smells like a decomposing corpse covered in dog anal gland fluid. And remember, these snakes have been sitting in their own feces for weeks.
Despite what they say, snakes feel pain. Of course they feel pain. They have a complex nervous system just like us, and in many ways they are more sensitive to certain sensations that we can’t even comprehend due to their very complex sensory system. Rattlesnakes rattle their tails when they’re scared. Walking into the arena is not something done easily by someone with any amount of empathy or knowledge about snake behavior and biology— the musk in the air and the deafening sound of thousands of rattling tails should be proof enough that what goes on in that arena is nothing short of heartless.
Many of the snakes have their mouths sewn shut so that they can be abused by cowardly men with something to prove— the snakes are in appalling condition, many of them swollen and bloodied from being thrown and kicked by handlers. They are paraded and purposely terrified for show; in one popular stunt, a rattlesnake is provoked until it strikes and pops a balloon.
Finally, they are torn apart, beheaded and skinned in front of jeering crowds, their tiny, still-fluttering hearts ripped out and thrown into a beating pile of carnage.
Children are taught to relish in the wholesome family fun of ripping the skin off of these wiggling, writhing creatures with their bare hands, adding their bloody handprint to the wall alongside their neighbors and friends and signing it with their name.
Spectators snap selfies, blood and feces and the mangled bodies of native wildlife in the background behind their smiling faces. Ah, what a place to make precious family memories!
Sweetwater and its residents see absolutely nothing wrong with any of this. Because, you know, possessing the ability to brutalize living creatures with a smile on your face is totally normal and not at all utterly sadistic.
Plain and simple, the roundups are driving rattlesnakes toward extinction. A recent study looking at over 50 years of data found that populations of Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes have drastic declined due to collection for roundups. Rattlesnakes play a monumentally vital role in their ecosystems, especially in terms of rodent control. Without them, disease would spread into our towns, and our crops would be decimated by out of control rodent populations.
Rattlesnake hunters are encouraged to take as many snakes as they can possibly find, and even more terrifyingly, they aren’t bound by take limits like other game. Hunters for the Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup are paid by the weight of the snakes they bring in, and cash prizes are awarded for the most and biggest snakes. In 2016, Sweetwater massacred a total of 24,262 pounds of rattlesnakes. However, in 2017, organizers capped that number at 6,500 pounds, showing a steep decline in the number of snakes encountered after such heavy collection the year before.
What’s even worse, the roundups are harmful to many other species that share habitat with the rattlesnakes. During the winter, rattlesnakes hibernate in harmony right alongside Gopher tortoises in their burrows.
Snake hunters pour gasoline into the burrows, destroying the burrows and killing all of the animals inside, including burrowing owls, nonvenomous snakes, countless small mammals and the endangered tortoises themselves. Gopher tortoises are a keystone species, and more than 350 species depend on their burrow systems for shelter and food. Roundup officials claim that hunters no longer use gasoline to catch the snakes, but there is mounting evidence to support that the practice is still widely used.
Roundup officials claim that the event is vital to protecting the public from rattlesnakes, but snakebites are not considered a serious problem in the United States. There are hundreds more annual fatalities caused by horses, dogs, lightning strikes and bee stings than from venomous snake bites. In fact, the majority of snake bites occur when people go to catch or kill the snakes. Rattlesnake roundups themselves endanger public health by encouraging the public to go out and help collect, therefore apprehending and terrifying snakes and putting themselves in direct risk. There is no danger of overpopulation of these animals, as their populations are maintained seamlessly by native predators and natural death, not to mention the numerous other anthropogenic pressures rattlesnake populations are under, like road mortality and habitat loss.
Another bogus claim is that venom is collected from the snakes for important research purposes and to supply the medical field with antivenom. Nope. It’s just another excuse for these fragile, insecure men to do something that makes them feel big. Several professional venom extractors have been asked about the legitamacy of roundup venom, all of which confirm that in order to be useful for research, antivenom and other medical reasons, venom must be extracted under sterile conditions, centrifuged and kept cold. None of the companies buying venom for these purposes have ever purchased venom produced at a roundup– venoms are only purchased for these important reasons by approved suppliers. Got ‘em. Try again.
Sweetwater began in 1958 in response to cattle ranchers that insisted that rattlesnakes posed a major threat to their livestock. Today, protecting livestock and the livelihood of farmer’s is cited as another one of the many reasons this type of thing could possibly ever be justified, and again, it holds no actual weight against real facts. The US Department of Agriculture has logged zero cattle deaths from snakes in more than two decades, as venom doesn’t affect livestock as seriously as it does humans, and many large animals recover from bites without treatment. Imagine that.
The roundups are said to be the only means of community revenue for these small, rural towns, however, this excuse is now unraveling just like the rest of them have as more historic roundup communities are now transforming their traditional festivals into revamped educational events, all of which have thus far been wildly successful. More vendors and visitors than ever before are comfortable with coming out to support the festival and attendance is higher every single year.
People are beginning to repair their relationship with nature, and people are starting to see that having that healthy connection with the planet is better for everything. The occurrence of snakebites are lower than ever in these communities now that the citizens are not being encouraged to catch snakes anymore, but rather being taught how to coexist along side them. I’ll give you a hint: it’s as simple as respect. Respecting a creature that most of the world thinks they are so high above they can chose whether they live or die.
I’d call Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup inhuman, but as much as it kills me to admit it, it’s actually so typically human. Standing back to consider the history of humanity, no one can deny that we’ve been largely despicable. It was once commonplace to enjoy watching our fellow humans be tortured and killed— gladiatorial combat, medieval torture, public execution and lynchings, genocide. People often complain that we live now in troubled times, but I’d dare to say that, although slowly, we’re getting better.
I saw it this weekend at Claxton, and although Sweetwater is digging its heels in, if I’ve learned anything from being a conservationist, it’s that education is a powerful tool.
The passion we have inside us as animal lovers and conservationists is comparable to magic— it gets us through those sleepless nights, through witnessing extinctions and fighting against what seem like incomprehensible odds. It’s the force that keeps us going, keeps us working through the pain and disappointment and heartbreak despite the fact that we’re in the midst of the 6th mass extinction— it’s knowing that what we do matters, even if it doesn’t seem like much, and it’s through education that the fire in our souls started in the first place— through our first magical encounter with a snake, through the dinosaur books at the library and the documentaries we’ve watched with tears on our faces. Yeah, humans can be absolutely vile, but humans are also the only known force with the power to change the world. After all, it is us who have been changing and shaking it throughout history, and each time, it’s always started with a few passionate people who believed that we could be better and knew how to get there. Now it’s our turn.
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” – Richard Buckminster Fuller