Anna Molenaar

Rattlesnake Roundup

Pike’s Place Market in Seattle is famous for its fishmongers. Friendly, smiling men will take your order, holler the details down the line, and toss your fish many feet in the air to the delight of the tourists that crowd the stalls. It’s tradition, a classic American experience. But, as one animal activist pointed out, nobody would be laughing if kittens were being tossed around as entertainment.

It’s strange how changing a few little details can turn someone’s stomach. Switch out scales for fur, trade a triangle tail for one that’s long and fluffy, and something that seems so innocuous is suddenly shocking, inappropriate. I often wonder if other people struggle with the confusing nature of how we see animals. If they question why behaving violently towards some animals is permissible but to other species taboo. One thing is for sure, though: the confusion is not limited to the crowded stalls of Pike’s Place. Head to the American South and the disparity between how we see the scaled creatures around us becomes more obvious.

Some animals are odd to see in multiples. Save for a handful of species, snakes are widely solitary creatures, only crossing paths peacefully to breed. Rattlesnakes are also odd to see en masse. Most people would be horrified to come close to one rattler, let alone hundreds of them. But find yourself in Sweetwater, Texas, during its annual “Rattlesnake Roundup” and you can come face-to-face with scores of scowling, deadly snakes.

Rattlesnake roundups bring the best of rural fair tradition with the worst of human-animal interactions. Hired hands or local residents looking for a side hustle hit the fields, crawlspaces, and undersides of logs surrounding the fair to round up the unwilling participants. Paid per rattler they bring in with special bonuses for longest or heaviest snake retrieved, snakes are gathered by the thousands and trucked in to the fair. During its peak in the 1990s, Texas removed over 100,000 snakes from the wild.

Historic Southern lore would have you believe they are bloodthirsty monsters ready to chase you into a corner, but rattlesnakes are by nature shy and reclusive, and would always rather stay hidden than pose and strike. Any undue stress like, for example, being hauled out of their burrow, piled on top of their fellow reptiles, and transported to the hustle and bustle of a Roundup, puts them into shock. They will refuse to eat, can quickly become dehydrated, and can die just from the trauma of it all.

And given their reputation as a deadly nuisance, many residents of places where rattlesnakes are endemic are content with the idea that they are doing everyone a favor by getting so many out of the way. Little do they realize that by lowering the rattlesnake population in an area, so will rise the population of rodents in an area, creatures just as equally detested and low on the list of desirable neighbors.

After the snakes are gathered, it’s time for the Roundup!

A performer holds a fully inflated balloon in his teeth, then inches towards the tightly coiled body of a rattlesnake. A quick jolt and the snake strikes, lunging and popping the balloon with their dripping fangs. The trick, they say, is to inch as close as your nerve dares, then startle the snake into striking.

A man in a cowboy hat stands in a sunken pit splattered with blood, up to his teeth in snakes. There is a tree stump in the center of the pit, and he lops off the heads of snakes with a long machete as if it is a contest (which it is). The snakes wait for their turns, pressed up against the walls. A little boy who has escaped the confines of his stroller presses his face against the clear plastic viewing port, less than an inch from the snakes. A few especially unlucky snakes have their mouths sewn shut so the children can hold them and take photos.

One lucky girl each year is crowned Miss Snake Charmer, and is initiated into royalty through the usual way: skinning a rattlesnake hung by its neck for all to see. She’s smiling ear to ear, makeup pristine, as her hands quickly redden, leaving the snake a pale pink tube of flesh hanging limp. It’s tradition!

I’m told there are ample shopping options at a Rattlesnake Roundup. One could buy snakeskin belt buckles and shoes, taxidermized heads dripping with (resin) venom. You can even try eating fried rattlesnake—customers claim it is remarkably like chicken.

Nobody’s frowning at a Roundup. Families move excitedly from one spectacle to another, old men gather and talk for hours, the Miss Rattlesnake contestants preen and pose while, feet away, a remarkable amount of venom and scales wait for death. The men here are the type who would never cuss in front of a lady, who uphold the law and hold God and Country close to heart. The women are loving and kind, calling you sweetheart and darling and looking out for their children. Never the kind you’d expect to be capable of such cruelty.

Visiting a Roundup you’d never know there were so many rattlesnakes in the world, much less so many in Texas that they could be slaughtered like this. But here they are, laid out for all to see, and it is considered a bad thing.

The same people who shake their heads at the yearly footage of Yulin Dog Meat festival in China and decry the puppies being skinned and beaten and eaten might happily bring the family down to watch the rattlesnake skinning contest. The images, each taken on the opposite ends of the earth, look as though they could be coming from the same building. Identical images of dried bloodstains and slick red hands, faces looking out from cages. I find it the perfect example of the twists and turns we make to justify some actions and excuse others.

And try as I might to equate the two, I know they aren’t necessarily the same. Apes raised in captivity, who have never seen a snake, will run in terror when presented with the image of one, so instinctive is the fear. Think of a dog while inside a PET scan, and your brain’s happiness centers will light up. And as much as I care for and respect snakes, as much as I appreciate the role they play in controlling pest populations and feeding birds of prey, I know people are far from beholding them with the same love they hold for a puppy. They are too different—too little limbs, too many scales, and no physical or chemical ability to feel love for us.

And as much as the images from Rattlesnake Roundups enrage and upset me, a part of me feels as though I have no real leg to stand on, because I have drawn my own line in the sand on where on the evolutionary scale I will hold respect for life.

Centipedes hug their babies, did you know? Born so soft and edible, they cluster together in a hellish mass of legs and body segments, and mama ‘pede will wrap her own devil body around them, hold them close to protect them.

I can’t stand centipedes. Whereas snakes may have too few legs for some, centipedes have far too many for my tastes. They move too fast, look too frightening, can reach far longer lengths than should be allowed—an unholy trinity. Even looking at a picture of them makes my skin crawl, which means that when I turn on the light in the morning and see a humble house centipede frightened to stillness in the stark white of the bathtub, instinct kicks in and I take the wad of toilet paper and murder it, see the many crumpled legs disappearing down the toilet and feel no more remorse than if I had just captured a dust bunny.

If there was a centipede roundup in which I could be assured as many of the beasts as possible were gathered and slaughtered, I can’t say I would protest it. Although I don’t think I would be able to eat one fried.

Our relationships with animals are messy, especially for those who fall outside of the categories of pet, work tool, or farmed food. It becomes difficult to decide where to draw the line for everyone, what can be across the board unacceptable and what is permissible for those who wish to partake. What one person considers abuse another might call just, one event barbaric and another holy. Think too long about where you draw the line, what species just barely deserves life while its brother death, and you too might find it difficult to decide the same for others.

I'm told many Rattlesnake Roundups are rehabbing their images. Facing the pressure from the public, they are revamping the events to show more respect to the snakes they share land with. Where once rattlesnakes were gathered for their skins, now they are held and released unharmed, there as ambassadors to show the public even the rattlesnake has a part to play in the ecosystem. When the event is over, the snakes are returned to where they are found.

And I think it’s a good thing. The right thing.

“What does she know?” say the centipedes in my house.