This column ran in the papers about a month ago...
It’s that time of year again, when people congregate in a few scattered festivals across the southeastern United States to celebrate the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake. Well, I guess celebrate isn’t the right word, since the snakes are eventually slaughtered. I certainly understand why people wouldn’t want rattlesnakes in their yard, but I’m not quite sure I understand the appeal in capturing snakes in the wild, far from human establishment, only to kill them. I remain unconvinced by claims that these rattlesnakes serve some greater purpose, with their venom being important for medical research. Why wouldn’t captive rattlesnakes serve the same purpose? And what companies are buying venom for research from a weekend festival in small town USA?
I concede rattlesnakes aren’t particularly loved by many and catching them for roundups isn’t illegal; unless of course, while catching rattlesnakes you deal irreparable harm to other protected creatures or their habitats. In the past, pouring gasoline down gopher tortoise burrows was a popular method of catching rattlesnakes. Groggy from the fumes, snakes leave the burrow and are easily bagged. However, any tortoises hiding within the burrow stay underground and may suffer severe lung damage. You probably know tortoises are increasingly rare, being federally protected in the western portion of their range and a candidate for listing everywhere else.
Publically, rattlesnake hunters will never acknowledge they continue to catch rattlesnakes by pouring gasoline down gopher tortoise burrows, an illegal practice. Although, an individual associated with one of the remaining roundups admitted to me the practice still occurs. But, I admit anonymous sources don’t carry a lot of weight. That’s why I recently read with interest about a few people cited for destroying wildlife habitat in Silver Lake Wildlife Management Area, in Georgia, on January 28th. These individuals admitted they were catching rattlesnakes by pouring gasoline down tortoise burrows. We can only guess as to why they were motivated to capture these snakes or what they had in mind for them. But, in any case, this should be clear and unequivocal evidence that people are still pouring gasoline down tortoise burrows in areas where we hunt, fish, and recreate.
So here we are, time for the annual rattlesnake “festivals” again. If you plan to attend, feel free, but go with full knowledge of what you’re supporting with your money. All remaining roundups in the southeast have been approached by multiple organizations and individuals eager to help them transition from events that sponsor rattlesnake capture and killing to more wildlife friendly events. Because they’re important to local communities, nobody wants these festivals shut down, but there are compromises that will help ensure the integrity of our natural habitats and wildlife. Perhaps you’ve attended Fitzgerald Georgia’s annual festival (a former roundup) or San Antonio Florida’s rattlesnake celebration, where thousands of people attend each year to see captive snakes displayed. Whether you hate rattlesnakes or love them, I think it’s time we all agree that wanton destruction of wildlife and their habitats is not something we should support.
David A. Steen received his Ph.D. from Auburn University, his B.S. from the State University of New York-College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and his B.S. from the University of New Hampshire. He researches the ecology and conservation biology of wildlife and blogs about his work at www.LivingAlongsideWildlife.com. His copyrighted work appears here under a Creative Commons license.