New Mexico's Pet ResourceSPRING/SUMMER 2000


HUMANS PLAYING GOD

RATTLESNAKE ROUNDUPS

By Chellee Chase

"Who told you you were naked?" the Lord God asked. "Have you eaten fruit from the tree I warned you about?" Then the Lord God asked the woman, "How could you do such a thing?"

"The serpent tricked me," she replied.

Snakes have been a source of fear for mankind since biblical times. The question is, when will we learn to let awareness, rather than fear, dictate our actions?

Every year since the late 1920's, thousands of rattlesnakes have been rounded up, tortured and slaughtered, in the name of entertainment and greed. Rattlesnake Roundups are advertised and promoted in several states as family events, where spectators can gather to enjoy themselves while watching live animals suffer and die. Proponents of "Rattlesnake Roundups" cite reasons such as public safety, medical research and rattlesnake population control. In truth, none of these reasons is valid. Public safety is not, nor has it ever been, threatened by rattlesnakes. Rattlesnakes strike for only two reasons: to eat (and they don't eat people); and out of self-defense. They are not aggressive, and do not seek out confrontations with people. They are much more likely to slither out of harm's way than to strike. Contrary to popular belief, humans are rarely bitten by rattlesnakes. In the United States, rattlesnakes cause fewer than 12 deaths each year.

Roundup promoters often claim that the venom collected at their events is used in medical research for the production of antivenin and the treatment of snakebites. According to herpetologist Melissa Kaplan, "As the venom is not collected under sterile conditions, it is of no use to any medical facility in the production of antivenin.

Rattlesnake population control is also not an issue. As a matter of fact, because of long-term exploitation, many species of rattlesnakes are in danger of extinction. Studies of the effects of "roundups" on western diamondback rattlesnakes in Texas indicate significant long-term consequences for those populations.

Understanding that there are really no valid reasons to support Rattlesnake Roundups is only the first step. Becoming aware of the actual dangers and damage caused by the Roundups is equally important. Propaganda aside, what are the real facts about Rattlesnake Roundups?

To begin with, although rattlesnakes themselves don't pose a threat to public safety, the effects of Rattlesnake Roundups definitely do. For instance, the primary method used to obtain rattlesnakes for the roundups is "gassing," which causes the destruction of habitats that are used by many animals other than rattlesnakes. Gasoline and other toxic chemicals are used to flush the rattlesnakes from their dens. Species that suffer from habitat destruction due to Rattlesnake Roundups include indigo snakes, box turtles, coach whip snakes, pine snakes, southern toads, and gopher frogs, along with burrowing owls, raccoons, opossums and at least 32 species of invertebrates. Some of these species are actually federally protected. Exposure to gasoline, even in minute quantities, either kills a variety of wildlife or interferes so profoundly with their basic biological functioning that they cannot feed or reproduce. Gassing can also render a burrow uninhabitable for years.

Additionally, gasoline contains a number of substances that are extremely toxic and some of which have been linked to leukemia and tumors. Using gasoline to flush out rattlesnakes has the potential of contaminating groundwater and poisoning humans, livestock and other wildlife. Approximately 90% of rattlesnake hunters still use gasoline.

What about the benefits that rattlesnakes provide for humanity? Exploiting the rattlesnake population is, in a way, like cutting our own throats. Rattlesnakes' main source of food is rodents. Rodents carry many diseases that are frequently harmful or fatal to humans. Rats begin breeding at three to four months of age and produce up to seven litters a year, each containing between six and 22 young. Snakes play an important role in the control of these rodent populations. One rattlesnake can consume as many as 21 rodents a year. Each year at the Rattlesnake Roundup in Sweetwater, Texas, as many as 18,000 rattlesnakes are killed in a single weekend. That means that up to 378,000 extra rodents are left to survive, breed, and serve as potential disease carriers each year as a result of that event alone.

The effects of Rattlesnake Roundups go beyond damage to the environment and danger to human populations. During Roundups, animal cruelty is not only condoned but actually celebrated. Out and out torture is conducted before live audiences, many of whom are young children. Restrained snakes are often decapitated for public entertainment. Snakes require very little oxygen to survive, and therefore, their body parts can remain alive for several hours. Their severed heads have been known to retain consciousness for up to 65 minutes after decapitation. Some handlers even pull out and display the snakes' still-beating hearts for the crowd.

What kinds of messages are people being sent? Is this the kind of behavior we want to impart to the next generation?

To help put an end to Rattlesnake Roundups, contact the US Humane Society for information on legislation in various regions, or visit their website at www.hsus.org/programs/wildlife/hunting/rattlesnakes/ for a listing of Rattlesnake Roundups around the country, the state regulatory agency and sponsoring organization for each event, and sample letters stating your opposition to these events.

Chellee Chase is an activist, a vegetarian and a minister of the Universal Life Church. She writes articles for the Silver City Sun-News and other publications.

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