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Ntl Geograf: Rattlesnake Roundups Draw Crowds, Complaints

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Posted by W von Papinešu on January 30, 2003 at 20:48:26:

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC (USA) 30 January 03 Rattlesnake Roundups Draw Crowds, Complaints (Brian Handwerk)
Rattlesnakes aren't America's most lovable animals, but they're certainly able to draw a crowd. Between January and July, dozens of rattlesnake roundups will take place in at least seven U.S. states, bringing the paying public face to fang with the often reviled reptile.
The roundups feature snake shows, handling exhibits, hunting prizes, and, occasionally, samples of edible rattlesnake fare. Currently, rattlesnake roundups occur in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Alabama, and Georgia.
For many communities that host the roundups, the festivals serve as key fundraising events for civic service organizations. Supporters say the roundups also help mitigate what they see as overabundant snake populations that pose a threat to people and livestock.
But while these fund-raising festivals celebrate the snakes that many people love to hate, they also draw the ire of some conservationists and animal welfare advocates who contend that the roundups are dangerous, environmentally destructive, and kill thousands of ecologically-important rattlesnakes.
Roundup, Animal Welfare Advocates at Odds
Bruce Means, an adjunct professor of biology at Florida State University and the head of the non-profit environmental group the Coastal Plains Institute and Land Conservancy, both in Tallahassee, is a snake expert who has studied the eastern diamondback rattlesnake for over 30 years in its shrinking Southeastern U.S. habitat. Means says he has been to many rattlesnake roundups and hasn't liked what he's seen.
"Local hunters are supposed to go out and catch snakes before the event, so that they can win prizes," Means said. "But lots of these roundup guys have been doing it for months, keeping the snakes in barrels without food and water. Half of the animals die from the terrible conditions." The snakes who do live to see the roundup are generally piled in a large, crowded pit and sometimes subjected to "daredevil acts" by handlers, according to Means.
"The snakes are abused. [Roundups are] not teaching appreciation of nature, but exploitation," Means said.
Andrea Cimino, a wildlife department campaign manager with the Humane Society of the United States in Washington, D.C., says that the snakes are sometimes publicly decapitated, an end that she finds problematic in light of the fact that the animal's oxygen demand is so low that severed body parts can remain alive for hours.
But Bill Clarke of the Freer, Texas, Chamber of Commerce says that while exhibitors do handle snakes at the Freer Rattlesnake Roundup they do not abuse them. "The only thing they might do," he said, "is hold an inflated balloon on the end of their hook to induce the snake to strike." That's a display for the crowd, Clarke noted. He added that the roundup also features educational information, like how to respond to snakebite.
Another Texas rattlesnake roundup, held in Sweetwater, Texas, is billed as the world's largest. Ken Becker, of the Sweetwater Chamber of Commerce, said that snakes are not abused at his community's event.
"If you come to our roundup, are you going to see a sacking contest? No. Crawl into a sleeping bag with a snake? No. We stay completely away from those kinds of things," Becker said. "Instead, we have attractions like a safety demonstration pit where we discourage kids [from handling rattlesnakes]. The focus there is, 'What do you do if you encounter a snake hiking?'"
While roundup organizers around the U.S. maintain that their events focus on snake education, detractors say the events send exactly the wrong message. "They try to put a spin on these events, saying that they are educational, but they're really more daredevil events," said Cimino. "At lot of these roundups, the handlers allow children to touch the tails of rattlesnakes. They're taught not to be afraid of them. Kids are losing their fear by watching handlers play games with these animals."
Do Roundups Impact Wild Snake Populations?
Some conservationists express concern that rattlesnake roundups may impact wild snake populations. Rattlesnakes play an important role in their ecosystems, notably by keeping rodent populations in check.
But are roundups putting a drain on their numbers? No one seems sure, but the events certainly exterminate a lot of snakes. In its 45 years, the Sweetwater, Texas, roundup has captured 249,724 pounds (93,197 kilograms) of rattlesnakes. In 2002, the take was 3,005 pounds (1,121 kilograms).
None of the snakes are released. "We don't return any back to the wild," said Becker. "A vendor buys them, either the hides or the meat or the live snakes, with the intent of taking them back to their processing centers. They are used for all kinds of products."
"In our area, back in the mid-1950s, the ranchers were having a real problem with the population. Snakes were biting livestock and that sort of thing," Becker said. "The event was started by ranchers to sort of semi-control the population. I think that's really all we're doing is trying to control them."
That philosophy coupled with the large numbers of snakes killed during or after roundups is a cause of concern for animal welfare advocates like Cimino at the Human Society of the United States. "In the Sweetwater roundup, they take about 18,000 rattlesnakes out the ecosystem in a single weekend," Cimino said. "Each of these snakes may eat 20 rodents in a year. So that's a lot of rodents left in the ecosystem as a result of just one weekend."
But Clarke said he sees no threat to the abundant local population of western diamondback rattlesnakes. "The area we're in down here is wide open spaces, big acreage, with a small human population. There's no way that they could deplete these snakes. It's wild, hot country, and the snakes are prolific. I've seen other animals fluctuate, from year to year, but the snakes are everywhere."
Snake takes at some roundups have been decreasing annually, which some conservationists see as a sure sign of population decline. But Becker suggests another reason: The popularity of the commercial snake industry. "Commercial buyers have caused a decrease in numbers at the roundup itself," Becker said. "The market is to a point where people are hunting snakes all year, so fewer are collected for our annual roundup."
Where does the truth lie? Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist Andy Price says that part of the problem for western diamondbacks is rooted in a lack of population information.
"For a lot of other wildlife, such as game species that are hunted, we have bag limits for managing the take," he said. "For western diamondbacks we don't have that kind of information. They're widespread and abundant throughout Texas, but we just don't know what a sustainable harvest should be."
Some Question Snake Hunting Methods
Meanwhile, Bruce Means said he has seen the eastern diamondback of the Southeastern U.S. come under increasing threats over the years. Means claims to know firsthand that there is a population problem with the snake, and said he now believes that the Southeastern U.S. roundups could be a factor.
"Twenty years ago, I could not be convinced that these [roundups] were making a serious impact on the species itself," he said. "But over time as the animal has been reduced in numbers, primarily by habitat loss and fragmentation, other impacts have had a more proportional effect on them. I think we're starting to see that, and I think that's why the roundup numbers are declining. These guys are having trouble trying to find them. I'm beginning to believe it is affecting them."
Hunting methods can be brutal and often impact local wildlife far beyond the removal of rattlesnakes, according to Means. Many hunters collect their specimens by the illegal practice of pouring gasoline into the burrows where snakes like the eastern diamondback live, Means and others say. Snakes that are able to flee the burrow will do soóinto the arms of hunters.
Though the snakes are removed, the damage to the burrow and its other inhabitants remains. Many other animals share the burrow habitat, including turtles, other snakes, toads, frogs, and at least 30 species of invertebrates. Those who survive the gasoline will find their dens uninhabitable.
"It's cruel way to get them and very harmful ecologically on a whole ecosystem that's very much in decline," Means said.
Roundups Raise Funds for Communities
For many rattlesnake roundups, the bottom line is a financial one. "There's no doubt about it," said Ken Becker, "It's a fundraiser that assists the community. The Sweetwater Jaycees, who are the hosts [of the Sweetwater rattlesnake roundup], make some money with this event [and] put it back into the community."
"We're proud of our event," said Bill Clarke, who noted that the roundup serves as his community's primary fundraiser for the entire year. "We're proud that the state of Texas recognizes us, through the legislature, as the state's official rattlesnake roundup. But our emphasis not really on the snake show, as much as it is on the country-and-western and Tejano entertainment. That's what really draws the crowds."
Means said that sentiment is common and one which might suggest a better alternative to rattlesnake roundups. "People just want an excuse to go out to a fair," he said. "You don't need to exploit creatures like snakes to have a festival. If they didn't have the roundup itself, they could do a similar event where professionals give periodic shows and really explain the biology and the environmental aspects of local snakes."
"I would rather not shut them down because they raise money for these communities, but I'd like to see them change the emphasis," Means said. "Other places haveÖheld rattlesnake festivals rather than roundups. They have been just as financially successful as before."

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