Texans get set to kill thousands of rattlesnakes in annual festival

Thousands of snakes will be killed in the 56th Rattlesnake RoundUp this coming weekend in Sweetwater, Texas. It's a barbaric and environmentally reckless festival that's also startlingly reminiscent of a classic Simpson's episode.

It's the world's largest rattlesnake roundup (yes, there are others), and it was started as a way to control the over-population of rattlesnakes. And by "overpopulation" the locals are referring to those pesky snakes that predate on livestock. The event is extremely popular, drawing over 40,000 visitors a year. Attractions include wild rattlesnakes which are sold, displayed, and killed for food, or to create animals products such as snakeskin.

But to collect the snakes, organizers have to round them up first — a practice that involves spraying gas fumes into cracks and crevices in the ground to drive the snakes our from their dens. The groggy snakes are then delivered to the festival where they meet their fate.

Writing in Take Part, author Richard Conniff complains how nothing's being done to prevent it all from happening year after year:

The practice of gassing snakes, once common, is now regarded as barbaric even by the state's other rattlesnake roundups. More than 9,000 people supported the proposed ban during the state's yearlong round of research and public hearings. Apart from the question of cruelty, the argument against the practice is straightforward: Gasoline sprayed into the porous karst, or limestone, inevitably gets into groundwater, and that's bad news, as the Houston Press reported, "for anyone or anything—especially out in West Texas—who, you know, likes to drink water." Gassing also threatens other karst wildlife. Studies have found "dramatic and obvious" effects, from "short-term impairment to death" in snakes, lizards, toads, and other vertebrates living in and around rattlesnake denning sites. The gassing also kills many karst invertebrates listed as endangered or threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, among them the Comal Springs riffle beetle, the Bone Cave harvestman, and the Government Canyon Bat Cave spider.

In the face of overwhelming support from around the state, the Parks and Wildlife Commission decided to delay the vote. "I view it as total cowardice," one local conservationist remarked. The commissioners, who are unsalaried and serve at the pleasure of the governor, delayed the vote, the conservationist theorized, because "no one will do anything if it is going to upset anyone, anywhere," or at least not anywhere in Texas.

The commissioners may have wanted to avoid controversy ahead of this week's state legislative primaries. They may particularly have wanted to avoid raising a sensitive issue for Rep. Susan King, R-Abilene, who represents Sweetwater. King was the only person allowed to make a statement at the meeting at which the commission had been scheduled to vote on the gassing ban, and she delivered a rambling, disjointed, Sarah Palin–esque argument for doing nothing.

In its place, Conniff recommends the first annual Texas Rattlesnake festival, an event which aims to celebrate "the value of these amazing and beautiful animals and in which no snakes will be harmed or killed."

Regrettably, given the wild popularity of the RoundUp — and the money to be made — this festival isn't going away any time soon.