The Whacking Day madness continues

13 03 2007

There’s been a youtube crackdown on Simpsons episodes lately, but I was able to find this clip from a relevant episode about Springfield’s snake roundup, entitled “Whacking Day.”

Luckily for me, I don’t have to suppress my rage; I can just let it all go here on my blog (my blood pressure is better for it, I’m sure). In any case, being that I’ve received some complaints that I “just don’t understand” why it’s appropriate to drive rattlesnakes out of their dens with gasoline, throw them in cramped boxes, behead them in front of children, and sell their skins as belts, I’ve endeavored to find out more about the annual atrocity known as the Rattlesnake Roundup, taking place in Sweetwater, Texas. I’m not much of a beer drinker myself, but apparently Coors is a “Proud Sponsor” of the event, and their sponsorship of such a horrible event would put me off their brand even if I did enjoy it. In attempting to locate some video of the actual event, I turned to YouTube and found very little, the only video of decent quality being the following;

Let’s harass snakes and make them pop balloons! Fun! You know what would be more fun? Standing in a pit of angry snakes and harassing them one by one, just like this guy did (turn down your speakers, the audio is terrible and exceedingly full of static)

In order to better understand what herpetologists think about the festival, as well as what ecological impact these roundups are having, I turned to Dr. Lee Fitzgerald of Texas A&M, and he pointed me to a paper he co-authored on the subject of rattlesnake commercialization as well as a statement by the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists. Both make it clear that the trade is not humane, but long term trends as far as susceptibility to overexploitation are still unknown, given that 15% of all snakes involved in commercialization come from roundups but no detailed records are kept by hunters. As this paper by Jack Weir suggests, getting hunters to collect good data would be a huge help in determining what is going on in Texas as far as rattlesnakes are concerned.

While the overexploitation of rattlesnakes is a thorny issue, other aspects of the roundups are more clear-cut, i.e. using gasoline to drive rattlesnakes out of their dens harms the snakes and other organisms sharing the dens (plus pollutes the environment), and the unregulated roundups are cruel and brutal spectacles. As with any potentially dangerous animal (especially a reptilian one with a sordid mythical past), people believe that ridding the countryside of them is doing a public service and there are too many of them around, although as stated earlier it’s hard to quantify or qualify what is happening for better or worse as a result of the roundups.

As I stated in my previous post on the subject, some have claims that eliminating rattlesnakes helps protect livestock, but this is a cookie-cutter type excuse often used whenever conservation of an unpopular creature is considered (i.e. wolves are eating our sheep, seals are eating all the cod, etc.). As this paper from the Kansas Herpetological Society notes;

Roundup proponents often cite loss of livestock to snakebite as rationale for large-scale extermination of rattlesnakes (Sweetwater Jaycees 1990; Grund 1992; Edds 1992; Reiserer and Reber 1992). Such claims are unsubstantiated by evidence. Rattlesnakes rarely bite livestock, and, when they occur, bites to livestock are seldom fatal. Klauber (1972) reported a study of C. viridis bites to livestock undertaken from 1936-1948, when the snake populations were probably larger than they are now, at the San Joaquin Experimental Range in Madera County California. The annual snakebite frequency in a herd of 190 cattle on 4600 acres was 1.4% of the herd, with a mortality rate of 0.22%. Recovery was rapid and complete in most cases, even those involving calves. Klauber also polled 134 Texas County Agricultural Agents and found that none of them considered damage to livestock from snakebites a serious problem. One Kansas livestock veterinarian stated that using livestock loss as justification for roundups was “pretty lame” (pers. comm. 1993).

Indeed, snake hunters may be doing even more harm to themselves and livestock by spreading gasoline around, the chemicals finding their way into groundwater and causing contamination. Don’t livestock farmers have more important things to worry about, i.e. diseases? Disease causes far more deaths in livestock than any natural predator or threat, but yet I don’t see anyone having a Bacteria Roundup. Ok, ok, that was a bit silly, but all the same potentially dangerous animals are often blamed for livestock kills when their take is either negligible or nonexistent, and there are methods available to discourage natural predators (and mind you, rattlesnakes are not natural predators of livestock).

Long story short; there is no reason to continue the Rattlesnake Roundup in its current manifestation. While it may bring it thousands of dollars for local commerce, money and tradition are no excuse to continue unethical, negligent, and harmful practices. While I don’t expect fans of the roundup to understand, I would at least hope that some scientific data could be kept so that herpetologists could understand what is happening to a large number of the states rattlesnakes; it’d at least be a start. Even so, no matter from what angle I look at this event I can’t call it a reasonable or ethical festival, and I fear that it furthers the illusory Biblical mandate that mankind must subdue the earth and all its living things.


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