Bonus content from the April 2012 REPTILES magazine article "Rattlesnake Roundups," by Todd Autry.
My first experience with a rattlesnake roundup was in Sweetwater, Texas. The Sweetwater roundup is generally considered the world's largest, and I went to see what a rattlesnake roundup was like. To argue against them, I needed to know them inside and out.
The first thing that hit me was the smell resulting from hundreds of bodies both human and reptile packed into a fairly small coliseum. Even from across the building I could smell the skinning pit, and the musk from the holding pit was strong, despite air fresheners that were in use.
Walking down to the floor of the event center, I came to a table belonging to a rattlesnake novelty vendor. Lining the table were piles of snake products, from freeze-dried snakes to rattlesnake fang earrings. A man was getting his picture taken holding the taxidermied body of a 6-foot rattlesnake. I went to the roundup prepared to be horrified, or so I thought. I hadn't even seen the skinning pit, and I was already shaking with shock and anger.
I don't know if I can adequately describe the barbarity of a rattlesnake skinning pit. Standing in a long line were what must have been 20 or more people, many with small children, waiting to pay for the experience of skinning one of the headless snake bodies that were writhing in a pile at the base of the skinning stands. The rear wall of the pit was covered with white paper, where these people would be invited to leave their bloody handprints and sign their names.
I watched a young boy skin a snake; he couldn't have been older than 8. The headless snake body was still squirming as he skinned it, seemingly trying to pull away from the knife in the boy's hand. A roundup worker cut into the body to retrieve the still-beating heart. He showed it to the boy, who promptly threw it on the ground and stomped on it.
I also attended a roundup in Big Spring, Texas, one that was known for having a daredevil exhibition. In a small pit, surrounded by bleachers, a group of people performed stunts using live, fully venomous (they claimed) rattlesnakes. First, a man walked barefoot among carefully placed coiled rattlesnakes, kicking them away using his bare feet. A woman crawled out of a sleeping bag, where she had been laying surrounded by live snakes. Another man held six live rattlesnakes suspended by their tails from his mouth. He spun them around before spitting them out, throwing them to the ground. Perhaps the most shocking of all, they allowed an untrained spectator to hold a live, coiled rattlesnake freehand.
The whole spectacle was one of arrogance and recklessness, and I couldn't help but wonder what kind of impression the children surrounding the pit were picking up. Were they learning to respect these snakes and leave them alone, or were they learning it was cool and fun to mess with them? Organizers of rattlesnake roundups typically claim the events help to educate the public about rattlesnakes and safety. But the message I received was one of disrespect, and that it is okay to brutally slaughter these snakes for entertainment.