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Future of and need for rattlesnake roundups are hotly debated topics

When it began in 1960 as a novel community club fundraising project, the Whigham Rattlesnake Roundup was the first and only event of its kind in Georgia, according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia. Now, more than a half-century later, it once again stands alone – the last of its kind in the peach state – as, amid growing and intensifying environmental controversy surrounding the events, all of the state’s other roundups have abandoned the practice of removing rattlers from the wild and selling them for meat and skins.
They have metamorphosed into “wildlife festivals” that are purported to be more environmentally friendly.
In 2001, 28 years after it began, the Fitzgerald Rattlesnake Roundup became the Fitzgerald Wild Chicken Festival, which focuses on the the county’s wild Burmese chicken population, unique in Georgia to Ben Hill County.
Barry Peavey, festival organizer, says the transformation “is really the best move the festival made. It’s much more community oriented,” he says, adding the festival has grown steadily and has been more lucrative since the switch.
Burmese chickens were stocked across Georgia in the 1960s as a game bird, but populations dwindled and eventually vanished from every county except Ben Hill.
“They’re truly unique, and they’re pretty,” Peavey says.
The festival includes chicken-oriented events including a wing eating contest and crowing contest.
In Claxton, the rattlesnake is still the star of the show but this year, the Claxton Rattlesnake Roundup and Wildlife Festival – in its 45th year – is dropping “roundup” from its name, as the event will no longer include the hunting, buying and selling of wild rattlers.
Instead, the Claxton festival, hosted by the Evans County Wildlife Club, will exhibit rattlesnakes from a captive population provided by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
All other elements of the festival – a parade, pageant, foot race, two-day arts and crafts show, live musical entertainment, etc. will be retained.
Bruce Purcell, wildlife club president, says he hopes to expand the scope of the festival to include other native wildlife, not just rattlers, through exhibitions of specimens provided by the Georgia DNR.
“We want to shift gears from a rattlesnake roundup, where everybody came to see rattlesnakes, to a wildlife festival where we’re promoting wildlife and educating people about wildlife and the conservation of wildlife,” he says. “I think we can open this event up and the possibilities for our promoting and protecting wildlife are endless.”
The festival transformations in Fitzgerald and Claxton have been met with high praise from environmental groups, the Georgia DNR, biologists and others who have lobbied for years to end rattlesnake roundups.
The Whigham Rattlesnake Roundup tenaciously clings to tradition, however, and now that it is the only roundup left in Georgia, naysayers will likely step up their calls for reform in Whigham.
Three key arguments against rattlesnake roundups involve snake hunting methods, wild population declines and the belief by many critics that roundups promote the idea that it is okay to kill venomous snakes, despite their vital role in the ecosystems they inhabit.
Whigham Community Club officials declined requests by The Cairo Messenger to respond to these criticisms and share their side of the argument.
As for snake hunting methods, “gassing” is of chief concern. Bruce Means, Ph.D., executive director of the Coastal Plains Research Institute in Florida and Florida State biology professor, explains, “Every winter in the Deep South, scores of men and boys (and a few women) head for the pinelands with 25-foot lengths of plastic garden hose and small containers of gasoline – just as they’ve done for the past 50 years.
“They spend the cold days of November through March searching for mounds of bare sand thrown out of long tunnels, which mark the home burrows of the gopher tortoise. These folks aren’t after the tortoise, however, which is protected throughout its range. Instead, they’re hunting the creature that coils inside those burrows – the coveted eastern diamondback rattlesnake —largest and arguably the most dangerous of all rattlers. After finding a half-moon shaped burrow opening – and cautiously checking surrounding vegetation for hidden snakes – hunters will shove the garden hose into the burrow.
“Usually they’ll hit only dirt for their trouble. Sometimes they’ll feel the clunk of a tortoise shell. But they know they’ve found their ultimate prey when they hear the distinctive whirring sound of a rattle. With their quarry discovered, the hunters blow a few ounces of gasoline down the hose into the bottom of the burrow. Then they’ll retreat a small distance, wait, and watch. Eventually, irritated by fumes, a dazed rattlesnake may emerge, only to be captured by a clamp stick and snake hook. If a stubborn snake remains in the burrow, hunters may excavate the tunnel to get the snake, destroying the burrow in the process.”
John Jensen, senior wildlife biologist (herpetology specialist) with the Georgia DNR, adds, “Those fumes are so strong that rattlesnakes, which don’t go completely dormant in the winter, are forced out, but a lot of other animals that do stay dormant down there like threatened gopher tortoises and indigo snakes, they don’t come out. They just sit down there and die from the fume inhalation.”
Since gassing has become a controversy in recent years, more hunters claim to collect snakes using alternative methods. Jensen says he is skeptical of these assertions.
“There’s no way they collect nearly the numbers they do without gassing them, and if you talk to them behind the scenes, they’ll keep admitting they’re using gassing,” he says. “These animals are way down at the bottom of gopher tortoise burrows in the winter when it’s cold,and that’s the easiest way by far to get them out. Some folks will say they dig them out, which is still illegal because you’re destroying gopher tortoise burrows. But there’s no way they’re doing it, because gopher tortoise burrows are 30 feet long and that can take a whole day or two days to dig them out. There’s no way they’re doing that.”
Others claim to use treble hooks to pull snakes out of burrows, which is also problematic, Jensen says, as it often injures not only the snakes but the other animals living in the burrows. Some have traded gas for smoke, but this can be just as deadly, as burrows only have one hole and, thus, no ventilation. As a result, most animals in deep hibernation in the burrow die of smoke inhalation, Jensen says.
Numerous peer-reviewed studies assert rattlesnake populations have steadily declined over the past several decades. Both Jensen and Means, as well as most other biologists, agree that rattlesnake roundups play a relatively small role in this downtrend, but the practice of removing snakes from the wild and killing them for meat and skins in the midst of other population pressures like habitat destruction certainly don’t help the species’ plight.
Means explains, “Snake hunting such as this is no idle pastime. Each year, eight states around the nation hold 28 rattlesnake roundups, where hunters bring snakes for public display and sell them for meat, skins, venom and trinkets. According to the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (ASIH), about 15 percent of the 125,000 rattlesnakes harvested yearly (which would be 18,750 snakes) are intentionally killed at roundups. As someone who has studied rattlers for 35 years, it’s clear to me that the impacts of such hunts go far beyond the ethics of removing a rattlesnake from nature or depriving a tortoise of a burrow. It’s an issue that threatens the biodiversity of an entire ecosystem.
“Ironically, I believe that rattlesnake roundups are not the primary cause of the species’ decline. Instead, by hunting widely throughout the range of the eastern diamondback, roundup hunters are documenting an overall general decline due to multiple causes. The first and foremost cause is likely the severe loss and fragmentation of the snake’s native habitat. The eastern diamondback rattlesnake is especially adapted for life in the longleaf pine savannas of the southeastern United States. Unfortunately, this extensive ecosystem – which once spanned from southeastern Virginia to east Texas and accounted for 60 percent of the landscape – has dwindled to less than 2.2 percent of its original extent. No doubt a second severe cause of snake decline is the increasing encounters between eastern diamondbacks and the roads, cars, shotguns and garden hoes of a growing human population.”
Jensen offers an example of roundups being an indicator of rattlesnake ecological health. “We do have data that says consistently over time at roundups the hunters are bringing in smaller snakes than they used to. The largest snakes that win awards are getting smaller and smaller, which is indicating the bigger, more mature females are being culled out of the population. The bigger mature females are the ones that have bigger litter sizes. So there’s less recruitment of young when you’re pulling out all the bigger adults and that has a snowball effect. In addition, fewer specimens are being captured,” he says.
Ken Darnell, who travels to rattlesnake roundups across the country collecting venom that he processes in his lab, Bioactive Labs of Alabama, for use in medical research, says he believes populations are healthy. He believes the declining number of snakes collected at roundups is a result of fewer snake hunters and a lack of interest in the practice among younger generations.
Nonetheless, a petition was recently submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asking for the Eastern Diamondback to be placed on the “threatened” list of the endangered species act.
Jensen contends that rattlesnake roundups promote the idea that native species should be pulled from the wild and used for meat and skin production. “I think roundups teach youth that wildlife should be rounded up and killed,” he says. As to why we should protect venomous species and native wildlife in general, Jensen responds, “Folks always want the answer ‘they cure disease’ or something like that to help human beings. I don’t look at any wildlife like that. I look at wildlife like, if it’s native to this area, it’s supposed to be there. It wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t supposed to be there. They have roles in the ecosystem as both predators and prey.
“Sure, there are some species out there that are potentially dangerous, but that doesn’t mean they have to be eliminated. We watch National Geographic and see poachers of lions and elephants in Africa and are appalled by that. But to folks in Africa, those are dangerous animals and they probably don’t see any problem with it as we do. That kind of puts it in perspective a little bit. We view those as majestic animals; they’re just not in our backyard like rattlesnakes are.
“In my work, I go to meetings all the time for folks who are interested in snakes and turtles and other reptiles. Folks from all around the world, when they come to the United States, they all want to see a rattlesnake. Rattlesnakes only occur in the Americas, and all but one of the species that occur in the world are in the United States.
“Just think about how amazing the rattle on the tip of the tail is. We take it for granted, because we’ve always known about it, but there’s no other snake in the world that has a warning rattle on the tip of its tail. It’s an amazing thing. People in other countries are watching their versions of National Geographic and are seeing shows about rattlesnakes, and they’re going ‘Wow! Look how cool that animal is.’ We take it for granted, but it’s just an amazing animal.”
Darnell contends that rattlesnake roundups offer a myriad of benefits through venom collection.
He says the venom he gathers from roundups is a primary ingredient in antivenin that is used to treat a variety of snake bites. Another example is the drug Integrilin, which helps prevent blood clots and heart attacks was developed from the study of snake venom. Darnell said there are only five major providers of snake venom in the United States, of which he provides the largest amount from his lab in Alabama.
Darnell said the most important thing he wants people to know is that he tries to conserve resources and uses those resources wisely.
He also asserts every drop of venom he collects at roundups goes to medical research and drug manufacture. The contentions by some critics that venom from wild-caught specimens can’t be used for this purpose is “a myth,” he asserts.
In addition to the venom he collects at roundups, he also milks about 50 captive bred snakes in his lab. It is nearly impossible to get the amount of venom necessary to keep up with research demands from captive populations alone, he asserts, so rattlesnake roundups are vital for venom collection.
Jensen says it is absolutely possible for the Whigham Rattlesnake Roundup to continue its proud traditions while implementing more humane, environmentally friendly practices.
“That’s what’s happening at Claxton this year, and ideally it will, with success, precipitate into the future. With a little urging and support from us, they’re going to be using captive-sourced snakes year after year,” Jensen says. ”They’re going to be on display the same way the ‘rounded up’ snakes were, but they’re not going to be sold, they’re not going to be eventually slaughtered. They’ll just be put back into the captive population to use year after year.”
He adds Whigham could employ this same strategy
“The folks who come to these events, they certainly see a lot of rattlesnakes as an attraction. If that was not the case, it might not be a successful event. But 99 percent of the people who come to the events don’t know where the snakes came from and don’t know where they’re going after the event. They just want to see a bunch of snakes and eat cotton candy and go to all the various arts and crafts booths and the other stuff that goes along with the event that are benign to rattlesnakes. And we think there is no reason why that can’t be successful. We don’t see any reason why we couldn’t use the same captive snakes in Whigham as we do in Claxton and offer the same thing,” he says.
“The Georgia DNR would absolutely be behind Whigham if they decide to go this route. The main thing is, we’re providing snakes, and if we’re going to have a captive population for one event, why wouldn’t we use them for another event too? We would set up a booth. We have a traveling fisheries aquarium and shooting sports demonstrations and all kinds of things we would come forth with. We have a really good public outreach and public relations group that will put out press releases and promote their event in exchange. They know that. We’ve talked with them in the past about what we would offer, and Claxton agreed to do it, and the offer’s on the table for Whigham, too.”

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