WE SUPPORT OR OPPOSE RATTLESNAKE ROUNDUPS?
by Whit Gibbons
January 25, 2004
anyone in the area who is opposed to the Whigham Rattlesnake Roundup to
attend this year's event and vocally back up Chet." These are the
words of John Jensen, Georgia's state herpetologist. Chet is Chet Powell,
an environmental educator at Little River Wildlife Research Station near
Adel, Georgia. His plan is to demonstrate that diamondback rattlesnakes
do not have to be removed from the wild for a community to have a productive
one of two communities in Georgia that still sponsors annual rattlesnake
roundups, a controversial event in which snake collectors from all over
the South, the West, and elsewhere compete to see who can capture the
most and biggest eastern diamondback rattlesnakes. The snakes are searched
for locally and returned to town for the festivities, which include snake
handling, beauty contests, and barbecue cookouts. The only other place
in Georgia that holds rattlesnake roundups is Claxton, which is already
known for its fruitcakes. This year's Whigham event is on Saturday, January
rattlesnake roundup is similar to other small town annual events sponsored
by the community by drawing crowds and revenue. However, the difference
between drag races, air shows, or tulip festivals and a rattlesnake roundup
is that the latter has a direct and noticeable impact on the local environment.
Rattlesnakes are native residents, and their constant removal from an
area almost certainly has a long-term effect of modifying the natural
Powell proposes to do is bring his own snakes to Whigham, but not for
the purpose of competing in the rattlesnake catching. Instead, his plan
is to offer environmental education programs to teach people about the
snakes of Georgia and about the biological wonders of snakes in general.
His position is that snakes are indeed fascinating but that they do not
have to be removed from the wild in a possibly detrimental manner to make
effect of rattlesnake roundups results from the use of an environmentally
abusive technique to drive snakes from underground burrows, notably those
dug by gopher tortoises. The procedure consists of running a plastic tube
deep into the burrow and then pouring gasoline down it to create fumes
that permeate the bottom of the cavity. Rattlesnakes, irritated by the
fumes, emerge to the surface and can be captured. The only problem is
that not all of them necessarily make it out of the burrow, and some may
actually die underground. Likewise, other animals, such as indigo snakes
and gopher tortoises, might also be in the burrow and succumb to the gasoline.
Gassing burrows is an odious and, in Georgia, illegal way to catch snakes,
but reportedly some individuals continue to do it.
of some rattlesnake roundups is that snake hunters from afar may bring
in rattlesnakes that they pretend to have caught locally. The most convincing
evidence of this unsportsmanlike strategy is that western diamondback
rattlesnakes have reportedly shown up in Georgia roundups. Western diamondbacks
look superficially similar but are a completely different species of snake
that is not found east of the Mississippi River. A secondary environmental
problem could be created if nonnative western diamondbacks escape into
a habitat hundreds of miles out of their natural range.
Some members of the communities of Whigham and Claxton defend the rattlesnake
roundups as creating community spirit and drawing revenue from outside
the state. Some supporters claim that the snakes provide venom for producing
serum to treat snakebite, but critics say that little or no pharmaceutically
useful venom is produced as a consequence of the rattlesnakes collected
in such events.
Some of Whigham's
town leaders are probably beginning to rethink whether there might not
be other, less controversial, ways to attract a crowd. Until the last
couple of years, Fitzgerald, Georgia, also held a rattlesnake roundup
but became convinced that they could actually focus their community fund-raiser
on a different topic--the Fitzgerald Wild Chicken Festival. They seem
to be every bit as proud of their chickens as they once were of their
enough visitors heed John Jensen's suggestion and show up to support Chet
Powell's environmental education approach, Whigham might do something
else for fun next year.
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