by Whit Gibbons

January 25, 2004

"I encourage 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 fund-raising event.

Whigham is 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 31.

A typical 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 habitats.

What Chet 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 them exciting.

One negative 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.

Another by-product 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 rattlesnakes.

Maybe if 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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