The World’s Largest Rattlesnake Roundup

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Sweetwater, Texas has been on the AFP radar for months. For fifty-one years, this small west Texas town has hosted the Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup which has grown into what they proudly tout as “the world’s largest.”  An estimated 30,000 spectators come through the doors of the Nolan County coliseum over 3 days to wander amongst the 5,000 pounds of slithering snakeness.  There’s a weigh-in pit, a milking pit, a demonstration/safety awareness pit, and of course, the skinning pit.  This is, more or less, the fateful final course of events of any rattlesnake that ends up near the coliseum.  Then they become a pair of boots, a sweet guitar strap, a pair of dice, or a tasty snack on a stick.  But the “hunters” who bring in these venomous reptiles aren’t just doing it to help control the local population.  They’re making $5/pound and on Saturday afternoon one leading team had brought in $6500 worth of rattlers.  With our eyes, ears, and cameras we plunged into this fascinating world of ‘living with rattlesnakes.’

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Indeed, living in this land of dry heat, shallow canyons, and rocky mesas, snakes are a part of life.  Not so much perhaps inside the city limits, but out in the country, you better watch your step.  Locals are more likely to get spooked by the site of a squirrel than a rattler.  But don’t get the impression that everyone out here in west Texas is cool at the site of a rattlesnake.  Far from it, in fact, but there are some hearty men and women who can drag these snakes out of their dens and then stand in a pit of hundreds with total aplomb.  With a durable pair of kevlar leg guards and some thick leather boots, a rattlesnake bite and the subsequent venom never make human contact.  It’s not advised for amateurs, but with the right protection you can wear your shorts in the snake pit.

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Our time in the coliseum was certainly informative and the AFP now knows more about rattlesnakes than we ever thought we would.  But our time in Sweetwater would be incomplete if we didn’t go out on a real bona fide rattlesnake hunt.  With crummy weather, the outlooks was bleak.  Our Friday and Saturday, rain and wind canceled our hunting appointments.  Sunday was our last hope.  Luckily, the sun emerged and we were able to pin down Mr. Riley Sawyers who gave us a first class hunting experience.  With a few other local members of the Jaycees who organize the Roundup, Riley led us to an exposed hill side that had numerous promising snake dens.  Because rattlesnakes aren’t great burrowers, they slide into homes already dug out by porcupines, skunks, mice and other rodents.  For the winter they hibernate, but come spring, and especially on warm spring days after a cold spell, they’ll come out on the rocks and soak up the heat.  This was exactly the situation we found ourselves in.  So Riley and Co. gave us the speech to “watch out.”  And watch we did as the team of Jaycees pumped gasoline fumes into a few different potential holes.  Sometimes the snakes will come out quickly and most often they’re pretty fired up.

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Stepping back from this scene, Ross walked a few steps back to compose a photograph.  Suddenly, he heard the chilling sound of shaking rattles and saw an angry rattler poised to strike if he should step any closer.  He was only 3 feet away.  It was a very close call.  And that was the first snake we caught on our hunt.  Shortly after, a few more came rushing out of the gassed dens and Andrew had the privilege to grab one and drop it in the box brought along for this very purpose.  In the end, we caught 4 good size snakes to add to the 5,500 pounds turned in at the 2009 Roundup.  It’s safe to say we got our fill of rattlesnakes and learned a thing or two about how to handles ourselves if we should ever encounter one again in the wild.  If that day never comes, we won’t be disappointed  Enjoy the photos and the video!



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Posted by andrew, posted on 03/18/2009 at 1:12am. Bookmark this post.

43 Comments

  1. Posted 03/18/2009 at 9:41am
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    Mark P:

    That’s a tidbit creepy, I’ll admit.

  2. Posted 03/18/2009 at 8:49pm
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    gina martin:

    i will not look at these photos again. I HATE SNAKES. the photo of all the snakes in the big pit. i would have passed out. andrew – i know i was an AMAZING photo assistant with Howie Long – but i would have NEVER done this with you.

  3. Posted 03/20/2009 at 8:58am
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    Stephanie:

    Ross, your photos are making me realize that there is so much culture in the U.S. I have not been exposed to. I honestly think I would’ve lost my lunch if I had been there, srsly! Skinning snakes?!?!?!

    I really like that photograph of the woman smiling with the snake like a prize, and my favorite is the man who’s holding the snake’s mouth open and he’s got that diamond ring on of a horse shoe. I’m also really enjoying the videos—keep them coming.

    What an adventure!

  4. Posted 03/20/2009 at 10:09am
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    Ross:

    Thanks Stephanie! That is our intent–to expose American culture. I’m so happy to hear that you are enjoying the website. Thanks for the comments. Keep em’ coming!

  5. Posted 03/23/2009 at 4:55pm
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    james mulry:

    Ross, Andrew – this is amazing. Great work, and love the video.

  6. Posted 03/24/2009 at 3:25am
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    lex:

    Ross, that’s pretty near to where I went to college. Same goes for Friend of Gentle Graffiti, and all-around cool person, Jamie Shelburne (she’s still living around that territory). Sadly, I actually never went to the Rattlesnake Roundup. An interesting thought, though, is the difference in perception for locals and “outsiders” towards these kinds of festivals. I can’t imagine NOT going to something like this if it was somewhere else. Make sense?

  7. Posted 03/24/2009 at 3:25pm
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    Ross:

    Lex,
    Yes, makes sense. In my hometown of Salem, Va, there is a pretty rednecky summer fair that happens every year. I never thought of going to it when I lived there, but since I’ve been away for quite some time, I could go to that event and document it as an outsider and probably see it in a new way. I’m learning that there are stories right under our noses, even in our home towns.

  8. Posted 03/24/2009 at 3:27pm
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    Ross:

    James, yeah man! ‘We are the world trade center’! I still love that album. You were my savior of good music. Thanks for the comments James, and good to be in touch again. Hope you’ll follow along in the future and please let me know if you have any recommendations for NYC events to photograph!

  9. Posted 03/25/2009 at 7:59am
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    Ryan:

    I worked at that “rednecky fair” in Salem! The roundup gets a shout-out in The Economist this week: http://www.economist.com/world/unitedstates/displaystory.cfm?story_id=13337894.

  10. Posted 12/08/2009 at 7:34pm
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    Liam:

    How could you people possibly support this? there is nothing wrong with snakes, quite the opposite, we need them to survive as we do any animal for they all have there niche in there specific ecosystems and in this world as a whole, can you people not see how cruel this is, you said yourself they flush the poor helpless animals out of there dens with gasoline, can you not see how cruel this is, your country acts as if your developed, almost ahead of everyone else but from this post ive realised how far behind you are, how could you possibly stand to let this happen all so some conceided,ignorant FUCKS could make easy money…. if you seriously agree with and support this you discust and without a doubt are a waste of life

  11. Posted 12/23/2009 at 10:35pm
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    Tlacatecatl Tlacaxipe:

    Rattlesnake roundups are an example of humanity at its lowest level. Fear, hatred, destruction, all in one big arena. Roundups are condemned by herpetological societies and researchers won’t use the contaminated venom collected under nonsterile conditions. This is just an excuse for cowardly humans to kill rattlesnakes and make hatbands out of them. The whole thing is just disgusting.

  12. Posted 01/07/2010 at 9:04pm
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    Grant:

    Wow. What backwards, desert dwelling, inbred hicks you people are. Catch up with the rest of the civilized world, Texas. Better yet, why don’t you just sucede, and not call this the “American Festival.” You are the reasons they don’t like Americans abroad.

  13. Posted 01/20/2010 at 12:32pm
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    Ross:

    Thank you, Grant. We appreciate you calling us backwards hicks, when really we were there to document the event as journalists.

  14. Posted 03/14/2010 at 6:51pm
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    Morgan:

    A respectable journalist would not mingle in such events…

  15. Posted 04/13/2010 at 10:50am
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    Ryan:

    I agree with the last few comments and I’m a little disappointed with National Geographic for condoning such activities. While I understand a journalists place is to simply report, you went further and participated in the hunting of more critters. If there were some reason the snakes needed to be eradicated, like they were overpopulating the area, then that is one thing. But to simply remove “scary” animals from their habitat is absurd. I will think twice about another National Geographic subscription from now on.

  16. Posted 04/22/2010 at 3:18pm
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    Larry:

    Rattle snakes are over populated here in our area. The round up is to maintain the population.

  17. Posted 05/03/2010 at 3:34pm
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    Fred:

    This is disgusting, i love the U.S.A, but such barbaric “events” make me think twice.

  18. Posted 07/06/2010 at 8:52am
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    x CrazyTurkey x:

    Wow. I only visited this site because I am working on a research paper discussing the ethics of tradtional rattlesnake roundups, but I never expected a National Geographic article to condone such atrocious behavior. Even if a person doesn’t like rattlesnakes, think about it this way: what if one day the stray shelters across America decided “Hey, why don’t we hold puppy and kitten roundups?” According to what you are saying, at least my interpretation of it, is that you would be OK with that behavior, provided they show you exactly how to hunt these defenseless creatures and make you a coat out of their decapitated carcass, maybe even donate some of their earnings to a charity? You people truly make me sick, and I really hope humanity takes a second to stop and take things into perspective before they support filth like this.

  19. Posted 08/18/2010 at 7:45pm
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    Dandy Lion:

    I have to wonder if it’s just plain ignorance or what I’m assuming is some people feel the need to always open their mouths and complain. I think a few of you should educate yourself on the purpose of a roundup, realize that it’s not just Texans doing it, it’s just held there and then I think you should take a long walk in the dark out west. If I had to take a guess though, you wouldn’t want to take a chance getting bit by a rattlesnake, especially with the overpopulation of them. It amazes me the criticism people are always willing to dish out, when they have no idea what they are talking about. WOW! And YES I am a Texas girl and damn proud of it.

  20. Posted 09/05/2010 at 8:03am
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    Vic:

    This is bullshit.

  21. Posted 09/29/2010 at 5:13am
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    nessa:

    i think this is gross these snakes do NOT need to go thru this. i get that this area is over populated but its gross how they deal with it making in event of it nasty!! THESE PEOPLE ARE disgusting!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  22. Posted 10/19/2010 at 1:21pm
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    Deb A:

    As a person who has always had the highest regard for ALL creatures, I find Rattlesnake Roundups to be barbaric and inhumane. The problem here is that most people have an unrealistic fear of reptiles, snakes in particular.

    That we, as the American public, continue to allow these things to happen is very sad. The fact that there are those that feel it is perfectly OK to collect thousands of these animals and then decapitate them, all in the name of “fun” is worse.

  23. Posted 10/27/2010 at 5:51pm
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    Eduaro:

    Pinches gringos…. “contolar la población”….. saben cuantas ratas tienen sus casas? ah pero a esas no les tienen que cortar la cabeza en frente de 1000 gentes.

    en verdad espero quetzalcoatl les corte los webos!

    oh sory; I said: really hope Quetzalcoatl comes to cut your balls!

  24. Posted 10/28/2010 at 9:16pm
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    Fiona:

    This is great! The practical need of reducing venomous snake population, turned into a party. And in true cowboy-pioneer fashion, nothing is wasted…makes me proud to be a Texan born.

    It’s an older view of the world and its abundance, and our place as human beings to intelligently have dominion over the earth. Perhaps “Crazy Turkey” needs to ship over to China and lecture their ancient culture about not eating animals we’d consider pets.

    Great job, Ross and Andrew!

  25. Posted 10/29/2010 at 4:03pm
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    Rocky:

    I think that people like you are the reason snake researchers have such a hard time doing our jobs. Am I coming to YOUR job and destroying all of YOUR work? No. Don’t do the same to other people. These snakes are members of large ecological studies or are used for venom in research funded by organizations like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health (YOUR TAX MONEY AT WORK!!!), and when you do things like this, you are pissing away your own tax money.

    Think about that next time. Keep it in perspective. We, the scientists, would really appreciate it.

  26. Posted 12/01/2010 at 10:57am
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    x CrazyTurkey x:

    Thanks for enforcing my belief that anyone who agrees to this atrocity is ignorant. At no point in my previous statement did I say I “no animals should be killed” or the like. China raises animals we consider to be pets just as we raise cattle here. I’m against inhumane treatment of animals, which is what the majority of these roundups represent. Maybe next time you could put some thought or research into your remarks, but then I guess that’s just me being ignorant.

  27. Posted 03/07/2011 at 11:53am
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    Sunny Carol:

    Rattlesnake roundups should be outlawed and the sooner the better. This is nothing more than legalised cruelty and torture on a grand scale and just so a few people can make money. It is truly sick and barbaric and needs to be stopped. How many thousands of poor animals are going to be tortured to death this year. How much more of their blood must be shed before we all say enough is enough. Roundups are not fun, they are an atrocity of the worst order.

  28. Posted 03/12/2011 at 1:09pm
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    Sunny Carol:

    The torture and blood shed of thousands of snakes has started then. These events are born out of ignorance and fear. Snakes are beautiful and should be respected not rounded up and slaughtered because people are scared of them. There are other animals that are scary but they are not rounded up and slaughtered. These round ups are just an excuse for a few selfish men to show everyone how brave they are by killing these beautiful creatures.

    If you do not want to get bitten by a snake then do not go where they are and stop destroying their habitat. The snakes were on that land long before people. If you do not want to risk getting bitten then go and live in the middle of a big city.

    Roundups are totally barbaric and disgusting. Speaking as an outsider these roundups make the entire USA look backward and rather nasty, even savage, yet I know this is not a true image but this is how it appears.

    Oh, and if you really want to see the most over populated species on the planet then go and look in the mirror so for us to say that another species is over populated is down right hypocritical.

    Nor do I understand how anyone can be proud of something that must count as one the biggest exhibitions of animal cruelty on the face of the planet. It makes me ashamed to be human.

  29. Posted 03/20/2011 at 4:21pm
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    rb:

    This is pretty sick…no reason to kill all those snakes. They have a right to live, and were not harming anyone. It is straight out cruelty.

    I totally agree with Sunny Carol. Shame on you!

  30. Posted 06/22/2011 at 1:37pm
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    Jesse:

    Yes… please don’t kill these beautiful creatures that are over populating the area while bitting cattle at the same time. We need to educate them so that we may coexist. Think about it… 51 years of rounding up. Wow. most any other animal at that rate would have perished long ago. I don’t like it either, but is it possible that it might be needed?

  31. Posted 01/29/2012 at 7:09am
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    revati:

    they are such beau ty

  32. Posted 01/31/2012 at 6:28pm
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    D.D.:

    Wowzers. Kinda crazy these folk have a festival over this, but on the other hand, hey, why not? In the west & S.W. things have always been kinda hard, and it’s tradition to make a party outta something you have to do anyway! (branding, etc.) And yes, this is necessary.

    I grew up on a lg. ranch in the west, and we unfortunately had one of the biggest dens around on our property. We had a roundup in the fall (for the same reason; when it starts getting cold, a warm day will make snakes slither out to sun themselves on rock ledges). We didn’t have a party or festival, but the surrounding neighbors. (and our minister wouldn’t miss it – maybe something to do with slaying the serpent?) The rattlers were not picked up, milked, weighed, eaten, skinned, etc. Just shot. If they weren’t, they would quickly get out of control. If one is ranching for a living, you can’t afford to lose income to something that can be, at least partially, controlled. And for damn sure you don’t want them living around your house! I’ve been struck at twice in my life; once by the garage, once 3 ft. from front porch door. (never bitten, thank heaven) I did have a pony die from snake bite.

    There is NO co-existing with rattlers. They can’t be reasoned with, given trade-offs, or moved elsewhere. They are plain downright mean — many snakes will just move on when a human/lg. mammal happens by. Rattlers would just as soon bite as leave.

    There is an old Native American tale about the maiden who was going to see relatives in the next village, but to get there she had to ford a river. As she got to the river’s edge, Brother Snake got her attention by rattling and hissing. He desperately needed to get over the river as well, but couldn’t do it himself — wouldn’t she, with her good heart, please, PLEASE take him over with her? She didn’t want too, and said he’d bite her, but he promised not to and finally talked her into it. So she put him high in her dress and began crossing the river. When they hit the opposite bank, the rattler drew back, then bit her. As she dropped to the ground dying, she asked, “Why did you do that when you swore you wouldn’t?” The snake replied, “You knew what I was when you picked me up” … That says it all right there.

  33. Posted 02/07/2012 at 7:48pm
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    sairusi tagivvetaua:

    biggest snake ever on earth really have that much to eat….so that it mean it can it a whole family up.commented that all snake that threaten community must be killed..yeah killed and not kept in zoo.what if theres a break from the zoo?….many people will lost there precious life.

  34. Posted 06/30/2012 at 12:59pm
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    Kerry:

    Maybe you would like to add in this article the treatment of these snakes? I mean you are just a journalist trying to document these events, right? Is it not important to document that these snakes are held for days with no water or food? Or what about the cruel way they are treated while being kept? I see you left out how it is made safe for people to pay money to get a picture of them holding a rattlesnake. You didn’t document the fact that these people yank the snakes fangs out, then toss them on ice to slow them down, and then sew the snakes mouth shut. Perhaps if you are going to document something you should document everything, not just the convenient facts, but the ugly ones to.

    These are just a few reasons why these rattlesnake roundups need to stop. Every living creature plays a very important role in our fragile ecosystem. Some of these animals can be dangerous, some are not, but no animal deserves to be treated in such a manner. This is not just about population control, it’s cruel torture and it makes me sick. I am very saddened to see this from National Geographic…

  35. Posted 09/29/2012 at 1:20pm
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    Keith:

    If you were only there as a “journalist,” then why did you participate in the rattlesnake hunt rather than just observing and reporting? Also, blowing gas fumes into the dens is harmful to the ecosystem. I can’t believe that National Geographic is endorsing this.

  36. Posted 11/18/2012 at 9:29pm
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    Hans Bean:

    Things are bigger in Texas.So are the idiots.

  37. Posted 01/03/2013 at 12:32am
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    Tomcat:

    Wow, what a bunch of crybabies and wimps we have commenting on here. One guy had to throw a little extra in about gas being harmful to the ecosystem. Then you have all these clowns who have never stepped foot out of their urban element to be able to comprehend what it’s like dealing with wildlife. All these idiots know is what they’ve been told by TV. I think these treehuggers live in some fantasy world where they believe the burger or the chicken nuggets they eat on a daily basis somehow magically appeared from a renewable energy source derived from rainbow dust and unicorn milk. They believe that the meat-eating animals that they adore so much like wolves or bears kill their prey in a quick humane manner. What they fail to understand is the fact that these folks in west Texas understand way better than they ever could that the rattlesnakes are important to the ecological balance. That’s why there is a regulated hunting season for them. Keeping the mice population down is extremely important to farmers. So they know they would be shooting themselves in the foot if they allowed too many snakes to be harvested. It’s time for the people who get their education of animals from 30 second aspca and peta commercials to just shut up!

  38. Posted 05/23/2013 at 1:38pm
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    bradford miller:

    That’s for showing the video and the pictures. I would have not had the opportunity to get informed otherwise. The hunters are doing the people a great service and t the same time helping curb the over population of a species which if overpopulated can create a serious problem.

  39. Posted 07/19/2013 at 12:49pm
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  42. Posted 08/30/2013 at 2:01pm
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    Joe Okroi:

    Hey-I have an idea! Let’s go into every major city,trap all the stray dogs,and hold a festival where we torment them in front of thousands of people before dismembering them and selling their parts as souvenirs? After all,dogs kill an an annual average of 18 people in the U.S. while rattlesnake bites only average 12 deaths per year.

  43. Posted 11/02/2013 at 5:06pm
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