Louisiana is home to more than 50 species of snake. There are coachwhips, copperheads, and hognoses. There are snakes with neon Tron stripes down the length of their bodies like the western ribbon snake, and others with black tops and screamin’ red bottoms like the western worm snake, and snakes with rust-colored leopard spots like the prairie kingsnake. Gorgeous snakes, dun snakes, snakes of all shapes and sizes and colors.
And for the low, low price of a Louisiana Basic Fishing Season License ($9.50), state residents can kill as many of these serpents as they please, day or night, every day of the year, by trap or poison or crossbow or shotgun or samurai sword. (Nonresidents can do the same for $60.) And if you’re under 16, the license is free!
In May 2016, the people of Lake Providence, Louisiana, exercised their right to unlimited serpent slaughter by hosting a snake rodeo. If you’re not familiar with the term, a snake rodeo is when you turn the indiscriminate extermination of local species into a community event, complete with T-shirts, grilled meats, and cash prizes. Oh, right, and lots and lots of dead wildlife. (Warning: The content in those links is graphic.)
In all, some 273 snakes met their doom that day at the annual East Carroll Snake Rodeo as locals boated around the lake with shotguns at the ready. Most of the snakes killed, damn near 70 percent, were nonvenomous species that pose zero threat to humans.
To be clear, even venomous snakes are far less dangerous to humans than you might think. In the United States, they account for about five deaths a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You’re nearly six times more likely to be killed by your own television falling on you than by a venomous snake.
The relative danger of snakes is no mere digression here—it’s literally the only reason the East Carroll Snake Rodeo exists. It’s ”an event that citizens of the town asked the sheriff’s office to host,” says Robert Iles, spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. “They feel that snakes are a danger to them and that this roundup will reduce that perceived threat.”
OK, so . . . parents are afraid for their children’s safety because the area is experiencing some sort of crazy snake boom? Snakes crawling out of their faucets, snakes in their beds, snakes hiding in their plates of spaghetti—that sort of thing?
”There is no excess of snakes in Lake Providence,” Iles explains. "Snakes are a vital component of the food chain.”
Uh . . . you’re losing me, Iles.
“Most species will turn up around residences but are not destructive to property, and many are beneficial to agriculture and wildlife and fish resources.”
Beneficial? So why does the LDWF want the snakes dead?
“The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries does not promote this event,” he says.
But you guys were at the event, right?
“[W]e just attend to provide educational opportunities to teach citizens the importance of snakes and to be able to identify native species,” Iles says.
Is it me, or is the LDWF sending some mixed signals here? Its website says the department is ”charged with the responsibility of managing and protecting Louisiana’s abundant natural resources,” and yet it seems to passively condone snake rodeos. Just look at this article in the local News Star, which quotes Jared Streeter, who works for the LDWF as a field biologist. He says the goal of the department’s presence at the rodeo is not to dissuade people from killing snakes but to educate them on the possibility that taking nonvenomous snakes out of the ecosystem could increase the population of venomous snakes, because the vipers would have less competition for resources and be more likely to thrive.
In other words, the agency with jurisdiction over the harvest of wild animals in Louisiana wants you to know that it’s not against the East Carroll Snake Rodeo even though it believes that the slaughtered animals are beneficial to humans and the ecosystem—that they are not found in excess, and that killing the harmless ones in large numbers may even spur a venomous snakes boom. And yet . . . an off-duty LDWF “agent” participated in the rodeo. There seem to be some contradictions here.
Whether or not a snake rodeo is an effective means of controlling the snake population is beside the point, says David Steen, a wildlife ecologist at Auburn University in Alabama. He suspects that the impact of a one-day event pales in comparison with things like habitat loss and degradation. The real question for Steen is why that town, and others like it, do what they do.
“Why do we need to keep the population down?” he asks. The answer seems simple enough—people just really have it out for snakes. And the true problem with events like snake rodeos, says Steen, is that they encourage people to think of snakes as worthless.
Approximately two dozen rattlesnake roundups take place each year in Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Texas—and perhaps more, says Melissa Amarello, director of education at Advocates for Snake Preservation, since some of the events go on under the radar. (For instance, she only recently learned about the Lake Providence massacre.) That makes it tough to say how many snakes are killed at the rodeos each year. Many keep their records private, or obscure the actual totals by measuring outcome in weight instead of individuals animals.
But one event in Texas demonstrates just what kind of damage one weekend can do: The Sweetwater Jaycees World’s Largest Rattlesnake Roundup in March produced 24,262 pounds of rattlesnake. Citing the average size of snakes caught in this area, Amarello estimates that more than 12 tons of rattlers translates into about 21,097 individual snakes.
And it’s not just a problem for the snakes. “Most of them are caught by pouring gasoline into their winter dens, which pollutes surrounding land and water and may impact up to 350 other wildlife species,” she says. Twenty-nine states have banned the use of gasoline, but Texas, as of yet, has not.
Roundup supporters say these events prevent overpopulation and protect cattle from death by snakebite. But get this: The U.S. Department of Agriculture has not received a report of a cow lost to a snakebite in more than two decades. Statistics, however, may not be the way to win people over, since our irrational fears are just that—irrational. In many cases, they are born out of misunderstanding, not malice.
”I overheard one [teenager] say to another after we educated them that they didn't realize they were shooting at nonvenomous snakes,” says Brad ”Bones” Glorioso, founder of Louisiana Amphibian and Reptile Enthusiasts (LARE), which was on hand at the roundup to try to change the way people think about snakes.
Glorioso is also an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Louisiana, but he stresses that his attendance at the event was independent of that role. He also makes it clear that in no way does his organization endorse the roundup. ”No good comes from pretending it is not happening,” he says. ”I stood there and watched dead snake after dead snake being counted on the table, and I was disgusted."
At first, Glorioso worried about possible confrontations between his volunteers and the snake hunters. Instead, the hunters were quite cordial and interested in what his organization had to say, he recalls. The chance to handle a live speckled kingsnake proved a fan favorite, with the sheriff himself holding the serpent on three separate occasions and remarking that the experience was much different from what he had always imagined.
In the end, the best way to reduce the deadly impact of these sorts of events may be for animal lovers to embrace them. Several roundups and rodeos that used to target snakes now also present themselves as an opportunity to appreciate the reptiles. At least one rodeo, in Pennsylvania, is now kill-free, for instance. And that’s exactly what Glorioso would like to see happen in Louisiana. ”Make no mistake about it, LARE would love to see an end to this rodeo. But because we are not lawmakers, we will attempt to change hearts and minds through education and outreach,” he says.
Clearly, there’s still quite a bit of work to be done on the legal front, and snakes wouldn’t be the only critters to benefit from a more evolved approach to wildlife management. Coyote and fox ”derbies” are still so ingrained in the culture of the West that one Montana grade school advertised last year’s hunt next to the cafeteria lunch menu. And back East, a community in upstate New York hosts an annual event called the Hazzard County Squirrel Slam, in which hunters are encouraged to kill as many squirrels as possible to benefit the local fire department. ”These unregulated shooting sprees are kind of a black eye on our country,” Steen says.
Problem is, not everybody sees black eyes as an embarrassment. Some still wear them as a badge of honor.
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