On a Saturday in mid-March, at the dusty north end of Sweetwater, Texas, an unblemished cobalt, seventy-degree sky hangs over the Nolan County Coliseum. Circling the rodeo arena are villages of bounce castles, portable rock-climbing walls, and retired veterans soliciting people to pay for parking. A man says to his girlfriend, “Did I hear someone say ‘funnel cake’?” In front of me pass copious strollers among a mostly white cowboy-and-heavy-metal crowd: sleeve cut-off rock T-shirts, tattoos, boots. Neighboring the coliseum are a popular flea market, a cook-off, a gun and knife show.
Inside the coliseum, at the center of the vortex, wriggle five thousand pounds of rattlesnakes.
This is what is known as the “the World’s Largest Rattlesnake Roundup.” For the last fifty-seven years, the festival has ferreted out around 1,200 snakes every year. If the average length of a Western diamondback, the most frequently caught, is four feet, you have almost a mile’s worth of rattlers every year, squirming, striking, coiling, and tasting the salt-filled air.
The snakes are why I’ve journeyed here. Since I was a child I have always wanted to peer into gross mortality—the maw of a shark, the gruesome decapitation of train wreckage, the fiery tongue of lava that licks out in Hawaii. A mess of rattlesnakes is just another promised glimpse of mortality. As if by peering over the edge, I might see all the way down.
Also, recently a veritable East Coast news outlet ran a scathing condemnation of the Sweetwater Roundup. But the writer hadn’t even traveled to the West Texas fête to see for herself that which she was earnestly snapping at. I decide to make my own foray into the snake pits.
There are dozens of theories about humans’ fear of snakes. Such as, we evolved in trees where serpents would climb, and it would seem to make sense to be snake-squeamish.
There’s another theory that the fear is simply handed down, like DNA, an archaic notion of defending turf, an accumulation of generations. It’s something our ancestors had control over on the chaotic plains, where wind, drought, fires, tornadoes, hail, and surprise visits from frost had little to halt them. A struggling human is often bent upon the little scratch of power he or she has.
The theory I’m most drawn to is that we fear serpents because we recognize in them our own limbic system. The limbic is the layer of the brain that goes deep beyond memory or reflection—fight or flight, sleep or eat—that prehistoric survival strategist that has kept our ancestors reproducing for eons. This part of our brains is triggered before the frontal lobe can process and will set us in a sweat, bolt us into a trot, or throw our hands up, fists curled. Gut reactions we sometimes cannot anticipate. Lightning-fast synapses will circulate from sense organs to limbic to muscles to emotions. Our logic comes to the party quite late.
The limbic system response, that fight-or-flight mode, is roughly the constant awake state that a rattler lives with. Our dread, then, is that we can never escape—that curled up within our skulls lies a snake. A fear of the fangs within.
So far, it is a light day, only a few hundred people in the roundup, compared to the masses that will crowd around on Saturday, up to 50,000 for the weekend. As I walk into the dust-filled stadium, I reach down to touch the coliseum’s dirt floor, finding it warm and beaten by years of bull hooves and mustangs. There are vendors of rattlesnake paraphernalia horseshoeing the arena. On sale: snake shoes, snake key chains, aluminum snake catchers, snake skin pony tail holders, rattlesnake hats and smartphone cases, stuffed rattlesnakes in perpetual attack poses, wallets for men and women, snake heads preserved in jars, and rattlesnake “skin tanning solution.”
A middle-aged man walks around, peering over the vended goods. He looks out of place, dressed head to toe in pressed khakis with a wide-face, jowls, and Vulcan-like ears. He glances at me and smiles. “Kind of weird deal isn’t it?” he says.
I laugh; I expect him to go on about the snake tanning oil, but he says, “You know, being cruel to animals? Of course the hillbillies don’t care; they just catch a bunch of snakes and make money.”
To be courteous, I assent. He pauses, eyes on mine, seeming to want to talk more, but I don’t engage him. He shrugs and wanders away. The truth is I haven’t made up my mind. I pause at the cliché, the othering word “hillbilly,” and what the man thought, and why he came here. What he says makes sense, I guess, but I wonder about how much disgust is a function of the limbic, a gut reaction to a coiled serpent or to a group of West Texans decapitating them.
I round a corner of booths, and I see that Miss Texas 2014, Monique Evans, is here (so reads her sash). She dons her sequined tiara, posing in front of a cowboy-booted Jaycee who hangs a gaping Western diamondback over her shoulder. Evans is inordinately tan with an oval face and dark eyes. She performs a kind of smile-scowl, her head just ever so cocked, peering at the fanged reptile held in midair. The snake is a foot from her frosty smile, its jaws opening and closing. If there was ever a time for Evans’s limbic system to fire, this would be it.
Several people snap photos, but then I notice many of them ignoring Evans in favor of what’s behind her. At the back corner of the arena is a thirty-foot diameter octagon, bordered by chainlink and plexiglass, filled with a mass of terrified, slithering flesh. This is where the rattlesnakes arrive. The snake holding pit. Two twenty-something Jaycees, decked in rawhide leggings and steel-toed boots, wade inside, knee-deep in the rattlers, a swirl of animated, speckled diamonds. The snakes are wrapping around each other, nipping at hindquarters to secure a better space in the arena lights. The Jaycess gently scoot aside piles of snakes with their armored boots. They slosh through the serpents. The snakes rise up like waves but never strike.
To my right, there rings a wooden clacking noise. A pair of Jaycess outside the pit have tipped a box of snakes and are dumping them inside. The pine boxes are about four feet long and two feet wide. There is a trap door in the box that flips open, so the box rains snakes into the pit, splashing reptiles at the Jaycees’ boots. Another new box releases a fresh wave of serpents and hormones and feces. The snakes pile up like snowdrifts.
Staring at the one-ton quivering mass of rattlesnakes I am mesmerized as if staring at a swimming pool bursting with sharks or a lightning bolt crawling out of the sky. I feel like a teenager doped on acid, hallucinating a wall come to life as terrifying, creeping things.
Also, the collective snake rattling from the pit, the buzzing of a hundred sirens, is the incessant, humming mass of cicada armies in a forest, something recognizable but preternaturally unnerving. Yet I can’t turn away. And neither can a group of about thirty people gawking with me. We are the cobra, drawn to the hypnotic tune.
The Western diamondback is the most widespread and abundant viper in Texas. It has body-length diamond markings but is more easily identified by the black and white stripes below the rattle (sometimes called “coon tails”). No other creature has a rattler’s warning call. In architecture, the rattle is not a maraca but linked sprockets that when shaken blur and clap violently. Each is made with keratin, the same substance as our fingernails and hair.
The Western diamondback dines on tiny, unfortunate mammal—reptiles, slow amphibians, eggs, and birds. It can live everywhere on land except in cities and where trees run amok. It avoids swamps, prefers rugged topography, thrives in the openness of a Pecos Valley or Llano Estacado, but will make do with a trash heap or barn.
Herpetologists widely believe the rattle evolved to ward off aimless fauna like bison. But walking along an ancient creek, the most common way a snake will react to you is to lie still and blend with the geology. A rattler knows the craggily mass of sandstone and slate will protect it far better than two hollow fangs or a keratin rattle. If someone creeps close, the snake will try to squirm over a dune, through a crevice, inside a mouse hole. Backed to a wall, the snake’s tail will widen into a base, the counterbalance of a mortar. The upper body will morph into an “S” coil, rising a foot off the ground. Meanwhile, the tail shakes vigorously.
If an adventurous man (for it’s almost always men) takes another step or reaches a hand out, perhaps with a beer-inspired guffaw, he will look down and see two red eyes peering out from above his ankle, or atop the stringier part of his hand. The man will feel inoculated, shotgunned. The blood will rush to his ears, and his pupils will dilate in panic. He may break into a sweat as the sensation of a vise grip marches up his limb. He may see the withdrawing snake, the buzzing tail, and maybe a teardrop of rose glistening at the fangs’ icicle tips. Most people who get bit by diamondbacks earned it.
Standing next to the holding pit is Terry Armstrong, a squat, jovial Jaycee dressed in white button up and jeans. He is round, Irish-faced with red curls poking out of his cowboy hat. He is inside the measuring pit, responsible for gauging snake vitals, one diamondback at a time. He peers over the lip of the pit’s polyethylene walls and educates a young boy, also in cowboy hat: “You know what to do when you see one?” The boy shakes his head, open mouthed. Terry continues, “You stay very still and then slowly back away. It won’t hurt you if you don’t hurt it. Don’t touch it. I tried catching one, one time, with my bare hands, and it damn near killed me.”
Using the standard, two-foot long, metal claw, Terry hooks an aggressive rattler that fires out towards his ankles. On the table, Terry lays the snake out and with his snake catcher’s hook pinches the snake’s head against the wood. By hand, he grabs the skull and underside of the jaws, forcing the fangs to open, venom milk-able, as the tail twitches around his arm.
Later, Terry leaves the pit to talk. I realize he is shorter than he seemed handling the coiled ropes of toxin, and talks 190 words a minute. Twice, Terry has been in charge of the roundup. Now he maintains an “influential” position.
The talk quickly turns to activists who want to shut the roundup down. “A lot of them we call ‘herpers,’ short for hobby herpetologists.” He chuckles. “I’ve gotten all kinds of threats from them, including on my life. I was on a radio call-in show, and a guy, who I’m pretty sure was a herper, said I’d better watch out for what we’re doing to the snakes.”
Apparently though, for all their pains, the activists have influenced Terry. “We used to do all that bad stuff,” he says, referring to pouring straight gasoline into snake burrows instead of using just fumes to catch them, spinning snakes in canvas bags, prodding and beating snakes into racing each other, sewing rattlesnake mouths shut for family photos, which some roundups elsewhere still do. “But I was young then,” he says.
“I really like rattlesnakes,” he says fervently. “I really admire them. And we’re not hurting them that much. What we kill every year isn’t even what cars on Texas roads kill. The same nests we hunt always supply snakes each year.”
I ask why the activists don’t leave him alone.
“They’re really upset at the killing. But we only kill about a half. The other we sell to dealers.”
He points at the vendors.
“For wallets and belts?”
“Yeah,” he says. He wheezes after he says this as if he hadn’t thought about what it takes to make snake apparel before.
Then he says something I think hits out from his soul: “Man, this is our town, this is our livelihood. You see how many people come here every year? We make our money off this. We need this.”
The thing that gets me is not the killing at the roundup but that many of the snakes released and beheaded in the arena have been sleeping and suffering in crates for weeks or maybe months at a time beforehand. Some caught snakes die before they get to the arena. How much do snakes suffer? Even a limbic system trapped in the dark to shit itself must be screaming on some level. Fight or flight tends to kick in when trapped.
But the problem with this condemnation (which it seems to me it is) is that it leaves out the complexity of the human-animal drama, the fact that my hands were already bloody before coming over to the arena. And have been bloody at least since humans wiped out many species of megafauna pecking their way around the globe. There has never been an Edenic commiseration between humans and animals.
Coming from a background in environmentalism, I’ve often heard my fellow eco-warriors claim it’s because we’re out of touch with “nature” that we wreck harm on other species. Largely, I find that sentiment simplistic. It elevates us humans past the eating, shitting, tribalizing animals that we are. Sometimes I wonder if what our frontal lobes do is justify our gut instinct, our occasional wantonness, our limbic desire.
Which is certainly not a new observation. The British essayist William Hazlitt in his seminal work, “On the Pleasures of Hating,” had thoughts about a spider in 1826. He felt, “a sort of mystic horror and superficial loathing.” He believed then that civilization should be advanced enough that we didn’t have to enact violence on all things that frightened us. But really he was skeptical of the progression of the animal mind. He believed humans were perpetual cave-people, acting out primal aggression. 2015 doesn’t seem any different. We flock to witness fires, crane our necks for human spaghetti on highways, kill things for sport. We click on videos showing reporters shot on TV, montages of train crashes, a pigeon exploding mid-air as Randy Moss throws an ill-timed fastball. “The wild beast resumes its sway within us,” Hazlitt wrote, “the hound starts in his sleep and rushes on the chase in fancy, the heart rouses itself in its native lair, and utters a wild cry of joy, at being restored once more to freedom and lawless, unrestrained impulses.” In this view, the snake is still eating its tail.
A few families gather around the center arena’s demonstration pit, and dozens of rattlers echo together from within like the muted pitch of a waterfall. David Sager, with a microphone clipped to his shirt, walks into the pit, which is sort of like an above-ground swimming pool, surrounded on all sides by wooden bleachers coated in decades of hoof-tossed dirt. Unlike the other Jaycess with their leg armor, Sager wears only jeans, his hat, and a Coors logo patch on his pressed whites. Though thin, Sager appears stiff and walks laboriously, as his middle-aged voice drones out over the stadium.
It’s only the first day, but already the demonstration pit reeks from a musty rodent odor, the rust-yellow crust of snake feces haloing on the ground. Sager picks up a rattlesnake in one catcher-and-hand swooping motion.
“The only reason a snake will strike you is for food or self-defense,” he reminds us. Back in the 1950s, Sweetwater was a nest of snakes. Diamondbacks, he says, came into town because of dryness. They came to the city looking for succor. Sweetwater’s only goal, Sager says, was not to step into rattlers.
David hooks a large diamondback with his snake-catcher and lays him on the table in the center of the ring. Another Jaycee hands him a balloon: long, pink, and phallic, the tip decorated with a Sharpie smile. David tickles the reptile with the balloon. The snake rises, licks the air. David nudges him again with the inflated phallus-face, and the diamondback fires. The pink balloon explodes, sending a sharp gasp through the arena.
No one is able to change what it is, David warns. “You can’t defang a rattlesnake. Within an hour, he’ll already have another fang going and within a day, he can bite again.”
After that, Sager leaves the snake alone for about ten minutes, discussing diamondbacks and the history of Sweetwater, boring the audience, some of whom scoot away. But then, suddenly, David reaches a hand towards the rattler, which has coiled inside the mass of its body, and slides it off the table onto his hand. Sager balances the mass on his palm, circling the pit like a waiter with a desert tray, hand-held coiled snake for the crowd to see. “They’re really not aggressive creatures,” he explains, “except the mothers when they have young. The rest of the time, they’re as passive as a refrigerator.”
He circles the demonstration pit, holding out the tamed predator, the Biblical monster, so defenseless-seeming, perched on an old man’s naked hand. “I think they’re here for a purpose,” David says. “God put them here, like all things.”
The relationship between man and snake has been tenuous in America, at least since the massive arrival of Europeans in the 1600s. As early as 1680, settlers had initiated gore-a-thons on many creatures: mountain lions, bears, wolves, sharks. Around 1740, many communities set aside specific days for slaughter, like a government holiday.
As with gladiatorial punishment, the events drew crowds. Before home entertainment, snake roundups allowed congregations of picnic-goers to witness National Geographic-like bloodiness. There were rattlesnake shootings, decapitation contests, stomping challenges. But the events were all boot-strap. In 1939, the first official celebration of reptile violence sprung up in Okeene, Oklahoma, which is still running the world’s oldest roundup. Though more modest now, in the 1950s it drew almost 100,000 people each year, increasing the town’s population by a hundred fold.
With the popularity of Okeene, roundups popped up in states ranging from Oklahoma to Pennsylvania to Florida to South Dakota. As rural populations fell, the bloodlust wore off or was available on TV. Now there are only a handful around the country. One in Alabama, one in Georgia, a few in Texas and Oklahoma. There are no rattlesnake roundups left in any of the other historical roundup states. Sweetwater still claims to be the largest.
I kind of doubt Sager’s defensible explanation for the Sweetwater Roundup. Sure people don’t want their ankles poisoned, but they also want bloodiness as sure as they watch UFC, boxing, hockey, and collegiate football with its neck-snapping mythology. Surely in America’s sports and leisure pursuits there is ample evidence of a limbic system run amok. It would seem unfair to single out one community in Texas, when the core of the problem edges back into the human mind. And more, is supported by the culture at large, by ESPN and all the major networks. 50,000 people, after all, is half of the population of many football stadiums.
Sometimes I wonder if opening up slaughterhouses to public viewing would be beneficial. For us to see what goes on behind the curtain that feeds us, into what makes us a nation, a people, a species, a large loosely connected network of communities, many of which pride themselves on their local foods and legitimized-though-objectively questionable activities.
After David Ager’s show winds down, a mechanical, snapping sound punctuates the air. I walk back towards the holding area, from which the sound ensues, and find that skinning and killing pits have materialized. They were quickly constructed with cattle guard barriers. Six teenaged Jaycees, five male and one female, suited in chest aprons and gloves, are working in an assembly line, rather like a butcher shop, above wheeled-in steel sinks. Each dangles a beheaded snake from a wire. The reptiles are gutted and skinned into the drains below.
Everyone, for only $20, can gut and skin their own Western diamondback too and take the hide for a souvenir. The first customers I see are a bewildered pink-shirted, ten-year-old girl and a buff, blond, twenty-something man in pressed khakis, loafers, and Polo—casual business attire, he’ll soon regret wearing.
The pair skin their snakes with an attendant Jaycee in camouflage coveralls. The Jaycee uses a Bowie knife to slice up the length of the snake’s dangling stomach. The casual-biz man reaches in on command, pulling out the bloated, purple guts, splashing life juice onto his pants. Both man and girl retrieve the innards and let them drop to the bucket at their feet. After a few moments of panic, the man lets the Jaycee finish the skinning while he stares forlornly at his clothes. The Jaycee withdraws the hide; it comes off like a popsicle wrapper. The girl stares wide-eyed and quiver-lipped at the once live thing’s unpackaging.
Afterwards, both customers spread the harvested skins for a smile-less photograph. Their hands still coated in viscera, they walk to the white butcher paper hanging from the arena seats behind them and plant their palms, soaked bloody, against the wall. After washing, they will sign their names below their red hands.
Much like the rattling of the holding pit earlier, I’d been deafened by the sound of a periodic piston shot that feels much closer now. I realize that on the other side of the skinning pit two men are at work decapitating. One man is short, bald, bespeckled, and owns a face like Ben Kingsley’s. He reaches into a large trashcan with an aluminum, claw-hand snake catcher to retrieve a twitching viper. Then he lays it out on a three-foot stomp, the snake rattling and gaping and hissing. The second man, the executioner, a tall, large-bodied Latino with a ten-gallon straw hat, leans over it with a Craftsman nail gun. The floor beneath their feet is spattered with patterns the shape and color of autumn leaves.
The executioner places the nail gun barrel against the reptile head. Pulls the trigger. A pop ensues and he moves the gun away. There are no nails, just the little bolt that, as quick as venom, burrows into the reptile’s brains. The head and body twitch until the same man with the nail gun, swings a sharpened machete with his right hand, which severs the snake head. The jaws are left scowling and thrashing on the stump. The body gets thrown into a bucket, the tail twitching as it slips over the lip and into the pile of bodies.
Several children are watching with Keanu Reeves-in-The-Matrix-like expressions. Most are quietly awed, but one little boy, who can’t stop shaking his leg, looks up in frenzied delight at a particular gruesome decap, sprayed viscera, muscle tendons exposed and dripping. The boy shrieks and then espies the buckets of heads. “The heads are still moving!” he yells at his dad, who stands petrified in his boots, his hand on the boy’s scalp, frozen. The boy repeats, “They’re opening and closing still!” Indeed, I peer over, past the terrified man, to see the jaws still biting in defiance. The limbic system: first to come alive, last to die.
The executioner’s eyes have the half-sleepy, at-work look of a long-haul truck driver. The cleave of his machete into wood is dampened and earthly. The air compressed shock of the nail gun is sharp, unmuted, clearly puncturing the atmosphere of the arena. Strange what I’m finding humane.
When the killing team takes a break, I ask the machete swinger what his job is like. He wipes his brow under his huge floppy hat and says, in a thick Southern accent, “It’s like a family reunion. I’ve been doing this every year for fifteen years. It’s like hunting only here we hunt snakes too. People meet up, have fun. It’s a good time.”
I ask him why the nail gun and the redundant decap, and he says they used to only swing machetes, to separate fangs from bodies, but animal rights groups grew vociferous.
“The nail gun is less painful?” I ask
“Supposedly,” he shrugs.
“Do you like this,” I gesture at the killing floor, “or hunting better?”
“All of it,” he replies. “It’s like deer season. You get some boys together, go hunting, come back, do some skinning.”
I tell him I was just thinking it’s something along the lines of fishing and he nods, smiles, happy I think, that I’m not some long-hair coastal trying to catch him in a rhetorical pinch. With fishing, which I too enjoy, there’s the cruel catching, the gutting, the skinning, the beheading, the twitching, eventual lifelessness. Same with steak eating. Lobster cracking. I don’t look at the executioner other than as anyone doing a mildly satisfying hobby as an excuse to hang with friends who legitimize what he does.
I do wonder why they have to kill all the snakes, and I ask him. He shrugs again. “Snakes get in people’s way.” He says this half-heartedly though, like he really doesn’t want to think about the answer, and I don’t press him. Also, he picks up his viscera-caked machete and is more than a little intimidating.
As the men resume their killing, I’m not sure what to do here. I’m awed by the raw power of that much coiled fury yet empathetic to the gas-fuming, confinement, and execution. I’m bewildered by some of the children taking this all with glee. I’m encouraged to find most adults, while wide-eyed at their first brush with snake death, grow weary, appear nauseated, and stroll off.
It’s an odd congruity, the ritualistic, yet mechanistic slaughter coupled with a philosophy from both Terry Armstrong and David Sager, whose clear messages are that these creatures are only harmful if provoked. It’s also perfectly understandable that if you have a group of friends who enjoy doing something and need an excuse to get together, that they would keep doing it. Why else would American college football be so popular for the grown men who dress in ridiculous outfits, drink copiously, and watch young players enact their beloved blood sports? Young men who often get hurt on the entertainment battlefield, who spend their college years pursuing impossible, promised fantasies? It’s not just the brain, after all, that excuses the limbic system.
Later, Miss Texas stands in front of the skinning pit, signing autographs, posing, and answering questions. Behind her hang seven nooses covered in blood, used to hold up snakes in mid-skinning. As she laughs, waves and signs. A half-a-dozen Jaycees, all of them young, most of them in plaid, go about slaughtering the day’s kill. They string up the headless snakes, scissor open their bellies, disemboweling, and with a few cuts and finger work, slide the skins off. They hold the four-foot, 8-inch wide skins, on average, behind Miss Texas, sometimes flanking her with hides. They tack several big ones to the white wall. They will occasionally leave bloody finger prints. Miss Texas waves at her fans, and the gory walls, signed by children, wave too.
Photo credits: WintersTxNews.com, Daily Mail UK, Daily Mail UK.