ATLANTA— As the town of Whigham, Ga., prepares to host its annual “rattlesnake roundup” this weekend, the Center for Biological Diversity and its allies presented a petition with more than 50,000 signatures to the Whigham Community Club today asking that the state’s last roundup transition to a wildlife-friendly festival where no snakes are killed. The petition marks the second year in a row that tens of thousands of people have asked organizers to end the cruel and lethal contest, in which hunters compete for prizes by capturing rare eastern diamondback rattlesnakes. The snakes are displayed and then sold for their meat and skins.
All the state’s other roundups have abandoned the outdated practice of removing rare rattlers from the wild. Two years ago Claxton, Ga., replaced its roundup with the Claxton Rattlesnake and Wildlife Festival, featuring displays of captive rattlesnakes, along with many other educational wildlife exhibits. The new wildlife festival in Claxton received a boost in attendance and high praise from environmental groups, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, biologists and others who have lobbied for years to end rattlesnake roundups.
“People are fascinated by the rare rattlers, and so am I,” said Collette Adkins Giese, a biologist and attorney at the Center who works to protect rare reptiles and amphibians. “I understand that folks attending the Whigham event want to see snakes, but it’s time to end this cruel hunting contest. Whigham could display captive snakes instead of getting hunters to catch imperiled wild snakes and sell them for slaughter.”
Lethal roundups are still held in at least four states: Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma and Alabama.
Once-common rattlesnakes are being pushed toward extinction not only by hunting pressure but also by habitat loss and road mortality. Analysis of data from four roundups in the southeastern United States shows a steady decline in the weights of prizewinning eastern diamondbacks and the number collected.
In 2011 the Center — along with allies and Dr. Bruce Means, an expert on the eastern diamondback rattlesnake — filed a petition to protect eastern diamondbacks under the Endangered Species Act. Last year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that the imperiled rattlers may deserve a place on the list of protected species and initiated a full status review.
“Thousands of people have asked the organizers of the Whigham roundup to stop killing snakes, but so far they’ve ignored us,” said Olivia Ries, the elementary-school-aged cofounder of a Georgia-based environmental group called One More Generation. “They refuse to even meet with us to discuss how the Whigham event could go forward without harming animals.”
The eastern diamondback is the largest rattlesnake in the world. Adults are typically 4 to 5 feet long and weigh 4 to 5 pounds, but a big snake can reach 6 feet in length and weigh 12 pounds or more. Scientific studies over the past decade have documented range-wide population declines and significant range contractions for the eastern diamondback.
People fear rattlesnakes, but in reality eastern diamondbacks pose a very small public-safety risk. The snakes are certainly venomous, but more people are killed every year by lightning strikes and bee stings. In fact the majority of snake bites occur when humans try to handle or kill snakes — so rattlesnake roundups actually endanger public health by encouraging the public to do just that. Still, malicious killings by those who perceive the snakes as a threat are contributing to the animals’ decline.