Beauty and the Beast at the “World’s Largest Rattlesnake Roundup” The Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup features beauty contests punctuated by orgies of slaughter, with presiding Jaycees dressed as cowboys. 

Illustration by Tim Foley

The first beauty contest

The 60th-annual Miss Snake Charmer Pageant kicked off the 61st-annual Rattlesnake Roundup in Sweetwater, Texas. It was held in the Municipal Auditorium on a Thursday night in March 2019. Contestants had to be 16 to 19 years old; live within 75 miles of Sweetwater; and behead, gut, and skin a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake at the Jaycee barn.

Jaycees ran everything. They were alert and serious, in uniforms of jeans, boots, dress shirts, red vests with pins and patches, and black cowboy hats. Some wore guns or knives.

I was given a seat so close to the stage it hurt my neck to look up. Teddy Kidd sat next to me. He was taking photos for the Jaycees and said if any teen girls fell off the stage we would get to catch them. He had been a cotton farmer for 37 years, then did 30 years of construction and was still at it. His sister-in-law was bit by a rattlesnake, getting out of her truck.

“She got over it,” he said.

Several women from the Sweetwater Reporter sat behind us, making wry comments such as, “We don’t report the true news, are you kidding me?”

The reigning queen, Cyera Pieper, said her tenure had been terrific. “Where else do you get to wear boots, crown, and chaps, while skinning a snake?” she said.

There were 12 contestants, the sort of honor students, athletes, and FFA members found in small towns across the country. They had plans for cosmetology, welding, nursing, teaching, and realty. Twenty former Miss Snake Charmers, going back to 1968, appeared.

The reigning queen, Cyera Pieper, said her tenure had been terrific. “Where else do you get to wear boots, crown, and chaps, while skinning a snake?” she said.

It was an old-school contest, with casual-wear, talent, evening-gown, and personal-statement segments. The audience felt comfortable with catcalls, wolf whistles, and hubba-hubbas. Sweetwater had been doing this since Ike was President, and the current MC officiated half that time.

Miss Riley Dodd, who looked much like Miss Cyera Pieper, won the Talent segment and took Miss Snake Charmer 2019. God gave her her talents, she said. She advised the audience to “be who you were meant to be and shine brightly. … ” She got a scholarship for $2,500. Given what she would have to do as queen, it did not seem enough.

 

Sweetwater’s win

Sweetwater, Texas, is between Abilene and Lubbock, in Big Country. The landscape is brushy and dry, and mesquite grows in sparse, stunted groves. A sign for Stink Creek hints at tensions. The highway ramps were closed.

In town, a pleasant courthouse square contained lawyers’ offices, title companies, and a bank. Karen Hunt, Director of the Chamber of Commerce, told me diversification was key to the town’s success: ranching and farming, rail and interstates, oil, gypsum, sand for fracking, and cement and sheetrock. Industrial windmills loomed over the plains. A company recycled the blades.

In 150 years, settlers and residents subdued the land and much that was indigenous. But there would be no “snake problem”—not even a perceived one—if snakes had room to perform their traditional role eating rodents, bearing live young and caring for them, and living in social groups.

The rattlesnake has qualities Texans idealize: fierceness, independent-mindedness, hardiness, strength, a showiness muted by dust. It is the libertarian of the reptile world. Which is probably why Sweetwater loves to hate Western Diamondbacks. They are very alike but in competition.

So Sweetwater, a town aspiring to modernity, performs an archaic ritual every spring. They gas their enemies out of their homes, publicly taunt and mistreat them, parade them as spectacle, behead them one-by-one on a bloody stump, rip out their guts, strip them of their skins, sell curios made of their body parts, and offer their flesh as fried novelty, all while the local beauty queen smiles.

You might say Sweetwater loves rattlesnakes to death.

 

Some history

Rounding up snakes for bounties in the United States goes back to at least the 1700s. “Organized hunts” of the Sweetwater-type apparently started in Okeene, Oklahoma, in 1939. Texas has had 44 communities with some form of it. Karen Hunt said those who started Sweetwater’s “never would have pictured this”—the Roundup’s “commercialized” existence.

I spoke with Bettye Martin-McRae, “surviving founder” of the Roundup. Her book Snake in My Pocket is self-published, along with her titles Bronc in the Parlor: Daddy’s Shenanigans; and Cow in the Kitchen: Mama Gets Back at Daddy.

Bettye said her husband was stationed at Avenger Field, near Sweetwater, in the late ‘50s, and they lived in married housing. The base commander requisitioned a snake expert to train airmen on safety, and he stayed with the McRaes. One day as they were killing snakes around the housing area, he suggested the McRaes go look at what Jaycees were doing with the Okeene roundup, then called “World’s Largest.” After that trip, the McRaes, other Jaycees, and the Board of Development started the Sweetwater Roundup.

The first year they displayed 3,000 snakes in the National Guard Armory. They had no market for them and tried to kill them with pickup-truck exhaust, but the snakes would not die. In the end they had to use hoes, lawn-edging blades, and even slingshots to kill them. Bodies were burned at the dump. Bettye says “good markets” were established after that, and the venom was used for antivenin and medical research.

Karen Hunt told me other towns had tried to create roundup festivals, but “it’s just our thing,” thanks to Sweetwater’s “unique Jaycees.”

“This is their energy,” she said.

Sweetwater Jaycees pay hunters to catch snakes from several counties for the Roundup (In 2019, $6 per pound). Jaycees PR man Reece McCain told me state licensing and Jaycee registration kept unqualified hunters from getting hurt and too many snakes from coming in. But Jaycees “nearly busted” themselves, he said, buying 24,262 pounds of snakes in 2016 and turning away 75,000 pounds more that were then killed (and likely wasted) or released indiscriminately.

The first year they displayed 3,000 snakes in the National Guard Armory. They had no market for them and tried to kill them with pickup-truck exhaust, but the snakes would not die. In the end they had to use hoes, lawn-edging blades, and even slingshots to kill them. Bodies were burned at the dump.

Jaycees make money by selling admission tickets; live snakes by bid; and skins, meat, organs, heads, and rattles on the market. The real profit was for Sweetwater, which made $8.4 million in 2015, in hotels, retail, food, and transportation.

In 2015 the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) brought scientists and locals together in a working group for discussion on “gassing” snakes for the Roundup. Long hoses pump gas and/or vapors into dens, which drives snakes out for collection but disturbs and kills other species, including valuable insects, spiders, and worms. It may make dens unusable and promote overhunting. Studies say collection can be done without it.

Dr. Lee Fitzgerald, Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences, and Chief Curator, Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections, Texas A&M, says overhunting snakes creates its own problems, including bigger rodent populations, which cause physical damage to property and increase the chance of diseases such as hantavirus.

Proponents of the Roundup say it is sustainable because it has been done six decades. Dr. Fitzgerald and a co-author say if the interest in big takes (or the ability to pay for them) was always high, snakes might be hunted out.

Sweetwater’s defenders say snakes bite people and livestock, but Texas averaged only one or two deaths by snakebite each year, 1978-2001. (In 2017, 3,513 died by gun in Texas, more than any other state.)

Dr. Jonathan Losos, Professor of Biology at Washington University-St. Louis, leads the Living Earth Collaborative, “an academic center dedicated to advancing the study of biodiversity.” He was herpetology curator at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. I asked him if roundups were necessary for controlling snake populations.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “The real question is whether there is any possible justification for holding such an event in these times. The answer is an unequivocal ‘no.’ The roundups are remarkably inhumane, violate every standard of wild animal population management and do great environmental damage. That they continue to be held is a disgrace.”

Dr. Lee Fitzgerald, Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences, and Chief Curator, Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections, Texas A&M, says overhunting snakes creates its own problems, including bigger rodent populations, which cause physical damage to property and increase the chance of diseases such as hantavirus.

The American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists also “strongly opposes traditional rattlesnake roundups,” calls them inhumane, and says they promote “outdated attitudes toward important elements of America’s natural heritage.”

Confronted with expertise, a local man told the TPWD group the Roundup is “a source of community pride” and that “kids enjoy it.” Another compared the Roundup to the Super Bowl and “went on to say that snakes are a publicly owned resource. He stated that we should strive to do the ‘difficult right’ [preserve the Roundup] rather than the ‘easy wrong.’”

Ken Becker, now Executive Director, Sweetwater Economic Development, said, “We have become too politically correct in the US and knuckle under the pressure of Big Government. Texas has done well for itself and its constituents by not folding under to pressure.”

Texas House Bill 3559 was introduced this month and referred to committee. It would prohibit gassing and ban the possession of animals collected by it.

 

At the roundup

Friday through Sunday, the snakes and gore were in the Coliseum, on the edge of town. Next to it were food stands, a carnival, gun show, and a flea market that sold live lizards, three-foot long candy ropes, and Eve’s Revenge, a snake snare to encircle homes.

The official souvenir booth on the dirt floor of the Coliseum sold t-shirts and snakeheads in jars of alcohol. The seller said not to take the head out and play with it, drink the alcohol, or shake the jar because it might get cloudy from leftover venom.

PR man Reece McCain said they hoped to see 50,000 people this year. He took me down to the holding pit.

Two to three tons of Western Diamondbacks squirmed and buzzed in a sheetrock enclosure 10 feet in diameter and five feet high. Scratched plexiglass windows let kids see and agitate the snakes, while grown-ups peered over the edge, holding camera-phones tightly.

A Jaycee was walking in the snakes, hooking dead ones and throwing them in a pile. If they moved, he let them stay. Several were visibly bleeding but remained. He kicked at snakes’ faces to get them to strike the bottom of his boot, seemingly more from boredom than for the crowd’s entertainment.

Snakes can have a urine-and-musk odor, but there were so many, with no way to clean their enclosure, that the smell was very bad. It had been reported Jaycees sprayed them with Right Guard.

The photo-op pitted Sweetwater’s queen against pit vipers in a pit reminiscent of The Pit. This Texas girl showed she could take it, by baring her dazzling teeth at Evil, with its unholy knack for seeing who we are by our animal heat. Here was Eve’s revenge.

The rattlesnake is a perfect beauty five-million years in the making, a sleek tube of muscle, bone, and digestion, with tools for earning its living, an ingenious movement, and a device to show emotion. I worked with them at a state interpretive center and respect them. But the holding pit inspired both revulsion and pity.

Miss Snake Charmer walked into it, wearing gaiters, sash, and crown. She smiled and held up a Western Diamondback with a pincer tool. The photo-op pitted Sweetwater’s queen against pit vipers in a pit reminiscent of The Pit. This Texas girl showed she could take it, by baring her dazzling teeth at Evil, with its unholy knack for seeing who we are by our animal heat. Here was Eve’s revenge.

It was a stunt I would never permit my child to take part, if only because if she tripped and fell flat in the snakes, she would not get over it.

 

Venomous

The Milking Pit was a few feet away. A Jaycee in a white lab coat extracted venom from some snakes but did not keep pace with the Processing Station, which was end of the line.

The Sweetwater Reporter says, “The venom is then used to produce antivenom serum. It has also been used in the research of a cure for cancer and other diseases.”

(Rattlesnake venom is a hemotoxin, not a neurotoxin, and compounds derived from it are used in anti-clotting drugs for heart attacks and strokes, among other things.)

But according to the TPWD report of 2015, all major producers of drugs derived from Western Diamondback venom use lab-captive snakes, or produce components synthetically. They refuse to work with roundups, because gassing could be a contaminant; dehydrated and emaciated snakes are useless; the snakes are from unknown geographical locations and provide no consistency in genetics or quality; and venom is not collected in sterile or controlled conditions.

A source involved with the report told me:

“An individual from the roundup culture insisted to the working group that he sells that venom, but refused to actually provide any information on current customers to allow an independent assessment of the accuracy of their claims. When pressed by the working group, one individual provided a copy of an invoice from years ago that did not demonstrate their venom entering the supply for antivenin or research so it was inconclusive. [W]e are left to assume their venom, if it’s being sold at all, may be going to less regulated uses overseas.”

 

“Reserch”

Many people told me research legitimized the event. I saw a few snakes measured and weighed in a mostly-empty pit, by a Jaycee whose pink shirt read “Hollywood.” A piece of masking tape on the enclosure announced its purpose, though it was spelled “reserch.”

The Sweetwater Reporter says, “With the help of Texas Parks and Wildlife, the Jaycees have gathered biological data and other pertinent information about rattlesnakes that has proven invaluable to those seeking information about the creatures.”

John M. Davis, TPWD Wildlife Diversity Program Director, told me, “Due to unreliable location data, unknown condition of the specimens, and unverifiable accuracy, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has never used information gathered at roundups for a scientific purpose.”

The Sweetwater Reporter also claims the Jaycees “work with Texas A&M University to determine whether commercial round-ups have any adverse effects on the area or the future of the snake itself.”

Dr. Fitzgerald, of Texas A&M, told me he has not been to the Sweetwater Roundup since about 1995, when he and his co-author were collecting data for their paper, “a comprehensive critique of the whole situation [that] certainly does not imply any endorsement of the Sweetwater roundup.” The Jaycees saw them measuring snakes and decided to do it too, he said. Fitzgerald said to his knowledge “no one from Texas A&M has collaborated with the Sweetwater Roundup, nor any other roundup, in many years. Even those that studied the roundup I do not believe were endorsing it or legitimizing it in any way. …

“In its current and longstanding form, the roundup is bad for wildlife conservation and animal welfare.”

 

Processing station

Processing was a sanitized name for a filthy event. Another sign called it the Skinning Pit, but more went on there.

A man grabbed a snake with pincers and held it on a bloody tree stump. Another man, always there, as if claiming the quarterback role, used a machete to chop off its head. The head tried to bite the pincers as it was picked off the dirt and tossed in a trash bucket. All the heads in the bucket gnashed at each other. One with enough neck-stump left wriggled through the others.

Snake bodies were taken to a gore-spattered, stainless-steel table and hung by their tails. Volunteers and paying members of the crowd slit them from vent to neck, disemboweled them, and pulled off their skins. Carcasses went in a garbage can, supposedly for meat. Skins were rolled up tightly in a puddle of fluid and bundled.

I told Reece McCain I had heard the public would no longer be allowed to take part in the butchery, and put their bloody handprints and names on the wall. He said it was a third-party vendor, not the Jaycees, who I would have to talk to about that.

All the heads in the bucket gnashed at each other. One with enough neck-stump left wriggled through the others.

A sweet-faced, smiling Jaycee named Brian Kinsey came from the butchery table to show off the headless snake around his neck. Rivulets of blood ran down his forearms. Meat extruded from the snake’s neck, but it swayed normally. Kinsey said it would move and curl another two hours, trying to keep warm. He wrapped his fist around its body and jerked it like a penis. The corpse straightened and stiffened in apparent appreciation.

“Is it dead?” a little kid at my elbow asked.

The Head of the Reptile Discovery Center at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo told National Geographic, “By the time [a] snake has lost its head, it’s dead and the basic body functions have ceased, but there is still some reflexive action.” The autonomic nervous system is blamed. But if the ANS can still “feel” a warm hand, or “sense” gravity and orient itself, could it not also feel “pain”? Is the head still conscious in its bucket? One wishes to avoid sentimentality.

Another Jaycee came over, smiling. In his open palm was a purple jewel with white streamers—a snake’s heart, still beating.

The American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists says of roundups: “It is hard to imagine subjecting any other vertebrate animal to such thoughtless and inhumane treatment.”

Roundup supporters call detractors hypocrites. Industrial meat processing is bigger and bloodier, they say. But we do not travel and pay for hotels so our children can watch cows be slaughtered; we do not pet the pretty birds, flapping headless, at the Tyson plant.

The American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists says of roundups: “It is hard to imagine subjecting any other vertebrate animal to such thoughtless and inhumane treatment.”

Dr. Fitzgerald and his co-author say, “We are not aware of any other instance in North America wildlife is killed as entertainment for spectators.”

 

Friday afternoon

I called a friend and sent him photos from the Coliseum. He said participants were serial killers smiling through torture. He said it drained joy from his life to know this had gone on for decades, with so many people and so much money involved. But when I told him there was a non-kill festival run by herpetologists, he said it was just like eggheads to think they could draw tourists from a spectacle.

“We’ve got a machete chopping off heads on a stump,” he said, channeling the Sweetwater Jaycees. “All you got is progressive intentions and rationality.”

I went back to my hotel, opened the window wide, and looked out on a strip of prairie. On the distant highway, semis hissed. I was seeing snakes in the curl of my belt on the bed, in a cord decapitated from my laptop, in a jumble of tater tots covered in ketchup from Sonic, where carhops wore the official Roundup logo on their shirts. I wondered how many Western Diamondbacks were in the field and wished them long life. I saw three stray cats in the parking lot, fanged but furry, and wished them well against the snakes.

 

Saturday

The performative quality of the violence increased, due to bigger crowds in the same enclosed space. Thousands waited in line outside the Coliseum. Inside, 200 people stood in line for “Jaycee’s Cook-Shack Fried Rattlesnake Meat.”

A stranger rushed up to me, so excited he had to tell someone: “They ate hearts! They ate the heart!”

“Who?” I asked. I knew what he was saying.

“Those people over there,” he said and pointed to an upper tier over the Skinning Pit. “They ate the heart raw!”

The crowd was so big I could not tell who he meant. I wanted to see them. Were they proud? Laughing? Queasy? Regretful?

A stranger rushed up to me, so excited he had to tell someone: “They ate hearts! They ate the heart!”

At the stainless table in the Skinning Pit, a headless snake did not want to be gutted. It twisted in successful ways as one of the town’s JayTeens grabbed at it. She made faces and tried to put her slitting tool to use. The performance did not go smoothly. It was a desecration.

 

Sunday

Light rain and temperatures in the low 40s knocked back the crowds. Snakes were fewer and more sluggish. Events scheduled for late afternoon got moved up, before people could leave.

Miss Texas 2018, Madison Fuller, and Miss Snake Charmer 2019, Riley Dodd, judged the beard contest. They had to pull strange men’s beards straight and measure them with a ruler. The girls’ faces said they would rather touch not the unclean things. A man in a Vietnam Vet cap won for both longest and ugliest beard.

“It’s old and scraggly,” he said, unconsciously admitting unfitness in evolutionary-biology terms, but he was proud of his prizes.

At the snake-eating contest the beauty queens were made to sit at the table as contestants. They poked at their snake chunks and looked worried.

“[R]attlesnake tastes, when breaded and fried, like a sinewy, half-starved tilapia,” said The New York Times. Reece McCain had given me some that was all bones.

“Smells like fried food,” Miss Texas said.

McCain told her, “You’re not in it to win it, so just do what you can.”

“Disgusting,” Miss Texas said sulkily, when it was over, and dropped the fried rattlesnake in her tray.

The cardboard trays were weighed before and after. McCain said the winner put away nearly double the rest of the field. It could only have been ounces.

 

The worst part

When the eating contest was finished, I looked over the railing, down at the yellow garbage can where processed snakes were thrown after being beheaded, gutted, and skinned. Two dozen pink bodies were piled in it.

I thought I saw movement and got my camera ready.

The pink wet mass came alive. Every raw body knew which end was its head and which way was up. It knew to writhe and slide smoothly over the others to escape.

All that pink, slithering meat was still trying to win, without brain, vital organs, or protective skin. It made me feel like I might go crazy.

 

Days of it

I stuck it out to the bloody end, in part to prove to myself I could take it. You may have seen me, among the gawking thousands, the guy who did not stand in the middle of the Coliseum, crying “Stop!” as the machete rose and fell, and blood turned the dirt to mud. I was there long enough to understand how this festival of death, in the Information Age, hearkens to ancient fear.

 

The second beauty contest

The final events were for “longest snake” and “most pounds brought in.” They were held in the Safety and Handling Pit, where longtime-organizer David Sager had been giving “educational” shows, holding snakes close to faces in the crowd. (Dr. Fitzgerald says spectators leave roundups with “similar levels of knowledge about rattlesnakes whether or not they attended the education show.”)

“Snakes don’t like to be stretched,” Sager said, “so we’re gonna pull ‘em a little bit. Stretch them out to their full length.” He dumped a snake from a burlap bag onto the floor. Another Jaycee used a snake hook to hold it up and put it on a long table.

“That’s a pretty animal,” Sager said.

I was there long enough to understand how this festival of death, in the Information Age, hearkens to ancient fear.

The other man pinned its head very flat with the hook, pinched it, grabbed its body with his other hand, and walked around showing the crowd its open mouth and fangs. He put it on the table again, and four Jaycees pounced, put their full weight on it, and pulled it to 62½ inches.

“Pretty snake,” Sager said. The handler tossed it like garbage into a can and slammed the lid. Sager wiped blood off the table with a rag and praised the hunters who made all this possible.

One of the snakes sprayed urine on the Jaycees. I could smell it from where I stood, a dirty, acrid stench of fear. The crowd laughed and adjusted their cameras.

“Oh no,” Sager said. “We kind of squeezed the pee out of him.”

The winning snake was 74½ inches.

“What a beauty,” Sager said but admitted they had seen longer. “This year’s been such a weird deal with all this cold.”

Eric Timaeus, who won for longest snake, walked into the pit to claim his $400 prize. He had won before, including the year with 50 tons of snakes.

“A legend in my own mind,” he said.

He posed for photos with the black-hatted Jaycees, who were stoic, and with Miss Snake Charmer and Miss Texas, who smiled and smiled. It was a tableau vivant hunting a title.

“Beauty and the beast,” Sager said.

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