In general, reptiles are a misunderstood and much-maligned group of animals. Literature published as far back as 1735 describes reptiles as “foul and loathsome animals.” Unfortunately, this viewpoint is still held by many people today, especially when snakes are the reptiles being discussed. The unreasonable fear of snakes is quite prevalent in our society and there are many myths and misconceptions concerning snakes and their habits. The general public conception is that snakes are the “enemy” and should be killed on sight. This attitude still persists in spite of overwhelming evidence, both scientific and anecdotal, on the important roles that snakes play in a healthy ecosystem. Areas where snakes are removed often display a population explosion of rodents, usually to the detriment of nearby agricultural enterprises.
The news media also plays a role in shaping this attitude. Most publicity concerning snakes is of a negative nature. Venomous snakebites often receive extensive local media coverage far beyond the actual threat to human life. Rarely is it pointed out that the chances of death from a venomous snakebite are considerably less than the chances of dying from a lightning strike or from an insect bite (Bureau of Vital Statistics, Texas Department of Health).
Out of all snakes, the rattlesnakes probably have received more unjust notoriety and have been persecuted needlessly more than any other group, especially in the United States. It is doubtful that any other animal group is more feared or less understood by the general public. This persecution has reached such a point that, in some states, “Rattlesnake Roundups” are a popular fund-raising event for organizations such as the local Chamber of Commerce or the Jaycees. The largest of these roundups is held each March in Sweetwater, Texas. This event began in 1958 and was advertised as a method of controlling the rattlesnake population in the area. However, it has progressed to the point where now rattlesnakes are collected months in advance often from over 100 miles from Sweetwater. They are often collected by flushing them out of their dens and hiding areas with gasoline and other toxic substances, which not only harms the snakes, but also any other animals that may be in the same place. They are then kept in substandard conditions and are in poor health by the time the rattlesnake roundup is held. The snakes are often cruelly strung up alive, decapitated and skinned in front of crowds which include children. These horrific events are promoted as safe and educational family fun.
In April of 1999, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association adopted a resolution condemning rattlesnake round-ups and advising member institutions, such as the Houston Zoo, to oppose these activities. The Houston Zoo is joining with other Texas Zoos in their opposition to rattlesnake roundups and encourages educational alternatives that promote awareness and respect for these animals.
Slowly, however, the bad reputation that snakes have had is changing, even when rattlesnakes are involved. This can be seen in the ever-increasing numbers of successful herpetological societies that are being established in North America, and also by the increasing popularity of non-venomous snakes as pets.
If you’d like to learn more about these awesome and unique American critters, the second annual Texas Rattlesnake Festival will be held in Round Rock, Texas on April 11-12, 2015. No animals are killed, harmed, or abused. Instead, it is an educational event where people can learn about the different species of rattlesnakes in Texas and the beneficial role they play in a healthy ecosystem.
Then on June 12-14, 2015, the fourth annual Snake Days will be held in Sanderson, Texas. This one isn’t specifically about rattlesnakes, but about snakes in general. It includes a day of informative lectures by herpetologists, a photo contest, fake snake contest, vendors selling herpetology related products, and a fundraiser, proceeds of which benefit Texas Parks and Recreation’s Wildlife Diversity Department.
All animals have a role in their respective environments, including rattlesnakes. Please avoid roundups, support humane and educational events, and leave snakes alone if you find them in the wild. And of course, visit us here at the Houston Zoo where we love rattlesnakes! We have eleven species on exhibit and are always happy to talk to zoo guests about them.