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Last updated January 1, 2014

ABC Bites on Rattler Report

Melissa Kaplan, News from the North Bay, 1(9):9-11


Transcript from ABC Evening News, August 30, 1994.

Catherine Cryer (CC): Finally tonight, a roundup in Texas that might not be for every city slicker. You'll need a wary eye, a sharp sense of hearing, and a very steady hand. Reporting on tiptoe from Sweetwater, Texas, ABC's Charlie Murphy.

Charlie Murphy (CM): Sweetwater is a sweet little town. The Texas theater still runs a double feature. Cash crops are cattle and cotton and rattlesnakes. Every year, Sweetwater holds the world's largest rattlesnake roundup. It's a way to rid the ranches around here of dangerous reptiles and make a little money on the side.

Bill Warlick, Rancher (BW): It's not the great test fun in the world, but it's something to do

CM: For $50, eager guides will show you how they catch them. You don't have to go far.

Brent Burnett, Rattlesnake Hunter (BB): In West Texas, you can find a rattlesnake nearly anywhere. You can find it in town, you know, out in the country, no matter where you're at.

CM: A little gasoline vapor is pumped in a hole. It makes them come out for air. He's not going to let it get away. That's a $10 snake. These are western diamondbacks - pit vipers. They are the pits, too. This one was loaded with venom. The poison is sold to make antidotes for snake bites. The rest of the snake is used for designer wear.

Bill Ransberger, Veteran Snake Handler (BR): Rattlesnake-skin boots. This is chaps. A rattlesnake gun holster. A rattlesnake cowboy tie.

CM: You get the idea. Bill Ransberger sells snake catchers—a new venom extractor. Ask Bill how many times he's been bit.

BR: Forty-one. But none of them has ever been fatal.

CM: Don't ask him why he wears a snake belt.

BR: To hold my pants up.

CM: At the chuck wagon, snakes are frying and mouths are watering. What does it taste like?

1st Customer: Chicken

2nd Customer: A tough chicken.

3rd Customer: But you need about a whole snake to get a good meal. A couple of pieces ain't going to do it for you.

CM: Don't worry, there's millions more rattlesnakes where these came from.

CC: That's our report on World News Tonight. For all of here at ABC News, good night.

Good night, indeed. Unfortunately, rattlesnake roundups are neither as cute nor as benign as Murphy and his interviewees convey. In a letter to ABC, the North Bay Herpetological Society wrote:

"Your story on rattlesnakes broadcast on August 30 was a prime example of irresponsible reporting. Without investigating the facts behind the roundups, you essentially gave free advertising to them.

Rather than taking the opportunity to defuse the populace's exaggerated and generally unfounded fears about rattlesnakes, you compounded the problem by using the power of your implied authority and knowledge to feed those fears.

The fact of the matter is that rattlesnakes are not the vicious creatures they are made out to be. Rather than seeking to strike and kill whatever they encounter, they do their best to hide and, if that fails, to warn off potential threats by a variety of behaviors. Other animals manage to live quite amicably with rattlers, predator/prey relationships notwithstanding. The story you should have reported on is why it is that the animals that seem to experience the greatest number of adverse encounters with rattlers are humans and humans' best friends, dogs, whose natural caution has been bred out by their long contact with humans.

We are located in a county with a good sized population of Pacific rattlers. Our society is contacted numerous times throughout the summer by homeowners concerned about potential rattler contacts and by people who wish to have rattlers removed from their property. Most of the snakes reported to be rattlers are in fact king and gopher snakes. Actual rattlers have proven true to their nature, keeping their distance from human habitations. Those that actually wandered too close for human comfort were easily captured and relocated.

In fact, many reported rattlesnake bites are actually bites from other snakes. Fear itself can exaggerate the impact of an encounter; Lawrence M. Klauber, an noted authority on rattlesnake ecology, reported in his book (Rattlesnakes: Their habits, life histories, and influence on mankind, Berkeley CA: University of California Press. 1982.) about one unfortunate hunter who suffered an almost fatal heart attack after being bit--by a barbed wire fence.

We hope that you will do another story on rattlesnakes, one more reflective of their true nature, and of the true nature of the men and women who so eagerly participate in the annual slaughters."

/signed/ Karen Wofford , Vice President, North Bay Herpetological Society

I sent a letter in under my personal letterhead, hitting some of the fallacies in the report:

"First, a feeling of tightness develops in the throat so that the victim tries to clear his throat of an imaginary phlegm. The tongue develops a feeling of thickness and speech becomes difficult. The victim next becomes restless and there may be slight, involuntary twitching of the muscles. Small children at this stage will not be still: Some attempt to climb up the wall or the sides of their cot. A series of sneezing spasms is accompanied by a continuous flow of fluid from nose and mouth which may form a copious froth. Occasionally the rate of heartbeat is considerably increased. Convulsions follow, the arms are flailed about and the extremities become quite blue before death occurs." *

The above description is not a description of a rattlesnake bite. Rather, it describes the effect of the bite of the Centruroides sculpturatus, the all-too-common bark scorpion native to the American Southwest, responsible for sixty-four deaths within a twenty-one year period in Arizona alone. Their venom is reputed to be more deadly than cobra venom. Scorpions can be found everywhere, including in one's shoes, in one's bed, clinging to canyon walls and around campsites in numbers too great to be believed. If you would like to see for yourself, plan a camping trip to the Arizona deserts and be sure to pack an ultraviolet light. I assure you that you will be in much greater risk of being stung and made severely ill by a scorpion than by a rattlesnake.

Playing upon the myths and folklore and to the unfounded fears of much of the human population, your broadcast ended up justifying the slaughter of animals which caused no harm to their neighbors, human and otherwise. For example, gasoline is extremely harmful to the environment. Much of the range over which rattlers are collected for the roundups is already at risk due to the adverse impacts of man upon those environments. In addition, other reptiles, including protected tortoises, who are peacefully cohabiting with the rattlers are killed; those that survive often die of exposure if they are unable to find other dens. Dens are natural, temperature-regulated environments in which reptiles and mammals spend their time during the cold of the winter and the hottest parts of the summer. During this time they are completely harmless to man and livestock.

The newscast stated that there are "millions more" rattlers, implying that such roundups do not harm remaining populations. This could not be farther from the truth. In fact, rattlers are collected throughout the year in order to gather enough snakes together to make up a "decent" roundup. The snake hunters are paid by the pound and so must collect a significant number in order to make a living—yes, a living. These same "fearless' hunters are also complaining that there are not enough snakes together to make a "decent" roundup. These are not isolated farmers and ranchers trying to protect their land. These are people whose jobs are to go out, collect torpid and hibernating ratters (and getting paid $10 for each one) from an increasingly wide area (as local populations have been wiped out due to long term collection practices), throw the snakes into overcrowded and filthy crates or pens to await harassment and slaughter at the next roundup, an event which may be months away.

One of the reasons why hunters must go farther and farther afield is because of the damage they have already done to the nearer habitats in their collection efforts. Rattlers not only den in burrows in the ground, but also deep in rocky crevices and rock piles. In their attempt to gather every last rattler in the area, the hunters upturn rock piles and destroy crevices. This not only results in the destruction of the rattlers, but, as with the destruction of dens with gasoline, leaves numerous other reptiles and mammals homeless and without protection from the weather and other environmental factors. This disrupts the natural ecological balance of the region, placing all wildlife in peril.

Venom collected during the roundups is used for medical purposes. This is not true. Venom collection is just one of the many shows and "feats of daring" for spectators at these roundups. As the venom is not collected under sterile conditions, it is of no use to any medical facility in the production of antivenin. This beneficent claim by the roundup organizers and supporters is a patent lie.

Rattlers are nasty vicious animals just waiting to attack. This, too, is untrue. In fact, rattlers are supremely adapted to give plenty of warning of their presence assuming their first line of defense--camouflage--fails to hide them sufficiently from predators, ignorant hunters and careless hikers. Rattling, hissing, rearing back into a pre-strike posture while rattling and hissing, and rearing up into a strike posture while continuing to rattle and hiss; these are behaviors which have stood the rattlers well during the ages...until the advent of Western man into their habitat. This brings to mind the popular saying "Just what part of "No" don't you understand?"

Most bites happen because someone has put their hand or foot somewhere without first looking. Hikers and rock climbers stick their hand into a crevice trying to find a handhold. Campers go walking around with their eyes on the distant vista rather than watching where they are going. Rather than defusing an encounter with a startled rattler by stopping all motion and slowly walking backwards out of strike range, many victims attempt to find rocks and sticks to throw at the snake, flailing their arms, stamping their feet, yelling and jumping around, all guaranteed to strike fear into the heart of, and elicit a strike response from, any snake.

Your newscast failed to point out that:

Rattlesnakes, like many other animals, are becoming scarce throughout much of their range. There are species which are already protected under state and federal wildlife laws and several others which are currently being evaluated for such protection.

Rattlesnake bites are rarely fatal. In fact, a steady average of about 3% are fatal, a number not significantly different than the fatality rate associated with bee stings, venomous spider bites and deaths resulting from accidents with horses.

Network news has the power to educate, enlighten and elucidate. Instead, you used this opportunity not to argue for protection of threatened and endangered species and habitat, but to glorify the slaughter of animals essential to their native environment by men and women who, with apparent glee and morbid fascination, watch and condone the torture and inhumane slaughter of these magnificent animals. In some parts of the country, similar gatherings are used to slaughter rabbits. The chambers of commerce in these towns claim that they "need" these bunny shoots to raise money for charity. Try running a bunny-shoot story reported in the same manner in which you reported the rattlesnake story and see just how amused viewers are. Those of us who are interested in reptiles, who study their ecology and natural history and who understand and respect their importance in their environment, were not amused.

/signed/ Melissa Kaplan, Reptile & Environmental Education

* J. L. Cloudsley-Thompson, British Zoologist, quoted in Flight of the Green Iguana, David Quammen, p 42. New York: Doubleday. 1988. The data in the paragraph immediately following this quote is from the same page, paraphrased from the author.

According to herpetologists, emergency medical physicians and biologists, venom collected at roundups is not suitable for use in the manufacture of antivenin. For information on this, please read Rattlesnake Roundups and Antivenin Production.

Rattlesnake roundups occur several times a year throughout the mid-west and southwest. For additional information on them, see the Kansas Herpetological Society's position paper on rattlesnake roundups

To help neighbors and the community understand and deal with rattlesnakes on their property, checkout Rattlesnake!, a booklet I put together for just such a purpose. It is also useful when trying to convince non-venomous snakes to find someplace else to live. Venomous relocators may also be contacted to remove snakes found within the house or under decks, etc.

Related Articles

Rattlesnake Roundups Revisited

Rattlesnake Roundups and Antivenin Production

Venomous Snake Relocators

Venomous Snakebite Treatment Information

The Truth Behind Rattlesnake Roundups (HSUS Report)

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