The Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup is a Tradition That Needs to Change

This is our response to an article posted on NPR about the 2020 Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup. If you would like to respond, feel free to use any of our text here or roundup facts from our FAQ. You can email the article’s author, contact NPR to comment on something you read, or ask NPR’s Public Editor about ethics.

Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup's Wall of Shame by Jo-Anne McArthur
Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup’s Wall of Shame by Jo-Anne McArthur

Rattlesnake Roundup: A Texas Community Tradition,” details how the Sweetwater Jaycees ignored public health concerns, putting their community at risk by holding their rattlesnake roundup as usual.

Rattlesnake roundups are the worst example of what happens when fear and hatred drive wildlife management. There is no reason to believe that the numbers of rattlesnakes in Texas or elsewhere need to be reduced, nor is there any evidence that rattlesnake roundups benefit people, livestock, wildlife, or the ecosystem. Like other wild animals, rattlesnake populations are maintained by food availability, predation, and other natural processes like disease. Rattlesnakes pose little threat to humans; there are fewer than six human deaths in the U.S. from snakebites annually.

The myth-riddled presentations and risky handling techniques demonstrated at Sweetwater do not teach people how to safely live around rattlesnakes. Because rattlesnakes avoid us, most bites happen to people who try to handle or kill snakes. Provoking rattlesnakes to strike balloons and draping them across visitors’ shoulders is exactly how we shouldn’t behave – the best snakebite prevention is being careful and leaving snakes alone.

Most traditions of eradicating predators are a thing of the past, a blemish on American history. But efforts to eradicate rattlesnakes continue, and the attitudes that perpetuate them are largely misinformed. If this story had detailed the killing of thousands of any other species of native wildlife, I doubt NPR’s The Picture Show would have given it such positive coverage.

Many roundups have evolved into festivals that celebrate, rather than harm, local wildlife. These new festivals are more popular and financially successful than ever — proving it’s not the slaughter that brings people in, it’s the snakes themselves. It is a rare, win-win option for wildlife and people. It’s time for traditions that promote unsafe behavior, foster disrespect for native wildlife, and damage local ecosystems to change.

Melissa Amarello, MS, Biology
Executive Director, Advocates for Snake Preservation

While we didn’t receive a personal response to our letter, the overwhelmingly negative response was covered in NPR Public Editor’s e-newsletter that was published on April 22, 2020, Earth Day. Thanks to everyone who contacted NPR — we were noticed! And it seems as though the article’s author gets it, though NPR’s Public Editor clearly does not. The opposition to roundups was once again reduced to “animal rights advocates,” which is a poor description of the diverse group of conservationists, scientists, and concerned citizens (including animal rights advocates). Here’s what they wrote:

Rattlesnake Roundup: A Texas Community Tradition — The photo essay on a controversial festival in Sweetwater, Texas, drew more than 75 complaints to the Public Editor’s email inbox, all of them disappointed that the story seemingly condones animal abuse against an unlovable creature. This story, driven by the visuals, is an example of what happens when a journalist’s intentions don’t fully anticipate certain audience passions.

The journalist, freelance photographer Lizzie Chen, told me she wanted to give the NPR online audience a respectful look into the people who attend and participate in the festival. She encountered documentary images of the event while teaching the history of photography at a community college in her hometown of Austin, Texas. When she discovered the Rattlesnake Roundup was still happening, her curiosity took over.

Chen said she felt bad for the snakes as she was documenting the event. She loves reptiles, and even has two pet tortoises. And she mentions in her essay that animal rights advocates oppose the roundup.

If you believe passionately that even rattlesnakes deserve better, then I can see how the story let you down. She made a journalistic choice to see the story through the lens of the people of Sweetwater.

And yet, documenting the event and the people involved is not the same as condoning the treatment of the rattlesnakes killed in the roundup. Much of the reaction that accused NPR and Chen of journalistic malpractice seemed disproportionate.

“I thought I was shedding light on something, but clearly I missed the point,” Chen said. “I feel terrible.”

Could Chen and NPR have envisioned a different story, something more in-depth? Of course, that’s always an option. But the conflict over the story is also a reminder that the messenger is not the message.

Rattlesnakes & Last Names: The view from your new Public Editor