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Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup Jaycees Educate Public About Snakes

When you think of rattlesnakes, the last things that come to mind are education and safety. But the folks in one small Texas town host an annual event all about teaching people about how to stay safe in a place where rattlesnakes are so prevalent.

The Sweetwater Jaycees is the group responsible for hosting the event. Members of the group have decades of experience working with the most common rattlesnake in the area- the Western Diamondback.

The Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup takes place the second weekend in March in Sweetwater, Texas. The town of about 11,000 is located about 40 miles west of Abilene.

On a recent Wednesday morning at the Sweetwater Independent School District office, two members of the Jaycees lead a video conference with elementary school students titled, “Rattlesnake 101.”

Dennis Cumbie and David Sager, are both experienced snake handlers. At the roundup, Cumbie serves as the milking pit chairman, where he extracts venom coveted by pharmaceutical companies. Sager is in charge of the show pit- he stands in an enclosed pen with live rattlesnakes and teaches visitors about handling techniques.

As the video conference begins, Cumbie use a pair of tongs to pull a Western Diamondback out of a box and hold it up in front of the camera. A television in the corner of the boardroom projects a split screen showing both what is being filmed and also one of the classrooms connected. Students sit on the floor in a clump, their eyes wide as they watch the men holding a live rattlesnake.

Sager points out features that distinguish a Western Diamondback from the other species of rattlesnakes native to Texas. He describes the black and white stripes located just above the snakes’ rattle that resemble a raccoon’s tail.

About 5,000 students are tuning into the conference from schools in Arizona, Wisconsin and Texas.

Cumbie and Sager answer dozens of questions like,

“Which rattlesnakes are the deadliest?”

“What is the lifespan of a rattlesnake?”

“What are their predators?”

The answer to that last question is evident every year when people hunt and kill thousands of snakes during the Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup.

In west Texas people kill snakes to control the population. They want their backyard safe for young children and pets. Rob McCann is a member of the Sweetwater Jaycees, he’s been hunting snakes for more than 20 years.

The first rattlesnake roundup was held because basically the police department in Sweetwater then was being overwhelmed by nuisance calls for rattlesnakes in the city limits,” McCann said.

On Saturday, McCann and another hunter, Cody Cox, were on a nuisance call. They traveled to the home of an elderly woman named Mary Gray. She said there were snakes in her cellar.

McCann’s tall boots crushed dry grass as he passed yucca shrubs and juniper trees making his way through the yard.

“When we first start walking around we look for slides,” McCann said. “They’re basically drag marks where a rattlesnakes’ body goes in the dirt and you can tell that they’re moving in and out of holes. That’s the first sign that you can tell that there may be a snake den present.”

He opens cellar door and immediately hears rattling.

“There’s snakes in there, I can hear them, “McCann said. “Just watch out, we’ll be right back, let me go get my light and my tongs.”

Cox climbs down into dark cellar with tongs and brings out the first rattlesnake he finds. At this point Mary and her two friends are carrying plastic lawn chairs over and setting up to watch the action. The men catch several more snakes then announce they will put gasoline fumes into the cellar to draw out any remaining snakes.

“Go for it, I don’t care what you do, I’m not going down in there,” Gray said.

Cox climbed back down into the cellar carrying a long thin copper tube attached to a hand-pump. He sprayed gasoline fumes into the corners of the cellar.

The practice is known as gassing.  It has been the center of a debate between animal rights activists and hunters. McCann said the practice is often misunderstood.

“People are saying that we’re gassing these snakes and we’re just pouring gallons and gallons of gas in a hole and that’s not the case at all, McCann said. “What we’re doing is using the fumes from the gas to drive the snakes out.”

The fumes forced several more rattlesnakes in the cellar to come up for air.

“There’s a big knot of rattlesnakes about eight feet down inside this cellar wall,” McCann said. “There is activity all down there, that’s all I see is crawling all down there.”

They capture ten from the cellar and load the box of rattlesnakes into their pickup truck.

Last year the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department put together a committee and started holding hearings across the state to collect research on the effects of gasoline fumes on the ecosystem. Gassing has been outlawed in several surrounding states.

If gassing were banned in Texas the number of snakes caught would drop drastically, which could result in a loss of millions of dollars for the Sweetwater economy.

About 30,000 people visit annually to take part in guided hunts, learn how venom is milked, skin rattlesnakes and dine on fried snake meat.

McCann shares his interest in rattlesnakes with people from all over the world. He’s taken Japanese film crews snake hunting. This year he is taking a group from Pakistan out to hunt the creatures.

“It’s fun and you get to meet people that their culture is a lot different from us in west Texas,” McCann said.