The record was broken this year for the number of pounds of rattlesnakes harvested at the annual Rattlesnake Roundup in Sweetwater, Texas. I was blown away. The figure was 24,262 pounds. The favored hunting technique is spraying gasoline into their holes to drive them out to slaughter. The roundup includes a lot of other activities, like a Miss Snake Charmer contest, a gun show, a cook off, and special events for kids, who are admitted free if they’re under 12. And to be fair, Texas is not the only state with such an attitude. We in New Mexico have the Annual Coyote Hunt, based on the same premise that this threat to man and cows must be reduced by any means possible. Every state may be able to tout its own particular assault on wildlife.
There are opponents to the rattlesnake roundup who speak eloquently about the damage to the environment and other species as a result of the gasoline application. And there are a few brave souls who speak on behalf of this species’ right to a piece of this planet and claim that its threat to man and cattle is greatly exaggerated. Apparently there were only five deaths due to rattlesnake bites in the past year in the U.S. and no recorded cattle deaths in recent history. They point to educational no-kill roundups that bring even more tourist dollars and offer plenty of excitement. There are studies underway to explore changes in state law that would ban the Sweetwater-style rattlesnake roundup, but opponents to change are fiercely loyal to their traditions.
As a mediator, I am not tempted to volunteer my services in Sweetwater and take on the rattlesnake roundup controversy. We are taught to be careful of our own bias when helping those in conflict to find a solution. And if that bias exists to a degree that impairs your ability to be a neutral mediator, you should not take the job.
So, what’s my bias that prevents me from jumping in to help find this common ground? To confess, I really don’t like snakes—of any kind (see my blog for more on that). The idea that a snake is harmless just doesn’t register with me, in that any snake will scare me half to death, and I consider that harmful to my health. But much as I never want to see another snake, my bias is in their favor. Every creature needs a place to call its own; every creature has the right to pursue its version of happiness. And we humans should stay out of the way if possible. There are encounters that can be disastrous. The two-year old and the alligator in Florida, the four-year old who fell into the Gorilla’s enclosure at a zoo. Sometimes the human is the loser, sometimes the animal.
And here in New Mexico a woman who fell behind in a marathon in a mountainous area came around the bend and frightened a bear cub up a tree. The mother bear was alarmed and attacked the woman, clawing her arms and neck. The woman wisely fell to the ground and stayed there motionless and after a few minutes of snorting, the mother bear departed, cub in tow. The woman was rescued, her wounds were not life threatening and she was released from the hospital the next day. Meanwhile the state Game and Fish Department had mobilized, tracked down the bear and killed it, thereby orphaning two bear cubs. The woman is now lobbying to change New Mexico state law that currently mandates that any bear that attacks a human must be killed, decapitated and tested for rabies. I admire her immensely and will support her efforts, choosing to work as an advocate in this case.
And back to the rattlesnake roundup. I hope that the folks in Texas can figure this one out, and from what I have read, they are at least exploring options. It may be hard to convince the Sweetwater crowd to shift their emphasis to education and drop the gasoline and slaughter. But, maybe neighboring communities that have gone before and made the shift can help. Maybe some will seek to change state law, as the mauled marathoner is doing. I do believe there is common ground there and that it is possible to continue the tradition in a more humane format. I wish them well.