Rattlesnake roundup is Groundhog Day, Texas style

Animal-rights activists may be appalled, but snake-sackingcompetitions, to many Texans, are an affirmation of their regionalidentity.

For the most part, Taylor, Texas, is a quiet town. Here in the Texas Hill Country, the rhythms of daily life are steady and uncomplicated, only interrupted by the occasional tornado and the fall high school football season - events of the same intensity.

But for one weekend every March, Taylor turns into the Lone Star State writ small. March 6 and 7, every species of Texan - from cub scouts to cotton farmers, Austin technophiles to University of Texas sorority women - arrived in this modest town 40 miles northeast of Austin to watch a peculiar rite: the rattlesnake roundup.

Think of it as Groundhog Day, Texas style. Part rodeo, part festival, and part anathema to herpetologists and animal-rights activists, the 27th annual National Rattlesnake Sacking Competition is a part of state lore, a local Olympics for those from Laredo, Lufkin, and almost everywhere in between.

Indeed, the event taps into something deeper than the whooping and hollering that comes when people of all shapes and sizes stuff snakes into a brown burlap bag. As the economic and social forces of today's global society increasingly erode regional quirks and traditions, the roundup is something distinctly different - and unabashedly Texan.

For two days, the Taylor city park becomes something of a state fairground. Some visitors come to take their white-knuckle turn on rickety-looking rides with names like "Zipper" and "Thunderbolt." Others browse for knickknacks, such as the genuine raccoon-claw back scratcher or the no-trespassing sign that reads: "Violators will be shot - Survivors will be shot again." But most of all, they come for the snakes.

The process of watching a human being climb into a 30-foot-by-30-foot Plexiglas pit teeming with Western diamondback rattlers can be entertaining in one of two ways. First, the roundup certainly takes a fair bit of skill and derring-do. Competitors are armed only with their hands and - if they choose - a golf-club-length metal snake-pinning hook. The person to successfully bag 10 diamondbacks the quickest is the winner.

On another level, however, agility and mental fortitude may not be necessarily what the fans are pining for. Rick Luddeke, a member of the Waco-based Heart of Texas Rattlesnake Handlers, takes a more cynical view of why some fans show up. "Just like people watch NASCAR for the wrecks and hockey for the fights, they want to see some 'envenomation' " - a clinical way of describing an encounter with rattler fangs.

Getting bit pretty much seems to come with the territory once a person has adopted playing with snakes as a chosen vocation. Of the nine semiprofessional snake handlers on hand for the show, seven can cite an unhappy encounter - though the bites are seldom fatal.

So why do it?

"Aw, man, once you step out into that snake pit, and the crowd's cheering for you, and you're heart's beating so fast it feels like it's up in your throat, there's nothing like it." Mr. Luddeke says.

Rattlesnake festivals like Taylor's were common in Texas at the turn of the century, when the serpents were seen as a threat to cattle and horses. Modern times have witnessed a roundup revival in a half-dozen Texas towns as a tourist draw. Taylor, however, eschews the "roundup" moniker because "a roundup means that you kill all your snakes," says Ronnie Michner, president of the Taylor Jaycees, which puts on the show.

Taylor purchases the roughly 2,000 snakes it uses each year from a rattlesnake broker, and then sells them back after the sacking championship, Mr. Michner explains. From there, the rattlers are presumably sold again to other roundups or beltmakers.

CRITICS charge that the roundups amount to little more than inhumane treatment of the snakes. For his part, Travis Laduc, a researcher studying rattlesnake physiology at the University of Texas at Austin, says it is not known whether the roundups significantly impact the diamondback population here.

None of that seemed to be a concern at the recent Taylor sacking championship, open to anyone signing a liability waiver. Actually, some of the people here seemed to be almost rooting for the reptiles.

First-time sacker Lance Sorenson had to be taken away in an ambulance after receiving a bite while posting an impressive time of 75.48 seconds.

Watching this, Joe Jasso of nearby Georgetown, Texas, was happy which side of the Plexiglas he was on. "These guys are trying to catch rattlesnakes," Mr. Jasso said with incredulity. "You're not supposed to do that. When you see a rattlesnake, you're supposed to run away!"

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