Time to rethink rodeo

Published 12:04 am Saturday, January 29, 2011

The City of Opp’s Rattlesnake Rodeo Web site cautions, “The advice given is to avoid contact with rattlesnakes by remaining observant and not approaching the animals.” Good advice. Why then has the city offered a new bounty on rattlesnakes? Has it purchased sufficient liability insurance to cover the potential death and injury that could result? Did the city attorney warn against using public funds to encourage inexperienced people to seek out and capture deadly snakes? For the sake of the youngsters, I urge those responsible to change this ill-advised policy. If that’s not reason enough, think how damages from a single lawsuit could bankrupt the city!

While I’m talking change, many people feel it’s time to reconsider the Rodeo’s outdated, controversial, and exploitative “conservation” philosophy. Whether you appreciate rattlesnakes or not, what kind of message is it sending our children when they attend an event where a declining species of native wildlife is rounded up, often mistreated, and then slaughtered for no reason other than it’s a snake? Other towns that once had rattlesnake roundups have wisely evolved into differently-themed events. At the San Antonio Florida Rattlesnake Festival, education presentations feature snakes that are not abused or harassed, the crowd is entertained and children go home with a new appreciation and respect for wildlife. That event draws 30,000 visitors and raises thousands of dollars for local nonprofits.

This is a great time for a much-needed change to the Rattlesnake Rodeo. By being less exploitative to wildlife and more educational, it can be an even greater asset to our community. It doesn’t need to change its name, as a “roundup” would. It’s becoming less and less about the snakes, anyway. You don’t need 100 wild-caught snakes to have a beauty queen, car race, or concert. Why not keep a few snakes in captivity to put on display each year? Or to take it a step further, a friend who is a renowned authority on the eastern diamondback rattlesnake has suggested that to retain the “snake hunt” heritage, the Rodeo could establish a captive population, such as a secure snake pit, in which “hunters” could enter while spectators watch, and collect the snakes. A one acre pit landscaped with natural vegetation would still make this challenging. This would provide a new entertainment value (patrons of the event would actually get to see snakes being captured rather than just unloaded from boxes in the back of pickup trucks) and there would be no impact on wild populations of rattlesnakes, gopher tortoises, and other burrow inhabitants. The Miami Serpentarium has such an exhibit.

Full disclosure: I’m a wildlife biologist, active in Alabama’s conservation community for nearly 30 years. I appreciate and respect diamondbacks, and I co-exist with a few on my property in south Covington County. I understand why some might not share my enthusiasm, but if the Rodeo ever morphs into a rattlesnake festival that teaches the value of wildlife and instructs the public about nature, including how to avoid snakebite and what to do if it happens, many of my colleagues would gladly offer our services to help in making a festival atmosphere successful. I wish the Opp Rattlesnake Rodeo a long and successful future, but only if it changes with the times.

Mark Bailey