Rattlesnake Roundup continues to educate, entertain
by MICHAELA CHAMBLEE//Staff Writer
SWEETWATER – Rattlesnakes are only as dangerous as you make them.
Watching where you step, place your hands when sitting down, and resisting the urge to harass or kill a snake are among the ways you can avoid having any bad encounter you could possibly have with a rattlesnake, according to experts.
Rattlesnakes are native all over America, but mostly in the Southwest. There are 36 known species and more than 65 subspecies. The name ‘Rattlesnake’ was given to the reptile species for their ‘noisemaker,’ also known as the rattle, at the end of the snake’s tail. The rattle is an effective warning sign. A new segment gets added every time the snake sheds its skin.
Rattlesnakes go into hibernation during the colder months, and do not come out until the weather gets above 60 degrees fahrenheit, typically around the month of March.
During the time that the rattlesnake is out of hibernation, it typically moves through the area, sunning itself or looking for a place to hide. Rattlesnakes tend to move around in the area that it considers its ‘home range,’ but they are not territorial.
Rattlesnakes are usually born between August and October, and are about 10 inches long at birth, with a small button on the tip of its tail. Rattler babies have venom, short fangs and are dangerous from birth.
Newborns are unable to make a rattling sound, and the youngsters throw themselves into a defensive pose and strike repeatedly when disturbed.
Rattlesnakes reach sexually maturity at about 3 years of age. Mating usually occurs in the spring after emerging from hibernation, but can also occur in the fall. Females are able to store the semen for months, allowing them to fertilize the ova sometimes six months later.
The female rattler may carry anywhere from four to 25 eggs, with an average of about 10 young born live. A female rattlesnake usually reproduces about every three years.
The Sweetwater Jaycees have held the World’s Largest Rattlesnake Roundup every year during the second weekend of March for the past 58 years in the Nolan County Coliseum at Newman Park in Sweetwater, Texas. The event attracts more than over 25,680 attendees each year, with about 21,314 non-local attendees ranging in age from 30 to 60 years old, and about 4,366 local attendees, ranging from the age of 18 to 50 years old, according to a 2015 event survey.
The Rattlesnake Roundup starts on Thursday night with the Rattlesnake Parade, followed by a carnival featuring rides, food, and games for everyone to enjoy. The Miss Snake Charmer Pageant also is held that same night in the Municipal Auditorium, where the young ladies in the pageant have a chance to show their talent, dress up, and try to charm the judges, just like at any other pageant, except this one is more for the community to enjoy.
On Friday and Saturday, they open the doors to the Nolan County Coliseum, where rattlesnakes can be seen at four different stations: Safety and Handling Demonstration, Milking Pit, Skinning Pit, and Research Pit. You can also participate in a guided hunt early in the morning, and see the rattlesnakes in their natural habitat. But participants are required to have a non-game Texas General Hunting License.
The Safety and Handling Demonstration is represented by David Sager and Dusty Hoskins. They talk about what to do around a rattlesnake, and what to do if you are bitten by a rattlesnake.
“The Safety and Handling Demonstration is mostly for you to know how to safely live in the same area as the rattlesnakes,” said Hoskins. “Most of the time, the rattlesnake won’t want to bite you. It is just as afraid of you as you are of the snake.”
Learning the safety of rattlesnakes and what to do if you come across one, whether they are highly populated in the town or city, such as Sweetwater, is really important.
“I work at the Abilene Regional Medical Center,” said Hoskins. “I see a lot of patients who come in with rattlesnake bites.”
The rattlesnakes are milked in the Milking Pit by Dennis Cumbie and Brad Willis, who demonstrate the process of grabbing the rattlesnake and milking out the venom.
“Milking the rattlesnake is important for medical research,” said Cumbie. “I originally hunted. But one day, the Jaycees were shorthanded and asked me to fill in. I’ve been milking them since.”
The venom from rattlesnakes is sent off to medical labs, where they use it in more than 70 different drugs. The snakes’ venom extracted during the milking is used to create anti-venom. Medical research is showing that venom can be used in medicines to help with strokes and malignant tumors.
Miss Texas can also be found during the Rattlesnake Roundup entering the pits and getting involved with the Sweetwater Jaycees crew and the crowd.
“Miss Texas shows up every year,” said Shannon Sanderford, 2015 Miss Texas. “It is a Miss Texas tradition.”
Sanderford, a 23-year old graduate of The University of Oklahoma with a degree in journalism, learned how to a hold the rattlesnake with the help of Cumbie. She even posed for the audience to take pictures of her and Cumbie holding the rattlesnake.
Just on the other side of the Milking Pit is the Skinning Pit, where you can watch Jaycees volunteers skin snakes, and roll up the snake skins. They also have a section where you can gut and skin your own rattlesnake, and put your snake’s blood on the wall behind the pit with your hand print. They use the skin to make different unique items, such as souvenirs, pens, snake heads, and even just the skin dried up and flattened.
At the end of the Coliseum is the research pit, where they measure the length and weight of the rattlesnakes. The Sweetwater Jaycees harvested 24,262 pounds of rattlesnakes for 2016, which broke the 34-year record with 17,986 pounds set in 1982.
The McIntyre team had the most pounds of rattlesnakes at 3,428 pounds, and Eric Timaeus had the longest rattlesnake at 75-1/2, just under the record of 81-1/2.
The Rattlesnake Roundup ends on Sunday with a snake eating contest, beard contest, longest snake, and the person with the most pounds of snakes. Rattlesnake Roundup has visitors from all over the country, as well as the surrounding areas of Sweetwater.
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