SWEETWATER, Texas (Reuters) - When Chris Soles says he works in a snake pit, he’s not kidding.
The lanky Texan stands among hundreds of slithering rattlesnakes and prods them with special tongs that allow him to snatch the reptiles at arm’s length.
“I’m sorting out the dead snakes,” said Soles, wearing protective pants as he occasionally picks up a lifeless rattler from the bundle and throws it into a bucket outside the pit.
The snakes are caught during the annual rattlesnake roundup in Sweetwater, Texas, which this town 200 miles west of Dallas bills as the biggest in the world.
The three-day event, which ends on Sunday, includes a rattlesnake-eating contest.
The roundup rattles ecologists but locals see it as a boon for drawing up to 30,000 visitors. Farmers say it helps control a pest that occasionally maims or kills livestock.
Nothing is wasted, the organizers say, with the skins made into belts, the meat sold as a delicacy and the venom “milked” for sale to pharmaceutical companies.
But scientists raise ecological and ethical concerns.
“There’s no glory in rattlesnake hunting,” said Lee Fitzgerald, an associate professor and curator of amphibians and reptiles at Texas A&M University.
Hunters scour the arid landscape for snake dens, into which they pump gas fumes to drive them out. Then they snatch them with the tongs.
Hunters say the fumes have minimal ecological impact but many scientists disagree.
“It’s an unethical way to hunt and it harms other animals such as scorpions and rodents,” said Fitzgerald.
The specific species targeted around Sweetwater is the western diamondback rattlesnake.
Data provided by the organizers shows the amount harvested each year, as measured in pounds, has fluctuated wildly, sometimes in response to the price of snake meat.
Last year, the roundup yielded more than 13,000 pounds (5,910 kg) of meat, probably representing about 7,000 snakes. The record set in 1982 was almost 18,000 pounds (8,180 kg).
Both totals far exceed those of early roundups almost five decades ago, suggesting the hunt may be sustainable but that the long-term consequences are unknown.
The dim view of snake roundups from the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists was spelled out clearly in a position paper last year.
“The biological ramifications of decades of rattlesnake roundups are difficult to assess, but they have great potential to affect snake populations negatively, and it is difficult to predict when rattlesnake harvests will push local populations beyond the point of recovery,” it said.
The society also raised ethical issues.
“Snakes are handled roughly and are decapitated and butchered in large numbers in front of an audience, including small children, as entertainment. It is hard to imagine subjecting any other vertebrate animal to such thoughtless and inhumane treatment.”
The roundup is vintage Texas, from its claim to being the biggest of its kind to its unabashed celebration of the hunt.
In Sweetwater, ecological or moral objections are brushed aside as overblown or just plain crazy.
“We don’t hardly put a dent into the population,” said one cowboy as he prepared to tuck into some freshly fried snake. “More are killed on the road every year.”