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Nation & World

Rattlesnake Roundup: A Texas Community Tradition

Travis Gardner moves snakes around inside a pit as he talks to the crowds at the Rattlesnake Roundup in Sweetwater, Texas. The event was held March 13–15. Families have been participating in the community event for generations.
Travis Gardner moves snakes around inside a pit as he talks to the crowds at the Rattlesnake Roundup in Sweetwater, Texas. The event was held March 13–15. Families have been participating in the community event for generations.

Before the coronavirus, there were certain questions local government officials never imagined having to answer. Order every restaurant in town closed? Call off the school year? And in Sweetwater, Texas: cancel the rattlesnake festival?

Every March, what's billed as the World's Largest Rattlesnake Roundup brings an estimated 25,000 visitors to Sweetwater, infusing around $8.3 million into the local economy. For this town of around 10,500 residents, it's a big boost.

Facing a worsening outbreak — one that would lead Gov. Greg Abbott to declare a state of emergency on March 13 — stakeholders, local leaders and members of the community kicked off a series of meetings in early March to decide whether to move forward with the festival. Unaware that social distancing guidelines would be coming from the White House the day after the festival's close, they decided to move forward.

Left: The Jaycees is a nonprofit that runs the roundup. Right: Snakes are killed with a machete and skinned and gutted in front of the crowd and meat is then deep-fried. Bottom: Western diamondback rattlesnakes in one of the holding pits at the roundup.
/ Lizzie Chen for NPR
Left: The Jaycees is a nonprofit that runs the roundup. Right: Snakes are killed with a machete and skinned and gutted in front of the crowd and meat is then deep-fried. Bottom: Western diamondback rattlesnakes in one of the holding pits at the roundup.

"We took as many precautions as we can to limit the exposure as much as we were able to, but for the sake of the community, our history and heritage, we continued, and let's hope and pray for the best outcome," says David Vela, city manager of Sweetwater. "That was the right call for Sweetwater."

The roundup is deeply ingrained in the history and culture of Sweetwater. It dates back to 1958, when the city's farmers and ranchers attempted to eradicate the local western diamondback rattlesnake​ population because the reptiles were biting livestock and pets.

"There is no way that you are going to eradicate the population. We just take a dent out of the population and are trying to control the population," says Rob McCann, a member of the Sweetwater Jaycees, the nonprofit group that hosts the roundup.

From those first attempts 62 years ago, the roundup evolved into a full-fledged festival with a cook-off, gun and knife show, carnival and flea market. On average, 4,000 pounds of snake are rounded up every year, where they are weighed, sexed (meaning they're identified as male or female), milked, killed and skinned.

Top: On average, 4,000 pounds of snake are rounded up every year. Left:<strong> </strong>A chalkboard of the 2020 Rattlesnake Roundup teams. Right: Taxidermied rattlesnakes for sale at a vendor's booth.
/ Lizzie Chen for NPR
Top: On average, 4,000 pounds of snake are rounded up every year. Left:<strong> </strong>A chalkboard of the 2020 Rattlesnake Roundup teams. Right: Taxidermied rattlesnakes for sale at a vendor's booth.

McCann says the festival is about much more than simply drawing big crowds to Sweetwater. The Jaycees direct the proceeds from the event back into the community, using them to host Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, organizing toy drives and funding college scholarships for the residents of Sweetwater.

"A lot of the kids out in west Texas don't have many opportunities, and we want to provide them with those," McCann says.

Not everyone is a fan, however. The event draws criticism from ecologists and animal rights advocates alike, but that's done little to chip away at what is now a cultural and economic pillar in Sweetwater that binds generations of its residents together.

Inspired by Richard Avedon's famous black and white portraits of Sweetwater, I wanted to explore why after 62 years this event has grown even more important for some residents. This series of portraits explores why the tradition remains, how it's fostered between generations and how it's perceived by both residents and visitors.

A crowd gathers to watch a Sweetwater Jaycees demonstration during the 2020 Rattlesnake Roundup.
/ Lizzie Chen for NPR
A crowd gathers to watch a Sweetwater Jaycees demonstration during the 2020 Rattlesnake Roundup.

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Lizzie Chen is a documentary photographer and video producer based in Austin, Texas.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.