They mean this in only the nicest way, but few topics set me off like the rattlesnake roundups. At this point in the conversation I take a deep breath and kindly explain that the roundups are brutal, savage, events in which thousands of rattlers are yanked out of burrows - many flushed out of burrows with gasoline, which kills all kinds of other small wildlife and pollutes the ground - then handled roughly and frequently injured as they're dumped into huge heaps, tossed around in bagging contests, and then in the end get their heads chopped off.
Some Southwestern roundups might not have much of an impact on the western diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox) populations they target (can't say that about all the gasoline dumped in burrows), but then they might - hard to say - but in other parts of the country they can be devastating. In the Southeast, eastern diamondbacks (Crotalus adamanteus) are hurting enough without being slaughtered in organized events, and it's worth noting that Georgia has extremely restrictive reptile collection laws, pretty much EXCEPT when it comes to those rattlers slaughtered in those roundups.
In Pennsylvania the roundups are on the way out. Timber rattlers (Crotalus horridus) are slow breeders and are in an un-ignorable decline statewide. State regulations have gradually made it impossible to collect lots of rattlers for roundups, and I'm glad to see our roundups end.
Needless to say I get angry every year at the newspaper articles cheerfully reporting on rattlesnake roundups as some kind of quirky Americana, ignoring the cruelty and environmental destructiveness of the events. I write letters to the editor every year, and every year they are ignored.
Last week my herping buddy Simon sent out a link to an annoying NY Times article profiling one roundup participant, a supposedly more-respectable hunter who doesn't use gasoline. Of course that pissed me off all over again, and I wrote this letter to the editor:
I am tired of reading articles romanticizing the Sweetwater rattlesnake roundup. Eric Timaeus, profiled in Michael Brick's "Pushing the Limit," might not use gasoline, but he's still rounding up beautiful creatures for slaughter, and focusing on him puts a more-respectable gloss over a group of hunters with little regard for their impact on the environment.
I really wish you'd do a piece on the other, much more numerous group of people who seek snakes without killing them, those of us who find them, take notes and photos, and then let them go to live another day. We take our impact on the environment seriously and many of us collaborate with conservation efforts. This practice doesn't carry the greatest name - Herping - but if you want to learn more, check out http://www.fieldherpforum.com or my blog at http://phillyherping.blogspot.
I was pretty proud of myself for avoiding profanity and an attack on the honor of the reporter's female relatives, and what-do-you-know, they ran the letter!
Of course they edited it down, and it might not be included in all the editions, but I guess this shows why we should speak up when an article presents environmental destruction and basic savagery as something cute and folksy - if we do it in a calm, constructive way, someone might actually pay attention.