The Rattlesnake and the Coronavirus

Nolan County Coliseum Saturday morning during the World’s Largest Rattlesnake Roundup in Sweetwater, Texas. The event was held as other large festivals, including Austin’s blockbuster SXSW, were cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (photo by Aaron Hedge)

Austin’s South by Southwest (SXSW) has nothing on Sweetwater’s World’s Largest Rattlesnake Roundup. In the all-consuming coronavirus catastrophe, Texas’s capital city for the first time cancelled the annual music, tech, and film festival after vendors, acts, and participants — from Ozzy Osbourne to Apple — pulled out over concerns about the disease.

The nixing became an alarming metric of COVID-19s gravity, even before the globe’s finances plunged at their fullest dive. Though I have never attended SXSW and wasn’t planning to this year, the crisis became tangible for me with the announcement. People had been getting sick — and dying — but now a major city was doing something about it. The virus was rippling out into the economy and into politics. Nothing will go untouched by this pathogen.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler later went on Meet the Press to talk about how prescient the move was given the way the world looked in the ensuing week.

“That was worth about $350 million in income to people in my region,” Adler lamented to MTP host Chuck Todd, but made the point it was in the best interest of the community’s health.

Indeed, much is being canceled. After fumbling early responses, governments around the world have cracked down in authoritarian ways on their populations to quell the global disaster, orchestrating unprecedented mobilizations of health-care personnel and harsh quarantines. The United States, later than most to the game, has also stepped up efforts with many states and local governments declaring official disasters and emergencies and discouraging large events. Pearl Jam postponed a tour. Facebook cancelled its Global Marketing Summit. My Master Naturalist classes have been postponed. My employer is having us work from home for the next two weeks. My daughter’s school is canceled for at least six.

But none of this stopped the City of Sweetwater from holding its largest gathering, which revolves around the mass culling of venomous serpents.

To be clear, SXSW and the roundup are incomparable in many respects. Annually, SXSW represents nine figures to the roundup’s seven; the fairs seem to attract vastly different demographics; one is a heady and diverse mixture of fora that speaks to where the world might be headed, while the other represents a rural nostalgia for where the world has been. And Austin’s gathering of hundreds of thousands of people from around the world during a pandemic is sure to be more dangerous than a gathering of tens of thousands from around the world in small West Texas outpost.

But here’s what they have in common: each represents an outsize capital injection to its local community’s economy, one that is not lightly gotten rid of.

It was not until after a raft of prominent celebrities, politicians, and corporations announced they would not attend SXSW that the City of Austin reluctantly chose to pull the plug. By comparison, the Jaycees fought a pitched, years-long battle with Texas Parks & Wildlife over its proposal to impose a controversial regulation on their snake harvest method. They clung for dear life and won out after the agency effectively axed the proposal in 2016. The Nolan County Chamber of Commerce commissioned an economic impact study of the 2015 roundup that said the event brought more than $8 million to the town, which has a population of about 10,000 (down from 12,000 several decades ago). Sweetwater has staked its future to the roundup and was not about to cancel because of a bug.

Severed snake heads curing in the skinning pit. (photo by Aaron Hedge)

I’ve been investigating rattlesnake roundups and adjacent trades for more than a month and felt obligated, if I wanted that research to flower, to attend some of the events. But when the severity of the coronavirus pandemic became clear, I began to wonder whether Sweetwater’s annual festival — a decadent Southern affair at which thousands of snakes are corporally taunted, slaughtered, and chopped into pieces for processing to the marketplace — was going to happen this year. I must not have been alone. Midweek, I opened the Jaycee website, whose calendar bore the banner:

“Yes. We are still having the World’s Largest Rattlesnake Roundup March 13, 14, 15 2020.”

On Thursday, the Jaycee Facebook page elaborated:

“We will still have the 62nd Annual World’s Largest Rattlesnake Roundup this weekend. The Sweetwater Jaycees urge everyone to use proper hand hygiene. Don’t touch your face or eyes without washing your hands. We will have hygeine stations readily available inside the Coliseum. If anyone has concerns, don’t feel well or has a compromised immune system please don’t travel unless you feel comfortable. Our Roundup will be here next year..always the 2nd weekend in March and we will see you then. Please be safe. God Bless Texas and the United States of America.”

Someone replied: “Thank you for advising personal responsibility and continuing to have your event!”

At 9:05 p.m., the account shared a newspaper story about the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in nearby Abilene, zero.

At 9:15, it shared a blog post pointing out that COVID-19’s 2-percent death-rate figure often cited by public figures is likely flawed because not all cases are accounted for.

The Jaycee’s spokesman Rob McCann said on the front page of the Abilene Reporter-News the event was not canceled, but don’t come if it makes you queasy.

“Guess what,” McCann said. “ We’ll be here the second weekend in March next year and we’d be glad to have you then, too.”

This stance wasn’t an outright surprise. Sweetwater and rattlesnake roundups in general are fertile ground for skepticism of larger government efforts to tell people they shouldn’t do something. Some residents, proprietors, and attendees are equally abrasive toward the media, which had been blaring consistently sobering headlines and chyrons about COVID-19.

“Coronavirus,” one Jaycee told me during the roundup, “my personal opinion is, it is bad, but the media’s scaring a little bit more.”

If anything, he said, the wetter-than-normal spring weather would affect the snake count and the turnout more than the disease. As I interviewed him, a light drizzle came down outside the Nolan County Coliseum.

From the time I decided to attend the event, I wrestled with the ethics of it, obligation to my reporting or no. My 7-year-old daughter would be in town on spring break, and she would have to come with me. I wasn’t certain I wanted Harper to see snakes beheaded for entertainment and then eviscerated by spectators who’d then use the blood as finger paint on an arresting plasterboard display. I chatted these concerns over with her mother, and we decided she could go if I properly explained the tension between humans and wildlife, making it clear that cruelty is out-of-bounds.

Spectators, including children my daughter’s age, paid a fee to skin and gut a snake. As part of a longstanding ritual, they planted their bloody handprints on a plasterboard display and signed their names. (photo by Aaron Hedge)

The minute-by-minute crush of coronavirus news stories, government announcements, listicles of tips, map-based outbreak visualizations, diagnostic how-tos, “epicenter” dispatches, case counts, death counts, quarantines, and war analogies compounded this internal battle for me. Harper lives in Tacoma, Washington, in a state where more than 40 people have died from the virus. A liquor distiller there is making sanitizer and giving it to the community. The blood supply is dangerously low. Washington Governor Jay Inslee temporarily shut down restaurants and bars. This complicated my ethical calculus — was it okay for me to add yet another person to the event who could spread the virus?

I picked Harper up from Love Field Friday evening, still unsure whether to go.

We drove west, got to our Airbnb at midnight.

We woke at 5:30 and headed to the coliseum. There wasn’t a big line, but it was early.

A guy with a handlebar moustache retrieved our parking fee.

We walked in the cold, in wet caliche dust, toward the venue, a low-slung Quonset hut designed for rodeos.

A gun, knife, and coin show and peripheral vendors beckoned from outbuildings.

We each got a press pass and wandered around, asking questions.

As I chatted with a representative from the Chamber, Harper came to me with a horrified announcement, Dad, they’re killing snakes down there! She pointed toward the skinning pit.

A woman who identified as the wife of a Jaycee took Harper under her wing, showing her around, explaining the dangers of snake venom, while I interviewed Jaycees.

Were they shaking hands? I asked one Jaycee. “Absolutely,” he said, grabbing mine in a steel grip — why would that be worse than handling rattler guts?

We did some rounds at the vendor booths.

Randall Briggs, the state’s most prolific snake buyer, half-jokingly hoped for a take of 10,000 serpents, despite the weather but was dubious he would get it. (The average total take is between 2,000 and 4,000 pounds for the entire event, and the average snake weighs around 2 or 3 pounds — you do the math.)

An Abilene woman sold keychains hung with beetle-, scorpion-, and seahorse-pendants — all handmade from captive colonies, she said. She told me she was worried about the season. This event had made it, but the following weekend’s festival in a different town had been canceled because of the pandemic.

A significant portion of vendors were selling the President’s campaign kitsch — “IMPEACH THIS!” hats and wall prints of the Donald’s head depicted on a bodybuilder’s physique, combat rifle at the ready, prepared to own the libs. I didn’t see any merchandise for Democrat candidates.

Several vendors carried Trump 2020 campaign merchandise. (photo by Aaron Hedge)

We wore out my questions early, about 11 a.m., and left. We got Subway sandwiches and did a barefoot hike through crimson soil in a streambed at our Airbnb, a ranch several miles outside Merkel, near Abilene. Harper made “mud-slimes.”

Sunday morning, we decided not to go back to the roundup. The weather was too clammy for the bus tour we had planned anyway. We washed our hands and visited my friend Bettye, a local writer who despite her nearly eight decades of life still runs a few head of cattle on a small ranch east of town. Bettye had insisted on me snapping a picture of her with Harper and giving the kid a children’s book Bettye had penned along with a personal letter.

I was terrified Harper would give COVID-19 to Bettye, who recently bested a serious illness. But even if Bettye gets it, I’ll neither know whether it came from us nor where we came down with it.

I like to write about human-wildlife relationships, mostly.

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