SWEETWATER, Texas – Ellen Mastel counted aloud, holding her slithering specimen with a wrangler’s confidence. Mastel’s curiosity was focused on the rattler’s rings and whether each ring constituted a year of life.
“One, two, three, four, five, six. He’s only six,” Mastel said.
“No, he’s older than that,” said Dennis Cumbie, who held most of the snake, with a hand on its most menacing body part – its head. A wall roughly chest-high separated Cumbie from Mastel, and with Cumbie positioned front and center in what was called the milking pit -- the location where volunteers such as like Cumbie, milk rattlesnakes to remove their venom. Although he's a volunteer, Cumbie knows quite a bit about rattlesnakes. He’s one of 200 members of the Sweetwater Junior Chamber, otherwise known as the Jaycees. Every second weekend of March, thousands of the curious, such as Ellen Mastel, come to the city of Sweetwater to brave a mainstay of the Texas big country: the western diamondback rattlesnake.
It’s the Rattlesnake Roundup. 2019 marked the event’s 61st year.
“We’re right in the middle of their habitat,” said Rob McCann. McCann is public relations director for the Rattlesnake Roundup: an annual festival that attracts thousands to Nolan County for a chance to see, touch, eat, and hunt the native serpent.
“They’re beautiful reptiles,” McCann said. “They’re part of west Texas just like armadillos are part of Texas. This is just kind of a Texas icon right here.”
McCann is right. Rattlesnakes, especially the western diamondback, are a dime a dozen in these parts. In fact, the Roundup got its start as a way to get an abundance of snakes out of Sweetwater – seemingly a tall task.
“Some farmers and ranchers of Nolan County got together because there were too many rattlesnakes in and around the city. The police department here was spending too much time on nuisance calls, getting rattlesnakes that were actually in the city limits. So, a group of farmers and ranchers got together and rounded up a whole bunch of rattlesnakes,” McCann said.
Over its 61 years, the Rattlesnake Roundup grew. Area farmers and ranchers begin to round up the snakes six weeks before the festival. During Roundup weekend, Jaycees dump rattlesnakes into a pit at the Nolan County Coliseum. From there, pit masters, including Keith Willmann, check to see if any snakes died during the roundup process and if so, remove them from the pit. Most are alive and ready to strike. People put duct tape around the bottom of their pants, closing up any opportunity for a snake to slither up a pant leg.
Organizers said that, once caught, the entire snake, from head to rattle, it put to use.
“We skin them and the skins are sold, their heads are sold and we sell the meat to eat,” McCann said. Even the venom is sold. It’s extracted in the milking pit and sold to make anti-venom, among other products, according to Roundup organizers.
The Rattlesnake Roundup averages roughly 6,000 pounds of rattlesnake each year. Organizers said that number doesn’t come close to putting a dent in the area’s rattlesnake population.
“We haven’t hurt the population in any way so, 61 years later, we’re still having a Rattlesnake Roundup,” McCann said.
The Roundup Festival caps a weekend of activities in Sweetwater, which is located roughly 40 miles west of Abilene. A parade kicks off the Roundup, with also features the Miss Snake Charmer Pageant, now in its 60th year.
Don’t call it a beauty pageant.
“These girls work hard. Not only do they do all the talent, all the interviews, they got to hold and be close to these reptiles, as well,” McCann said.
The Jaycees also raise thousands of dollars in scholarship money for the pageant.
“It’s a very important event to our economy, to our organization, especially,” McCann said, pointing to a 2015 Economic Impact Study the Sweetwater Chamber of Commerce commissioned from a third-party research group. The study found the total economic impact of the Rattlesnake Roundup on the city was about $8.4 million.
In Sweetwater, the Rattlesnake Roundup is part of the culture. Still, critics say the way snakes are extracted from their habitat is cruel. While warm days lead to more snakes soaking in the sunlight, cooler ones mean they’re not within reach. Wranglers for the Roundup pump gas into the entrances of the caverns and holes. The odor sends snakes on the move and they come out of their holes for oxygen, allowing for an easier extraction.
It’s a practice long panned by critics.
As recently as 2016, Texas Parks and Wildlife issued a report on the negative side effects of using gas to flush snakes from their homes. Later that year, the agency tabled the issue due to a lack of support from both the community and the Legislature on moving forward with regulations.
“TPWD staff still believe that there are better options for collecting snakes that do not adversely impact non-target species, and we will continue to develop and implement best practices that reduce potential impacts to these species,” the Texas Parks and Wildlife wrote on the matter.
The Jaycees said criticism of the event is unfair, highlighting precautions the organization takes to protect the natural habitat.
“It’s all by the book, by the law,” said Rob McCann. “We’re required to have a hunting license in the State of Texas and a non-game permit to hunt snakes.”
The Jaycees point to the years of service from its volunteers, as well as the participation among residents and visitors every year, as proof of the care they put into their work. Many of the volunteers began as children, learning to corral a local mainstay.
“I started hunting snakes and stuff when I was about 13 years old,” said Willmann, from the snake pit.
“My first job was to hold the bag open for them to put the snakes in, carry the gasser up, stuff like that."