Saturday, August 11, 2012

Missouri State Fair---Discovery Room

Each year in August the Missouri State Fair runs for 10 days. It is a huge festival-like atmosphere complete with pig races, funnel cakes, corn dogs and musical entertainment. The Missouri Department of Conservation has a building on the fairgrounds that is used to educate the visiting public about various aspects of nature. There are huge fish tanks with numerous native fish swimming in them. There are a variety of native snakes and frogs on display and then there is the discovery room that allows hands-on activities for families.....with a focus on children. There are also daily live demonstrations that might include fishing cleaning and cooking, bald eagles, outdoor native gardening, etc . MDC employees and volunteers staff both areas of this facility and speak with thousands of guests over the 10 day event.

As a naturalist I was given the task of educating our guests about some of Missouri snakes. With a speckled kingsnake (borrowed from the Chillicothe, MO office) and a red milksnake as my constant companions many people were drawn to my table to see these amazing animals up close. Most wanted the opportunity to touch a snake, many for the first time. The laughter and squeals of delight were music to my ears. I love such excitement over an animal that is often feared or loathed. I must say the majority of our guests had nothing but good things to say about our snakes. We had a few people who refused to come near the snake, or that uttered under their breath "the only good snake is a dead snake" or "I kill everyone I see". I chose to ignore those offensive comments and chalk them up to ignorance and the poor teachings of their upbringing.

I received many questions about Missouri snakes and they ranged from......

"What kind of snake is that?" (I think I answered this question no less than 1,000 times)
"Is it poisonous?" (I had to respond to this one hundreds of time with "No this snake is not venomous.")
"Do they bite?" (My response: "Anything with teeth can bite, but this snake will only bite if we threaten it or hurt it.")
"Can I hold it?"("No, but you can touch it")
"Can't you tell how old a rattlesnake is by counting the rattles?" (No this is not an accurate way to age a rattlesnake, as rattlesnakes generate a new rattle each time they shed and they may shed up to 3 or 4 times a year depending on how much they are eating.)
"Is it legal to kill snakes in Missouri?" ( No it isn't, we do not have a snake hunting season and all snakes are protected, whether they are venomous or non-venomous)

I also heard many stories, and I must say this is my favorite:

A woman told me that if you cut a rattlesnake in half and bury one half in the front yard, and the other half in the back yard the snake will grow back together and leave." I had heard this myth before and it has persisted for well over a 100 years. I explained that it was physically impossible for a snake to regrow half its body once it had been severed. She was persistent that it did indeed happen to her mother. After her mother killed a snake by chopping it in half with a shovel, they buried half in the front yard and half in the back yard. The next day the holes were empty. I explained to her that if that were the case then predators are probably to blame. Coyotes, foxes, raccoons and even neighborhood dogs would absolutely dig up a freshly killed rattlesnake and consume it. She did not seem convinced and I believe she left my table thinking I was a lunatic for not believing her completely rational story. 

Another story:

A woman came to my table with 4 or 5 young boys and told me that when you kill a rattlesnake it is important to place the head in a jar. This protects you from the snake who can still kill you. I know what she was trying to say....that even after death the rattlesnake can and will deliver a venomous bite if handled incorrectly.  I told her the best thing to do is to leave the rattlesnake alone and then no one will get bitten.

Another Story:

This story I heard from 2 different men, at two separate times on Friday. They both described a large snake resembling a black snake, but it had a pattern. They said the snakes were well over 6 or 7 feet long and as big around as a mans forearm. They explained that the snakes were after their fowl. The first man claims the snake was in his hen house and was wrapped around an adult chicken trying to kill it. He wanted to know what it was. I said it sounds like a black snake, but black snakes won't kill something that they cannot eat, and a black snake cannot eat a full size adult chicken. He insisted it wasn't a black snake, and he killed it and threw it in a ditch. At this point I didn't know what to say so I responded...."well if you are sure it isn't a black snake then perhaps it was someones escaped pet like a large boa or python. If they are large enough, they can certainly eat an adult chicken." He seemed happy with that answer and left. Two hours or so later another man described the same type of snake and it was after his guineas. He was from a completely different county than the first man. He said he pulled a baby guinea out the snakes mouth and saved it. He captured the snake, and had his wife take a picture of him holding it. He explained that the snake had a pattern and didn't look anything like a black snake. He claimed he found two dead adult guineas and he was blaming the snake for their death.  I asked him if he could email me a picture, and he said I have the camera with me and I can show you! I looked at the pictures and it was clearly a black snake with a pattern. I explained that some black snakes, for unknown reasons will retain their juvenile pattern into adulthood. I showed him a picture of a juvenile black rat snake and the pattern that it has, and he said "THAT'S IT!" This snake was indeed huge, well over 6 feet in length. I asked him if he had actually seen the snake kill his adult guineas, and he said no that he did not. I explained that most likely what had happened was that the snake was attracted to the food and water available in the area where he keeps the guineas, and that while the snake was attempting to eat the young, smaller guinea it would be physically impossible for it to eat an adult, so my suspicion was that the older guineas succumbed to heat exhaustion. He seemed somewhat satisfied with that answer. I asked him what he did with the snake and he said he did not kill the snake, but instead relocated it further away from his home. I found it extremely strange and ironic that not one, but two individuals had the same story to tell. I still say the first mans snake was a large black snake that had retained its pattern...and unfortunately for that snake it did not survive the mans ire.

These questions and stories just reinforce in me the need for education when it comes to snakes. Many of us grew up on the fears,  myths and old wives tales handed down to us by our parents and grandparents as well as other well meaning adults. These myths and tales often do more harm than good. We learn to fear animals that deserve our respect. We kill out of fear or misunderstanding, or sometimes out of hate alone. Our next generation will hopefully come to realize through education and hands-on moments like these; the importance of these animals and learn to understand that the tales told to them by their adult counterparts, may be just that ....tales.

My two days at the fair were long, fun-filled days. I was able to share with our guests some of my favorite animals and teach them a little about their diversity and importance to the ecology of the lands around us. As well as why it is vastly important that we exercise tolerance and acceptance when it comes to these animals, we truly do not have to like something in order to recognize that it is wrong to destroy it. Kudos to all the kids (an adults) that ventured over to my table and touched a snake or allowed their children to do so even if they couldn't bring themselves to do so. Fascination is often the first step towards conservation. 

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Let's Bring A Stop to Rattlesnake Roundups

Rattlesnake Round-ups have received a lot of publicity as of late, most of it in a negative light. There is reason for this; as we have learned that the practice of rounding up rattlesnakes and killing them in the name of protecting the general public is an outdated practice at best and cruel at its worst. There is no documentation that supports the need to carry out a practice of killing rattlesnakes in large numbers to protect an unsuspecting population is necessary. Most rattlesnakes are removed from areas where few if any humans live, therefore confrontation between humans and rattlesnakes are at a minimum. Yet the individuals who participate in this outdated practice will defend their right to do so and use false information to justify it.

Rattlesnake roundups began in Okeene,Oklahoma as early as 1939 and are still carried on as a tradition in this town. Rattlesnake round-ups spread like wildfire through many of the southern states as well as a few eastern states, including Texas, New Mexico, Kansas, Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Pennsylvania. Rattlesnake roundups were originally started as a way to control what was considered an over population of a potentially deadly animal. Settlers feared for their families, and their livestock. Many individuals would regularly capture, kill and bury rattlesnakes in mass graves that often contained 1,000's of snakes. Some areas even encouraged shoot-outs among marksmen where they would test their skills with a gun by shooting rattlesnakes. They competed for prize money and many 1'000's of snakes were killed in this manner. The last known town to participate in this practice was Clairemont, Texas. Fortunately this practice has ceased with the last competition being held in 1989. Now if we can just convince the remaining rattlesnake round-ups to cease their practices of torturing, maiming and killing rattlesnakes in the name of sport.

So what exactly goes on at a rattlesnake round-up?

 The few remaining round-ups are held once a year and these festivals are often sponsored by groups such as the Jaycee's or Optimist Clubs of the town. Over the years the proceeds of these roundups have been used to fund various charities. This in and of itself is a commendable, but what many fail to realize is the atrocities that take place at these events. Rattlesnakes are often gathered months in advance of the festival, and are kept without food or adequate water. Many are kept in small containers and never allowed out of their captive situation until the day of the festival. Those that survive this treatment will be put on display at the roundup. They are thrown into a large pit, piled on top of each other and then kicked around by round-uppers.

Then once at the festival, the real horror begins. At a few of the roundups the snakes are frozen for up to two hours in order to slow their reflexes to make them easier to handle. Then they have their fangs pulled out with pliers and their mouths sewn shut. It is these snakes that are passed around for photo opportunities with the public. Want your picture taken with a "deadly rattlesnake?" This is your chance. Does it make you feel brave or daring to hold something this lethal in your arms and have your picture taken with it? This sewn up tortured version of a rattlesnake is nothing but a shell of its former glory. These snakes are near death from stress and you still feel brave?

Check out this video footage of what REALLY happens to these snakes All Sewn UP

 Eventually the snake WILL die from his treatment and then his humiliation is far from over as he will now be transferred to the killing floor and have his head chopped off with a dull machete and passed around for the audience to witness how their nervous system still allows the snake to flick its tongue in and out. They will also cut its heart out and show the audience how it will continue to beat even after death. Why is this necessary? What twisted enjoyment does a person get from this practice? Many roundups even allow audience members to decapitate and skin their own snake, and once you've shown your courage in committing such a feat you are then encouraged to soak your hand in the blood of the snake and leave your bloody palm print on the wall for all to witness.

The practice of removing these snakes from the wild is highly questionable, as many will use gasoline to pour down rodent burrows to encourage the snake to leave the burrow. What round uppers fail to consider is the wildlife that is often sharing that same burrow with the snake. Animals such as the endangered gopher tortoise as well as other turtles are not as quick to respond and leave the now suffocating burrow and will perish in the fumes within the burrow. Many other animals, such as various toads will also die from asphyxiation within the burrows when they are overcome with fumes. This practice is illegal but never enforced. Many other snakes are captured as they come out of hibernation. Round uppers locate hibernation sites and monitor those sites and when early spring returns they descend on those locations like vultures at an all-you-can eat roadkill buffet. As the snakes move closer to the entrance of these hibernaculums they will capture vast amounts of snakes and place them in bags, or other containers.  Some are transported to people who purchase the snakes for meat and they are paid so much per pound. The majority however are destined to end up at the roundups still alive.

These round-ups have been going on for over 60 years and each year 1,000's of snakes are removed from the wild. And each year the snakes are becoming harder and harder to locate, this should tell us that the snakes population is falling. In some areas the number of snakes have fallen so dramatically that they are considered extirpated from those areas. Most round-uppers now travel over large areas to try and locate snakes to supply the round-ups and many will cross state lines and bring snakes in from other states where it is illegal to capture, or harm these snakes. Often rattlesnake round-ups award prize money to the largest snake brought into the event. So there is good reason to seek out large snakes, and if those snakes can no longer be found within their own area, they will take them from other areas, legally or illegally, it seems to make no difference.

 While I am able to understand that the small towns that host these round-ups depend on the revenue that they bring in. I also understand that charities benefit from the proceeds donated to them from the round-ups. In fact many of us on the forefront trying to bring about changes to these events, fully understand the financial needs of these towns. We in no way want to keep money out of the towns or away from the charities. But we also know there is a better way. We can change these events into an educational event that honors the snake for the icon that it is. No where else in the world do these snakes occur than in the western hemisphere. The western diamondback, which is the snake most frequently targeted is SYNONYMOUS with the wild west and Indian legends. Native Americans have traditionally honored the rattlesnake and held them in high esteem. We should be ashamed of ourselves as a race for destroying something so revered.

Why should we care? What good are rattlesnakes?

Rattlesnakes are one of the most effective predators in existence. They come equipped with venom and a delivery system that is extremely efficient. They come further equipped with heat sensing pits located between their nostrils and mouth. These pits allow them to locate warm blooded prey, even in total darkness. The venom is designed to subdue their prey. The venom acts quickly and also begins the digestion process. The snake is able to locate their prey by flicking their tongue in and out of their mouth. They scrape their tongue across an organ in the roof of their mouth called a Jacobson's organ. This organ is extremely sensitive to scent and will communicate to the snake where food is. They are excellent at controlling rodents in a given area and do so with such efficiency that they are likely to out compete other snakes. Rodents carry many diseases including hanta virus and the plague. Before you begin to think that the plague, or black death as it is often called is a disease from our ancient past, take a look at this photo. We are seeing an increase in incidences of plague and this in direct proportion to the absence of snakes. We as an educated society need to learn to respect our wild animals, even if they come in a form we are not comfortable with or that we perhaps fear. Fear is never justification for killing another animal. Hatred is never a reason to kill another animal. Lack of understanding or tolerance is never a good reason to kill.

 I mentioned above the importance these snakes have in controlling wayward rodent populations, but did you know they are important to humans for an entirely different reason? They provide treatments and cures for many diseases affecting humans. The venom is used to make many medications to treat vast amounts of diseases including diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure and blood clots. Without the snake we lose the venom that is used to make the medications that is making life tolerable for many humans.

It is past time for a change, for if we do not make those changes the western diamondback, and the eastern diamondback will be an animal of myth and mystery rather than a reality. These animals cannot survive the onslaught of habitat destruction and human persecution forever. Sooner or later they will go the way of the Do-Do and we will have no one to blame but ourselves. We are all able to recognize that these events called roundups in their current form are cruel and serve no real purpose other than to entertain a misinformed public. I have to question anyone who gets enjoyment out of the torment and torture of an innocent animal. If the animal in question was a dog or cat the outpouring of support and outrage would be unprecedented. Lets all rise up against these events and show the organizers that they do not have to kill in order to bring money into their towns. They don't have to treat these animals with cruelty in order to educate.

View the following videos then consider joining the facebook page Rise Against Rattlesnake Roundups (RARR) to share your commitment to conserving these vitally important components to the ecosystem that we call rattlesnakes.

Orry Martin talks on Roundups
World's Largest Rattlesnake Roundup
Don't Lose Your Head