If there are any rattlesnakes in the rocky hills of northwestern Oklahoma, Ty Judd knows where to find them.
Judd and his friends have been rattlesnake hunting these gypsum hills for years, armed with long metal tongs, a plastic bucket and a few simple rules.
“Watch where you step,” Judd said. “Never put your hand on the side of a hill unless you’ve looked it over because little snakes will curl up there and bite you on the hand.”
We rumbled down dirt paths in pickup trucks, stopping at dens in the craggy rocks. Judd carefully peered into each hole and looked for signs of recent snake activity. After plucking a western diamondback from a hole, he held the snake to the ground with his tong.
“He’s sucking in air so he can get as much power as he can, so he can get as much power to get you,” Judd said.
Rattlesnakes are common in deserts and dry scrubland, but you can also find them in plains and forests. In western Oklahoma, their dens are in holes in the rocky outcrops; that’s the most common place to find them.
Judd’s dad, David Wilson, said when the first homesteaders arrived in prairie towns like Okeene, Oklahoma, they had “a mountain of rattlesnakes in the hills.” Ranchers and farmers wanted to get rid of them, so they started a friendly competition.
“They was killing them, and seeing who could bring in the most. Well then it went from that to seeing who could bring in the biggest,” Wilson said. “Then it went from that to, ‘Oh well, let’s just see who can bring in the most and the biggest live rattlesnakes.’ And then it went from there.”
That competition culminates in Okeene’s rattlesnake roundup, one of five such festivals each year in Oklahoma.
Read Colorado State Parks’ stewardship prescription for rattlesnake management. Colorado is home to two species of rattlesnake – the Western or prairie rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis) and the massasauga (Sistrurus catenatus).
Pit master Toddd Felder stood barefoot among nearly 600 rattlesnakes in the so-called “Den of Death.” Felder milked the snakes’ venom and licked it off his hand. Rattlesnake handling is a family tradition. Felder learned it from watching his father and uncle before he stepped into the den the first time.
“I got trained, watched them, how they do it, what they do,” Felder said. “Then I add my own little tricks to the show. Licking that rattlesnake venom off your hand, since it is a hemotoxin, you can get away with that. But if it’s a neurotoxin, you sure don’t want to be taking that on.”
Over 2,000 rattlesnakes went through the roundup this year, but none left alive. A buyer purchases the reptiles for their hides and meat.
Ty Judd cracked open a box full of rattlers at the fair’s butcher shop in front of some curious onlookers, grabbed one by the head, and put it on a chopping block, where it met the business end of a hatchet.
The snake is then hung and skinned. The meat goes across the fair to Mike Hippard.
Hippard has a few standby recipes, like deep fried or smoked rattlesnake. This year he’s trying a new one.
“We’re going to make rattlepeños,” Hippard said. “Rattlepeños will be ground up snake meat mixed with cream cheese, we’ll stuff a jalapeño and wrap it with bacon and put it on the smoker for an hour or so.”
Rattlesnake roundups are not as common as they used to be, and a study found they hurt populations of the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake. Some roundups in Georgia have stopped killing the animals.
But wildlife diversity biologist Mark Howery with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation doesn’t think the Western diamondback here is on the decline.
“We’re not seeing a contraction of their range, we’re not seeing a strange or differing size distribution brought into rattlesnake roundups,” Howery said. “But we don’t really know what the density of rattlesnakes is.”
To some, rattlesnake roundups are inhumane because the snakes are killed as part of show. The Center for Biological Diversity and the American Society of Herpetologists and Ichthyologists have called for an end to roundups.
Cameron Siler, the assistant curator of herpetology at the Sam Noble Museum in Norman and a biology professor at the University of Oklahoma, said it is not appropriate for the festivals to treat animals the way that they do.
“We would never see this behavior done on any other group of organism on the planet, definitely not in a public forum and celebrating a mass killing of larger or vertebrate animals in general,” Siler said.
Siler said scientists follow the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee protocols to kill animals in research facilities to minimize pain and suffering, and that doesn’t happen at roundups. And he doesn’t buy the argument that roundups protect farmers and livestock.
“I feel like the roundups actually impose a greater risk to humans than just leaving them alone because you’re bringing hundreds of individuals and venomous snakes into close proximity to a large number of humans, which increases the risk of being bitten,” Siler said.
And bites are nowhere close to being a leading cause of death in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on average, about five people die each year from snakebites. More die annually from lightning strikes and fireworks accidents.
Jacob McCleland is a host and producer at KRCU in southeast Missouri.