Interview of Melissa Amarello ― Resistance Radio

Browse all episodes of Resistance Radio or listen to audio of this interview:
Download mp3

(Sound of a rattlesnake)

Hi, I’m Derrick Jensen. This is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. My guest today is Melissa Amarello. After more than a decade working on the conservation of reptiles in the American Southwest, Melissa co-founded Advocates for Snake Preservation in 2014 to change how people view and treat snakes. She holds a Master’s in biology for her studies of rattlesnake social behavior. 

So first off, thank you for your work, and secondly, thank you for being on the program.

MA: Thanks for having me. I’m always happy when people are interested in talking about snakes.

DJ: Well, let’s talk about snakes. Would you like to talk about how snakes are doing in general in this country, or do you want to focus immediately on rattlesnakes?

MA: Let’s say a little bit about snakes in general. I think the listeners to this show will not be surprised to learn that, like most wildlife, snakes are having a hard time. They’re affected by all the things that are doing damage to other species of wild animals; climate change, habitat destruction. There are some emerging diseases that are causing problems for snakes in some parts of the US. It’s similar to, people are familiar with the fungus that’s attacking bat colonies and wiping out, in some cases, very large numbers of bats. There’s a very similar disease that’s starting to affect some snakes, including rattlesnakes, that’s also a fungus, and it seems to be acting in much the same way. So snakes have all of these problems. The numbers aren’t great, as far as what percentage of species of snakes are on the decline. Many are. Unfortunately, snakes are difficult to study because they’re so hard to find and track through time. So if you look at the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), or some of those organizations that track how species of animals are doing throughout the world, a lot of the information about snakes just has no data.

But the ones that have been well-studied, a lot of them are not doing well. And on top of that, for snakes, and especially rattlesnakes, to start bringing it back to them; is that a lot of people don’t like snakes, or they’re scared of snakes, and that makes it really difficult to implement conservation measures. So even for the few species that we do know something about, if we know they’re not doing well; even when we know what steps we need to take to help them, a lot of times it’s really difficult to do, because you need public support, you need agency support often, to implement those conservation plans. And it’s hard to get that for an animal people don’t like and they’re scared of. And especially for an animal like rattlesnakes, which do pose a potential threat to humans. Bites are painful, and expensive; can cause a lot of injury and illness, and in some cases have even killed people, although that’s very rare in this country. That makes it really hard to get the public behind saving them. So they have all that on top of the problems that other wild animals face.

DJ: You mentioned no data, or low amounts of data, and I’m going to ask you a question for which there may not be an answer. But one of the things that always strikes me is to read about the extraordinary fecundity of this continent before the Europeans conquered it. So you’d have these bison that would be, a herd that might pass by for days at a time, or flocks of passenger pigeons that would darken the sky for days at a time. I recently read about how there were packs of wolves in what’s now the Houston area that would number about 200. And there would be troupes of grizzly bears in California, as opposed to being solitary – there are no grizzly bears in California now. Or prairie dog villages that covered 1000 square miles. Do we have any accounts of how abundant some species of snakes might have been prior to this whole destruction? I’m sorry if I’m asking a question for which you don’t have an answer.

MA: That’s a very good question, comparing certain aspects of snake behavior to these other disappearing wildlife phenomena, like giant flocks of passenger pigeons, and the big herds of buffalo that used to roam around. The idea of a pack of wolves in the Houston area makes me very happy and very sad.

So I think the correlate in snakes would be; there are some species of snakes, including some rattlesnakes, that overwinter in fairly large groups, and the size of those groups varies, depending on the species and where they’re at. But in the northeastern U.S., that used to be a pretty common thing for timber rattlesnakes. Timber rattlesnakes are pretty much the species of rattlesnake east of the Mississippi. Down in the southern U.S. you have eastern diamondbacks as well, but timber rattlesnakes are more prevalent. And because they were the species of rattlesnake that white settlers first encountered when they came to the U.S., they were also the first ones to suffer from the persecution we have wrought on snakes, especially the venomous ones.

But timber rattlesnakes tend to overwinter in the northern part of their range especially, in fairly large groups, sometimes numbering in the 100’s, and there’s a lot of cool behavior that comes out of this, but unfortunately makes them, much like the buffalo and passenger pigeons, easy targets for those who wish them harm. In the spring, especially, when they’re just coming out for the year, they’re pretty lethargic, they’re going to be really slow to retreat, even when they’re sitting right outside these rock outcrops where they spend the winter underground. And what people would do is just annihilate these spots. In many cases they would go through and just dynamite entire dens of snakes. So yeah, you’ve got a species that was probably fairly common – again, no hard numbers, especially from back then, and that now in many places either has disappeared entirely from those states, like Maine for instance, or is very threatened, down to just a couple of populations and fewer than a couple hundred individuals in places like Massachusetts.

DJ: So can you tell me a little bit about – I know that creatures should exist for their own sake. But also, what are their roles in their communities? Like, prairie dogs, as well as being wonderful creatures on their own, are food for a whole boatload of creatures, and salmon carry nutrients up into the forest. I’m not asking about utility for humans, I don’t care about that. I’m asking about what do they – one of the purposes of wolves is to clear elk out of river bottoms to make it so the foliage can grow there, which helps trout habitat etc.

So what do they do? Tell us more about who they eat. Tell us more specifically about rattlesnakes, what do they do?

MA: That’s a good question. And like you, usually when I’m talking about snakes, I very much focus on them and what is cool about them, but I think one of the things that is cool about them, and rattlesnakes included, is that they have a spot right in the middle. So they are not the top predator in any ecosystem, not rattlesnakes anyway. Some of the really big snakes that live in other parts of the world probably are. But not here.

So they’re prey for a lot of animals, and also predators for a lot of animals. So because we are scared of snakes, it’s hard to imagine them being food, but they actually have a lot of predators. A lot of birds of prey; hawks, owls. Medium-sized and large mammals like fox and bobcats, badgers. Badgers eat a lot of rattlesnakes. And then also other snakes. King snakes are really famous for preying on rattlesnakes, but depending on where you are in the country, there are other species as well, like racers and whip snakes and coachwhips. Gopher snakes occasionally and bull snakes.

And then rattlesnakes are an important predator for a lot of prey species. Snakes don’t feed very often, and because they’re not really big, I think in a lot of people’s minds, they are not as important a predator, not as important a check on their prey as some other animals. But with rattlesnakes and other vipers, they’re not territorial. They don’t guard resources and space in the way that a bobcat or even a red-tailed hawk will. Mammals and birds that tend to hunt the same sizes of animals as rattlesnakes and other vipers do are usually territorial, so in a given area you’re likely to have way more rattlesnakes than you are those mammal and bird predators.

And so even though they’re not as big and aren’t feeding as often, they’ll have a greater impact on that prey. So they’re very important to the environment, and due to their ability to go for long periods of time without food, they can wait out crashes in the prey. So if anyone’s taken a basic ecology class, like there are these classic stories of lemmings, and the population tends to go up and down, and when they crash their predators tend to crash with them because they can’t handle the loss of food. But rattlesnakes and other vipers can just sort of like wait it out until their prey pops up again, because they can go for months, in some cases even a year, without any meals at all. So they’re there waiting when the prey pops up again. So they have a unique and important role in the environment.

DJ: So before we get more to threats, there are a couple more questions I want to ask. One of them is that in the intro, we mentioned that you hold a master’s in biology for your studies in rattlesnake social behavior. I’m guessing that a lot of listeners will be surprised to hear the words “rattlesnake” and “social behavior” together. Can you talk about that a little bit?

MA: When I first started that work, and honestly, still, when I talk about it; people laugh, because how can you get a master’s studying something that clearly doesn’t exist? But snakes can be social, and rattlesnakes in particular. So I’ve referenced a couple of times how some species of snakes, including some rattlesnakes, tend to overwinter in large groups. And we’ve known about that for awhile, those large groups, aggregations or communal dens, is how most scientists usually refer to those. They’re more common at high elevations, or up north where it’s cold, and the theory’s always been that the only reason that those animals would be together is because there aren’t a lot of places where they can survive the winter without freezing to death. And there’s probably some truth to that when you’re talking about Montana or northern Idaho or Canada. Certainly there are very limited places where an animal, a snake can get underground and survive. So that is part of what draws them together in these dens.

But where I did my work, in central and southern Arizona, freezing to death is not generally what we’re worried about there, snakes included. Even at fairly high elevations, it’s cold, they do need to get underground, but there are lots of places for them to do that. And with some species, they still tend to group together. So that’s what I started looking at, why do we see that? And I tried to approach it with an open mind. I think a lot of it is scientists just don’t feel, or believe, which are not words that scientists are supposed to use, scientists are supposed to be unbiased – but they don’t feel or believe that snakes and other reptiles are capable of things like social behavior, or taking care of their kids. And I tried to approach it using methods and asking questions like someone studying whales or birds, or other mammals that we typically think of as being social, like how they would look at the problem and starting there, instead of looking at it like a snake scientist.

And what we found was that with communal dens that were close enough together, that you could have snakes going back and spending different years at different piles of rocks, they tended to have their own little communities and there was no mixing between the communities, so they did have a social system there. And then within those communities, the snakes were making choices about whom they wanted to associate with. So we were able to identify individual snakes by using unique markings in their patterns. Once you look at snakes a lot, you notice with most of them, you can kind of tell them apart by irregularly shaped blotches or bands, and sometimes scars and other ways too, and this is how people who work with animals like whales do it, because you can’t just grab a whale and scan it for a microchip, like we do with small animals. It also enabled us, by identifying them based on how they looked, to use cameras so we could get more observations. And we didn’t have to mess with the snakes, because every time, even with rattlesnakes, they view us as a threat and they’re scared of us; every time you’re handling them, you’re messing up their behavior and potentially altering that situation and maybe the whole day, so we didn’t have to do that.

So we were able to tell who was who, and then we could tell who liked to hang out with whom, and within these communities of snakes you would have snakes who were friends, defined mathematically, again, following the methods of people who study this in other animals; spending more than half of their time together. And then you would also have snakes who would never associate with each other at all. So within these groups you’d have little enemies, and little buddies that they would hang out with.

So that was kind of the start to getting it social behavior, for the snakes that we studied. And I’m not the only one who’s done work like this. With the timber rattlesnakes that I mentioned earlier, there have been some studies of social behavior in them as well. They did it a little bit differently; instead of looking at individuals and how they interact, they looked at these communal dens as a whole, and they thought since snakes tend to have their babies and raise their babies often near or at the dens, they thought well maybe these dens are actually big extended rattlesnake families. And so they did find that the females and juveniles within a den are more closely related than they are to nearby dens. So they tend to group together with their families, and return to these same spots, year after year after year, which is pretty cool, another sort of social functions, social dynamics that snakes have.

DJ: Two things. One of them is, I saw this thing maybe a year ago about how they did a long-term study of bats where they put cameras on them and also recorded sounds, and then they would determine sort of a dictionary of what different bat sounds, or squeaks or words, meant, by what would be the following action, and then did a long-term mathematical correlation. And what they found was that in these tightly dense colonies, a lot of it consisted of “Hey, want to come hang out with me?” Or “You’re in my space, get out of here, move.” Because with a certain very specific squeak, the other bat would move an inch away. And so if you see this a thousand times … It’s so clear to me that everybody in the world is doing this.

So that’s one thing. And the other thing is, you mentioned mothers and children. I understand how birds take care of their young. I see bears every day and I know what the mothers do for the children. I know how the mothers teach. For example, a mother bear will introduce a new food to the cub by eating it and then blowing her breath in the cub’s face, so the cub now knows that this smell is associated with something you can eat. How does it benefit the young to be hanging around her parent, her mother?

MA: That’s a very good question, and I’m glad you mentioned that bat thing, because number one, it’s cool, I hadn’t learned about that study. I think it sort of points to how some of this stuff is really difficult for us to wrap our head around, with snakes. They don’t communicate with sound, which is what we’re used to. And that makes it really difficult for us to understand. There’s some visual communication going on with different postures, I’m sure. But for the most part they appear to use chemical signaling pheromones, and those are difficult for us to translate. They’re impossible, for the most part.

DJ: There’s a guy, Stefano Mancuso, who’s actually making a dictionary of plant pheromone communications. Because they will communicate “Hey, this caterpillar is eating our leaves, you neighbors have to change your composition.” So far he’s got a lexicon of 1500 or 2000 or something different chemical signals that the plants send. Those are just the ones that they’ve been able to translate. So everybody is communicating this way, but I didn’t know snakes did. Can you talk more about that for a minute? That’s really exciting to me.

MA: People think of snakes as blind and deaf, and they’re neither of those things. They can hear at certain frequencies. They can see, and their vision ability probably varies a lot, because snakes are a diverse group, they hunt different things, they live in different places. They do use those senses as well. But a lot of their world is very much based on chemicals, and what has been determined is we know we use them, they use scent trails and pheromones to find females, to find food. The babies will use them their first winter to figure out where they’re supposed to go den, by picking up the scent trails of usually family members, their mother, to try to find where she spends the winter. In lieu of that, they also use them, we think this is probably the mechanism – snakes will choose to hunt at a spot where another snake has been successful hunting. And we think that’s probably based on some sort of pheromone that other snake left behind, maybe similar to their ability to detect through scent the trail of – when rattlesnakes eat, they usually strike, and let go, and let the prey animal run off and die from the venom elsewhere, and then they follow that trail. And they can actually tell the difference between the trail of another rodent vs. the one that they struck themselves, and will hone in on the one that they struck.

They use it for a lot of different things, and I hope somebody starts working on a dictionary of snake pheromones too. That would be really cool and would probably open up a lot of doors for studying the social behavior as well. But the original reason I brought it up was because we don’t have that information now. It makes it really hard to see a lot of what is going on with the interactions between mother and kids. So I’ll talk a little bit about what we do know and what we have observed.

Rattlesnakes are one of a few groups of snakes that give birth to live young. They don’t lay eggs, they have live babies. Science has accepted for about 20 years that mother rattlesnakes and their babies will stay together until the babies shed their skin for the first time, which happens a week or two after they’re born. So there have been observations of that since white people have been here writing stuff down about snakes. But it was written off for a long time as, you know, the mother’s too tired to crawl away or something. The usual sort of nonsense from people who don’t think that snakes are capable of anything other than being eating, breeding little robots.

And that started to change when someone was studying them with a little more of an open mind, and actually observed things that looked like care. So you mentioned that it’s really easy for us to identify what a mother bird looks like caring for her young, because they feed them, they bring back food. With snakes, they tend to swallow their food whole, almost all of them, all the time. So that makes it really difficult to share food. And also, with a predator like a snake that feeds infrequently, the idea of them being able to catch a bunch of food items for them to bring back to their nest is – just knowing about how little they are successful in hunting, that’s kind of a joke.

So as far as we know, they don’t feed their babies, but there are other things they can do. The babies are born with enough yolk leftover to where they’re probably not worried about eating for a few weeks anyway. So what the mother does is keep them safe from other threats. The babies are really young, the first couple of days the mother appears to like to keep them really close to her, and if the babies, before they’re ready, start to crawl too far away from their shelter, from their mom, she’ll do different things to kind of herd them back to the nest. We’ve seen them kind of reach out with their face and just lightly touch the back of the baby snake. We’ve seen them place their body like a wall between the baby and where she doesn’t want the baby to go.

And these are really subtle behaviors, and again, without having that ability to read the communication that’s happening via chemicals and smells, we can only infer, probably in the same way they’re doing with the plant dictionary, by looking at the response from the babies, which to any of those things I just mentioned is to come right back to their mom and right back to shelter and not try to crawl away again for awhile.

And then as the babies get older, the mother kind of, like any of us do, the same thing that humans do with their kids, you give them gradually more and more freedom until they’re ready to take off. The mothers will posture and rattle and do all the things they would normally do when they’re threatened by a predator, another potential threat. They will do that and seem to be a little faster to do that when they have babies present, whether it’s to a human observer, like me when I got too close to one of the mothers after she’d given birth, same distance I was able to get to her when I was observing her pregnancy, but as soon as those babies were there, that behavior from a person is no longer acceptable; and I got rattled at and she actually came towards me, which, despite the many accounts of snakes chasing people, they don’t, because they’re scared of us. That’s one of only two times I’ve had a snake come toward me, and the other one was another female with babies as well.

And then we’ve also seen them do the same sorts of behaviors at squirrels, with remote cameras that we’ve set up in rattlesnake nests. Squirrels don’t like rattlesnakes, probably because some rattlesnakes eat them and their babies. And they appear to – they certainly harass the snakes. But we’ve also seen what we think are dead baby rattlesnakes that were killed by squirrels. So the mothers really don’t like squirrels getting close to their babies, and will posture and rattle and do very obvious things.

There are subtle things that are going on as well. Rattlesnakes will also babysit, or help. So you’ll have snakes showing up that are not pregnant females, at the nest, so other males, and juveniles that aren’t old enough yet to have their own babies. And they’ll sit out with the baby rattlesnakes as well. And especially in the case of males; in most species, male rattlesnakes are bigger than females. And so he doesn’t have to do anything, a bigger snake sitting there is going to be more of a deterrent to a potential threat. Like, a squirrel’s probably going to think twice about harassing a big male rattlesnake in the summer, because he can eat that squirrel, whereas the females are maybe too small to do that.

So there are a lot of other things they can do to help protect those babies and just keep them as safe as possible until they are developed enough to go off and be on their own. And I would love to know if there are some of those communicating, teaching things going on between the mother and babies. But as of yet, we just don’t have the tools to observe any of that. But it’s hard to imagine that there isn’t something like that going on.

DJ: I love the fact that you said we don’t have the tools to be able to discern it, as opposed to the presumption that if we can’t observe it, it’s not there.

MA: Yeah, that’s just silly. Scientists talk a lot about anthropomorphizing, and how that’s bad, but I can only see the world and interpret as a human sees it, because that’s what I am and that’s what all of us are. But I recognize that snakes see the world in very different ways, and they have this whole type of communication that we don’t do, almost at all. I mean, obviously there’s some pheromone communication that goes on between humans, but it’s pretty far down as far as what’s important and what we respond to. But for them, that’s their whole world. I just feel like it’s kind of egotistical to assume that it’s not there just because we haven’t seen it yet. I’m sorry, we’re just not that smart and all-knowing.

DJ: Also, a lot of the scientists – and I’ve got a degree in physics, by the way – a lot of the scientists who say that we shouldn’t anthropomorphize never seem to have a problem projecting machine language onto the real world. That nature’s a machine, and they talk about “ecosystems.” The whole mechanistic perspective – I mean, you can’t get more anthropomorphic than to project human creations, machines, onto the natural world. So it’s all just silly.

MA: That’s true. And you’re more likely to hear someone criticizing someone for anthropomorphizing when they’re talking about animals playing, or loving, or having fun. “Oh, you shouldn’t say those words.” But people throw out words like “aggressive” and “fear” all the time.

DJ: And ants having wars. They have “wars.”

MA: Yes. And that’s no different. Those are just as anthropomorphic as the good feelings, but for some reason those are acceptable, it’s very strange.

DJ: Yup. So I want to start transitioning to the horrible rattlesnake roundups, but there are a couple more areas that I want to ask about. One of them is, what do baby rattlesnakes eat? Do they eat grasshoppers? They can’t be big enough to eat a mouse, can they?

MA: That’s a good question. They could eat what most people feed captive small snakes, like newborn mice. But because of the way that rattlesnakes hunt, which is to sit and wait for the prey to come to them, newborn mice are not going to be, like, wandering around. So they mostly eat lizards. I’m sure there are some that take insects, and certainly other species of snakes I’ve worked with consume a lot of grasshoppers certain times of the year when they are abundant. But young rattlesnakes are eating a lot of lizards, because they often live places where there are lots of lizards, and I know the nest sites where we’ve been monitoring are also where there are three or four different species of lizards that hatch out or are born at about the same time as the rattlesnakes, which I am sure is not just a coincidence, so that’s a very abundant food source at a time when the snakes are small.

DJ: A couple more questions. One is you said the word “play.” Have you ever witnessed what you would perceive as rattlesnake play?

MA: Oooh. That’s a good question. I have not seen that in a rattlesnake, and I’m not sure if that has to do with, again, seeing something and just trying very hard to assign a purpose to everything that they do. Or, unlike a lot of the animals we have observed play in; snakes, and maybe rattlesnakes even more so; they spend a lot of time doing nothing. They’re very conservative with their energies, and that’s part of being ectothermic, and it’s part of being an animal that’s not going to feed that much. So possibly they just, I dunno, don’t spend as much time on that. Maybe they’re like playing little games in their heads that require less energy (laughing).

I’m not sure, I’m like rolling back in my head, thinking about especially the babies when they’re hanging out in groups and they’re crawling around. Yeah, there’s never been anything real obvious that we identified as play. But honestly, because we were not – I dunno. That’s still like a new field and not something that I ever tried to look for either. But I’m going to be thinking about it more the next time we are setting up cameras on snake babies especially. But adults, too.

DJ: One more question before we go to the horrors. Can you describe your process of falling in love with snakes and rattlesnakes, especially with an eye toward how that might help others to do the same?

MA: I was a little kid, one of many little kids who was really into dinosaurs, and that kind of transitioned into alligators and crocodiles, because that was the next biggest thing, and because they’re still alive. And then snakes came into the picture a little later, because I didn’t live in Florida where I had alligators or crocodiles in my back yard. I lived in Kentucky where we had garter snakes in the back yard. And I think because I was able to make that personal connection with them, I got to see and hold one when I was really young, and no one had taught me that they were bad or scary. I mean, we went to church and I heard that story, but was kind of critical of it, like a lot of things.

So I made a personal connection with one. My initial encounter with a snake wasn’t anything scary. And even as a little kid, I learned pretty quickly that that attitude was not unique, but also not common. Most of my friends were scared of snakes, even though my pet snakes were totally harmless and pretty nice. I started figuring out that a lot of people didn’t like them, and I think I just have a natural affinity towards underdogs, and groups of animals or people that need help.

So even though I’ve worked a little bit with birds, I kept coming back to snakes because people don’t like them, they’re scared of them, and it became pretty apparent that that was affecting our ability to help them, and I like standing up for those who need help, and snakes are certainly one of those groups.

DJ: So we have like 12-13 minutes left, and on one hand I’m sorry that we’ve short shrifted the rattlesnake roundup, but on the other hand I’m not at all, because I’ve loved everything you’ve said, it’s been fabulous.

MA: Thanks.

DJ: But having said that, now let’s jump to something that people may not have ever heard of, and I think both you and I wish did not exist. So can you tell people what rattlesnake roundups are, how many there are. That’s all.

MA: Yeah, I can, and actually I’m kind of glad. I don’t think anybody wants to hear more than ten minutes or so about rattlesnake roundups.

Rattlesnake roundups are a variety of wildlife-killing contest, and there are a variety of wildlife-killing contests in the U.S. But most of them are not very well known, because they go after animals that most people like. Because rattlesnakes are not well liked, these contests are pretty public, and certainly in the areas in which they are held, most people know about them. But throughout the country they’re not as well known.

Rattlesnake roundups take place in Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama and Georgia. I should say, the traditional killing type of rattlesnake roundups still take place in those four states. And basically if you can picture any county fair, or small town, rural America festival, it’s that. So you’ve got your corn dogs, you got your lemonade, you’ve got your cheesy little rides, you know, your pony rides, your flea market, your concerts at night. And with the rattlesnake roundup, on top of that you also have this whole section where they’re bringing in hundreds, or in some cases thousands, tens of thousands of rattlesnakes that they collect for weeks to months before the event, to bring in, do various displays with, but finally they all end in slaughtering them.

Sometimes that’s done onsite at the festival. You can have your lemonade and cotton candy and watch them behead a rattlesnake with a machete and skin them while they’re still wiggling around. And at some of them you can pay money to skin your own rattlesnake.

In others that’s done kind of behind the scenes, and the only things you see at the festival itself is they do shows where they milk venom, they do these so-called educational presentations, which are, at least at the roundup I’ve been to, an interesting mix of myth and propaganda, and also a few actual facts about snakes.

But at all of the roundups in those four states, they end in death for the snakes. They’re put forth by the organizers and the fans of roundups as something that they need to keep snake populations in check. Most of these festivals started in the 50’s or 60’s. There are probably a few that are older than that, but most of them started in the 1950’s and 1960’s. And they claim at the time that rattlesnake bites to humans and livestock were such a problem that the ranchers weren’t able to make any money, the police weren’t able to do anything else because they were answering so many snake calls. And granted, medical treatment for snakebite has come a long way since then, and I imagine snake bites were a bigger problem then. I don’t know about the issue of police not having time to do anything else. Having lived in a state, Arizona, that has the most rattlesnakes of any state in the U.S.; we don’t have roundups or any other sorts of mass culls of snakes like that. They’re protected somewhat in the state, and the police have plenty of time to do everything else they need to do. It’s really not a big deal.

So I don’t know about any of that, but I do know that rattlesnake roundups are certainly not required to keep populations in check. Rattlesnakes are not overpopulated anywhere. Unlike many species of animal, they still have basically all of their natural predators. I’m sure wolves, when they were around, hunted rattlesnakes too, and mountain lions in places where they have been extirpated also hunted rattlesnakes. But there are a lot of other predators that are still around and doing fine, that rattlesnakes have. Plus disease, fluctuating prey populations, all that stuff that normally keeps wild animal populations in check is still around for rattlesnakes.

But what these festivals do provide to the community that’s very real, and probably very important, and why they keep fighting to not have the roundups taken away, is money. They’re a big draw. These usually take place in small towns where there is not much going on. They’re sort of a typical town where whatever industry that was once there has left, and now they just don’t have much, but they have these big, once-a-year festivals where the town’s population triples in size, and that provides enough money to the local economy to keep them going through the year.

And I can empathize with that. I grew up in a small, rural area in the Southeast. My dad worked for Philip Morris, he made cigarettes, and I know what it’s like when a business like that goes away. And there are very good reasons why a business like that should go away. But it does have a big negative impact on the local community. So I understand their fears about having the roundups taken away. But the events are unsustainable, there’s no limit on the number of snakes that people can bring in. They are rewarded, in fact, for bringing in the most and the biggest snakes, which is sort of the opposite way from how people usually manage hunting and manage game. In some parts of the country, in Georgia and Alabama, the rattlesnakes that they target are proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act, not solely because of roundups, but roundups have certainly contributed to their decline, which has been severe. And the only reason they’re not on that list yet is because they’re snakes, and again, the limited data thing.

However, what we don’t get with a lot of environmental issues is that there’s a way that could work for everyone, to keep the snakes from being killed, and could also preserve this important economic driver for these communities, and that’s how many roundups have changed. And they’re still festivals, a lot of the festivals still focus on snakes, or are now snake and wildlife festivals, but they don’t kill the animals. They either bring in animals from the wild and put them on display and have real education, and then let them go, or they have people with captive animals come in and give talks.

The draw for most people are the other aspects of the festival, the community aspects of it, or they just want to see the animals. Most people really aren’t into the slaughtering bloodthirsty aspects of it. I mean, for many people in these communities where the roundups happen, this has been very normalized for them, because they have been going since they were kids. But in other places where they’ve transitioned their roundups into these no-kill wildlife celebrations, people have adapted, and they haven’t lost money, in fact many of them have more people attending their events, and they’re bringing in more money, which is just fantastic. So you actually have a win-win situation for industry, or the economy, and for wildlife.

And like I said, there are four states that have traditional kill roundups now, but even within the last ten years there were more than twice that many states that had roundups, but they’ve either just gone away or transitioned into these other sorts of events. Which is fantastic, and we just want to keep pushing for the ones that still have the kill events to move towards this other model that can absolutely work in their communities as well, I think.

DJ: We have three or four minutes. What are the strategies and tactics that have been used to decrease the numbers of rattlesnake roundups and how can people who are listening to this interview assist in those efforts going forward?

MA: That’s a very good question, because there are definitely tactics that have not worked. Protesting, using language about wanting to shut down rattlesnake roundups, that just causes them to dig in their heels and be just more determined than ever to keep their roundups going. The heart of rattlesnake roundups is Texas, and Texas doesn’t like outsiders – I mean, most people don’t like outsiders telling them what to do, but Texas seems to have an especially strong opinion like that. They really don’t want people to tell them what to do. So I think for your listeners, the idea is to find out, either by contacting us or just looking around to see if they have an event like this in a local community, and I think reaching out to the roundups themselves, to express – if you’re local, if it’s in your state, to say, like “Hey, I would really love to support this event, but I don’t support the mass slaughter of native wildlife. I’d love to come out if you were doing it this way instead.” And we can help connect people with local groups and organizations that would be willing to help some of these roundups change.

So one in Georgia that we often use as a model for change, just a few years ago was a slaughter festival rattlesnake roundup. And it’s now a rattlesnake and wildlife festival. And a couple of local nonprofits worked with the roundup organizers directly to make that move, so that when they decided to no longer kill snakes, they were ready to go, they had local people who were going to bring in captive animals to do shows, and the same environmental groups and wildlife groups that used to criticize this festival now have tables and give talks there. So I think what makes all the difference, is trying to – you know, I say that I need to show the same compassion that I want people to show for snakes, to the people that operate these roundups, if we want them to change, because that’s what people respond best to.

I get it, I understand that the money is important. And if you’ve grown up in that culture, and also with the same myths and stories that we’ve all grown up with, that snakes are evil and dangerous and we just can’t live with them; you’re not going to think there’s anything wrong with those events. And that doesn’t make you a monster. That’s just how you’ve grown up. But that doesn’t mean that people can’t change, if we are nice and understanding about it, and approach it that way.

So if people want to look around in their local area, and if they’re having trouble figuring that out they’re welcome to get in touch with us, and I’m happy to talk to people about the different ways we can work together. We’re trying to put together a documentary to get the word out more about rattlesnake roundups, because that’s how people find out about a lot of issues and it seems to be, at least at the moment, effecting change in some other areas. Of course money always helps with that too, but I’m happier when people are wanting to do something instead of just writing a check, but I mean checks are great too.

DJ: So I want to tell a quick story, my one quick rattlesnake story, and then close by asking you about Advocates for Snake Preservation, like a 30 second version.

My quick rattlesnake story: I was probably ten years old, I grew up in Colorado, and I was up hiking in the mountains and I saw a lizard crawl under a bush. So immediately- I’m ten years old, so of course I have to crawl under the bush after it, for whatever silly reason ten-year-olds have. And I’m crawling, crawling, crawling, and all of a sudden I hear this bee buzzing by my ear, and I just brush it away, but it won’t go away. The bee won’t go away. So I keep brushing, brushing, brushing. And then finally I look to my right, and there’s a rattlesnake about an inch away from me. I mean two inches from my head.

The point is, I know this is only a sample size of one, but I was there for five or ten seconds, or 30, 20 seconds, I don’t know how long, brushing it away before I actually saw it. And all it did was threaten me. It had no interest in actually – it was just telling me to get lost. It had no interest in actually harming me.

MA: Yeah, they need that venom for their food, because they have to kill what they eat, and it helps digestion as well. They really don’t want to bite us, and honestly they don’t want to rattle until they’re pretty sure they’ve already been seen, because they’re scared to death of us. So yeah, it is a sample size of one, for you, but it’s a story that I hear, or have experienced more times than I like to admit. The times I’ve gotten too close to one and thankfully nothing has happened. It hasn’t happened because of them, not because of me.

DJ: So last question – literally 30 seconds. How do people – tell me about Advocates for Snake Preservation and how people can help.

MA: Advocates for Snake Preservation is a nonprofit that my partner and I founded a few years ago, because of this problem that we saw with conservation being hard for an animal that people didn’t like. We formed this organization to change people’s hearts and minds towards snakes and make conservation easier. And then we’ve sort of branched into more activism type stuff like rattlesnake roundups that needs to be acted on right now. So the easiest way to find us is our website, which is . And if you want to go directly to information about rattlesnake roundups and how to get involved with that, we have a website set up at .

DJ: Well thank you so much for your work, and thank you for being on the program. And I would like to thank listeners for listening. My guest today has been Melissa Amarello. This is Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network.

Filed in Interviews by Derrick Jensen
No Responses — Written on November 19th — Filed in Interviews by Derrick Jensen

Comments are closed.