On Snakes and Snake Hunting

01/29/2013 11:24 am ET | Updated Mar 31, 2013

Judy Jones, a biology teacher at my high school in North Carolina, had a big snake in her classroom. I forget what she named it, but it was a Burmese python (Python molurus), probably about six feet long. Mrs. Jones wasn't my biology teacher, but one day I happened past her classroom at lunchtime and saw another student with the snake draped around his neck.

I was mesmerized, and it changed my life. I spent a lot of lunchtimes in that classroom with Mrs. Jones and the snake and a few other kids who were weird like me. I migrated to the library, where I read books about snakes and snake-keeping. I wanted a pet snake of my own, so I got one, and then four. I spent weekends scouring the woods behind my house for black rat snakes and copperheads, and when I got my driver's license, I spent a lot of nights cruising the roads at 15 miles per hour, looking for snakes at rest on the warm asphalt. My parents were game, and we folded snake-hunting into several family vacations -- most memorably in a 1995 pilgrimage to Fogg Dam in northern Australia, a hallowed wetland swarming with water pythons (Liasis fuscus) and crocodiles. These days I study snakes and lizards for a living, and it all traces back to my encounter with Mrs. Jones's Burmese python.

Turns out that a fascination with snakes and snake-hunting isn't all that unusual. There are snake conventions, magazines for snake fanciers, and reality TV shows about snake-hunting yahoos. There are also snakes at your local pet store, and Burmese pythons were long among the best-selling species, probably because they're cool-looking and breed easily in captivity. But they also get really big -- big enough to eat your kids -- which is when people decide to dump them. Many people who purchased cute little python hatchlings either didn't know or didn't fully appreciate that they were making a 15-foot-long commitment.

In most parts of the U.S., a jettisoned Burmese python freezes to death come winter, but in south Florida, it goes native. The invasion of the Everglades by Burmese pythons has recently put snakes and snake hunters into the headlines. Ecologically, invasive large predators are always bad news, taking a devastating toll on naïve native prey and scrambling ecosystems. Thus, there is important work for snake hunters: finding and dispatching these snakes is good for all manner of native fauna. Competitions have been announced and bounties have been set, and devoted hunters have emerged to take on the challenge. Nonetheless, Burmese pythons are in the 'glades to stay. The same qualities that positioned them well in the pet trade -- intriguing camouflage pattern, prodigious reproduction -- make them nigh impossible to wipe out in a wilderness as complex and inaccessible as the Everglades.

Not all snake populations are so robust to human hunting. The western diamondback rattlesnake Crotalus atrox is a staple of the imagery and lore of the American west. For decades, they have been hunted, captured, and executed by their hundreds in "rattlesnake roundups" -- annual carnivals in Texas towns that trade on the human fear-fascination complex around venomous snakes. Snake pits, snake wrangling, chicken-fried snakemeat, snakeskin tchotchkes, prizes for the hunters who bring in the most snakes, or the biggest. Last I checked, nobody quite knew how big a dent the roundups make in rattlesnake populations, but the methods used by hunters, which include ripping apart and pumping gas into the dens where snakes hibernate en masse, almost certainly depress local carrying capacity (to say nothing of the effects on other species). That said, there is a lot of more-or-less empty space out west, millions of wild acres that the rounder-uppers never get to.

There is another species of diamondback, the eastern (Crotalus adamanteus). Bigger and more venomous than their western counterparts, they are also scarcer and occupy a smaller, more densely settled slice of the continent. They occur in North Carolina (where they eluded me throughout my adolescent snake-hunting days), and also in Georgia, Florida, and parts of Alabama and Mississippi.

They too are rounded up and executed. The Wall Street Journal recently ran a story about one of the last surviving eastern diamondback roundups, in Whigham, Georgia, and about the people trying to put an end to it by adding the eastern diamondback to the federal endangered species list. Biologists are uncertain whether the snake is sufficiently threatened to merit this distinction, mainly because snakes are hard to count. Yet a 2009 analysis of data from the last 50 years of eastern diamondback roundups showed that both the numbers and the sizes of snakes captured are declining, and argued that the roundups "perpetuate negative attitudes about venomous snakes."

Data are always useful, but I don't think we need them to make an intelligent decision about rattlesnake roundups. Residents of Whigham (population 500) fret about losing the roundup and the economic stimulus it provides. OK. But why kill the snakes at the end? Why not have an informative rattlesnake festival that ends with hunters returning the snakes to the GPS-marked locations whence they came? The thrill of snake-hunting isn't in lopping off the head at the end. And people don't come to roundups to see snakes butchered, but rather to be titillated -- to indulge brains that evolved, in part, to spot potentially dangerous snakes. And where there is intrigue and titillation, there is great potential for education. Concluding a rattlesnake roundup by ritually slaughtering the main event seems both anachronistic and utterly unnecessary.

I'm not sitting here singing Kumbaya. Snakes can be efficiently farmed for boots and bags, if we must have such things. Venom can still be harvested -- that doesn't hurt the animals -- and you can still give out prizes for the fattest snake. Anglers perfected catch-and-release a long time ago.

One snakeskin dealer had this to say about the western diamondback: "There are numerous areas so overpopulated that we'll never be able to hunt the rattlesnake out. Ever. Not ever." That's been said before -- about bison, about passenger pigeons, and about codfish and other fish. Sadly, it is rarely true of native species and often true of noxious invasives. Those with a taste for killing snakes can apply themselves in the Everglades, or perhaps in Guam, where invasive brown tree snakes have wrecked the island. But it's time to let the rattlers be.