N.M. Rattlesnake Roundup Shakes Up Local Activists

spectr17

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April 21, 2002  

N.M. Rattlesnake Roundup Shakes Up Local Activists

West: Animal rights advocates contend the event is cruel and upsets the balance of nature. Organizers say private landowners want the snakes removed.

By PETE HERRERA, ASSOCIATED PRESS

ALBUQUERQUE -- Texan Don Castillo's rattlesnake chili has been a big hit in Minnesota and Iowa. Now comes the ultimate test--pitching it to chili-savvy New Mexicans.

Castillo, who hails from the tiny Texas town of Clyde, will be cooking his chili this weekend at the annual Rattlesnake Roundup in Alamogordo. It's an event that each year draws up to 6,000 curious, if not cautious, folks to the Otero County Fairgrounds and a small but vociferous band of critics, the latter including state Land Commissioner Ray Powell.

"It's a gimmick to make money exploiting these animals," Powell said of the roundup, in which 1,200 or so rattlesnakes are captured each year. The snakes, many of them Western diamondbacks, are coaxed out of their winter holes or captured in the hills near Alamogordo and neighboring areas. There's very little middle ground when it comes to the rattler roundup. On one side are Powell and animal rights groups. On the other are individuals such as Castillo and Ralph Coleman, an organizer of the event who calls Powell "a bunny hugger."

Powell, a veterinarian, says the roundup is not only cruel but also causes enormous damage to the balance of nature. The more snakes that are removed, he says, the greater the population of rodents.

"If we don't have a good balance of predators, the rodent population can go out of control," Powell said. "In a state like New Mexico, where we have the hantavirus and plague, this is a serious problem."

Hantavirus is an often-deadly disease carried by rodents, particularly deer mice. Usually contracted by inhaling dried particles of their urine, saliva or feces, the illness has been blamed for the deaths of more than two dozen people in the state since 1993.

Powell is warning those taking part in the roundup that if they remove snakes from state trust lands, they will be considered trespassers. Powell also plans to ask the Legislature next year to ban such events.

"It's exploiting a really important species that helps protect our delicate balance in our desert ecosystems," Powell says. "This is 2002 and it's just incredible that this is still happening."

Coleman contends snakes do more harm than good.

"We get a lot of flack from the bunny huggers," Coleman said. "But most of the snakes are gathered from private land, where the owners want the snakes removed. They're endangering their kids, their livestock and their pets."

Besides, Coleman said, the annual rattlesnake roundup brings in a lot of money to Alamogordo because there's a lot more to see than snakes.

"You can eat snake meat, we've got a gun-and-craft show, and some people sell antiques and jewelry," Coleman said. "It's a big financial impact on this city."

About a dozen protesters showed up at last year's roundup, and that's likely to be the case again this weekend.

"We think it's an important issue to stand up against," said Michele Rokke, animal program director for Animal Protection of New Mexico.

Rokke agrees with Powell that snake roundups are both inhumane and damaging to the ecosystem.

"We're equally concerned with the suffering of the animals involved," Rokke said. "How they are captured, how they are kept until the weekend event begins. They're subjected to a lot of torment and cruelty and are inhumanely slaughtered at the end."

Rattlesnake hunts are popular in other Western states. One of the largest takes place each year in Sweetwater, Texas, and five communities in Oklahoma hold roundups in April and May.

The rattler-gatherers in Alamogordo, most of them amateurs, get about $4 a pound for the snakes they bring in. The average snake runs about a pound, but last year the roundup included a 6-foot rattler that weighed 9 pounds.

Castillo, who runs a concession company, will buy this year's catch of snakes, drown them and then sell virtually every part of them. The meat will go to a buyer in California who sells it to restaurants as a delicacy.

"The meat is very delicious," said Castillo, describing the taste as a combination of chicken and shrimp. "No fat and no cholesterol in it."

The skins are used to make items like belts, billfolds and hatbands. The rattlers are made into earrings and key chains and the heads are sold as souvenirs.
 

FresnoPhil

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Anyone who is interested in rattlesnakes can have an open invitation to visit my small ranch. Take as many rattlers as you want ... PLEASE! We got them coming out of our ears! I hate these snakes, they aren't even fun to shot at when they are striking at you! lol!
 

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