A photograph of a snake skin pinned to a wall. Surrounding it are bloody hand-prints and signatures.

Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur

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Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Rattlesnake Roundup

Taken at the Rattlesnake Roundup festival in Sweetwater, Texas, this photo looks almost like a primary school art piece at first glance.

When you look a little closer, however, the grim reality becomes clear.

Highly commended for her 2019 entry to Wildlife Photographer of the Year, photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur hopes her image will raise awareness of this controversial event.

Sweetwater's Rattlesnake Roundup began in 1958 and has since seen the slaughter of over 250,000 wild rattlesnakes. The festival encourages the capture, beheading and skinning of these snakes under the guise of promoting awareness and safety around wild rattlesnakes. While advocates highlight the festival's importance to the local economy, the bloody nature of the event has wildlife campaigners and local conservationists concerned.

After hearing about the festival, Jo-Anne attended with Melissa Amarello, director of Advocates for Snake Preservation (ASP), to document the treatment of the animals and build a case against the violence that goes on there.

Deadly catch

In the months leading up to the festival, thousands of wild rattlesnakes are rounded up and captured, only to be kept in plastic bins until the big day.

'You can catch a snake and put them in a plastic bin for a very long time before they expire' Jo-Anne explains. 'You don't need to give them much, so they start months in advance collecting snakes, and then closer to the event they start pouring gasoline down into their winter dens to draw them out.'

Dr Corey Roelke, a herpetologist at the Amphibian and Reptile Diversity Research Centre within the University of Texas, notes the cruelty of gassing the animals as well as the environmental impacts of this practice. Corey says, 'From an animal welfare standpoint, it is cruel to subject snakes and all the other animals sharing their dens to gasoline. It's also detrimental to ecosystem health.' 

A photograph of a pit filled with snakes, a pair of legs can be seen kicking a snake through the air


On the day of the event, the snakes are brought to the festival in their plastic bins before being dumped into a snake pit. Jo-Anne describes the awful condition of the animals at this point: 'These animals are terrified, a lot of them are rattling, a lot of them are too tired to rattle, some of them have injuries, many of them have infected injuries or bleeding wounds, and some of them are just too tired and dehydrated to do anything.'

The snakes are then picked out of the pit one by one to be decapitated and then skinned. In the past, Jo-Anne explains, 'they used to just decapitate them, but they were under fire for welfare infractions as snakes are really slow to succumb to death. The cessation of blood takes forever and so it's really painful for them to have their heads cut off. They stay alive for a long time.'

'What they do now is they have a bolt gun, so they bolt their sculls, not always successfully - sometimes they just go into the nasal cavity or into the eye and then they decapitate them.'

A shameful display

Festival attendees can then pay extra to skin the rattlesnake themselves and add their handprints to the wall, as depicted in Jo-Anne's image. Speaking of the photo itself, Jo-Anne considers the juxtaposition of children's handprints next to such a gruesome object.

She says, 'People look at the image and see something nice, like a primary school art display or something, and then the story, like many of the images in Wildlife Photographer of the Year, just really makes the image extra incredible.'

A photograph of a wooden block with the body of a snake hanging down and blood on the floor.


'You take a closer look and it's not all primary colour paints - it's all red, dark red, and then there's blood dripping from the handprints. There's even a smiley face next to one of the names.'

'It really was an unbridled celebration of violence,' Jo-Anne recalls. 'Some of the kids were not into it, and some people were squeamish about it, but the point of the festival is to encourage the acceptance of violence and killing.' It is this attitude towards animals that Jo-Anne was hoping to document.

As a photojournalist and animal rights activist, Jo-Anne is interested in how festivals like this impact wild rattlesnake numbers. 'The organisation who run the whole thing say that it's population management and that it is necessary to keep people safe. They would say that there are no issues with current populations, no risk of endangerment, but then scientists are worried about that, saying that it's unquantifiable.'

Despite the hard work done by organisations such as ASP, there is still a long way to go to promote conservation of these creatures. 'They really have an uphill battle,' Jo-Anne explains, 'and we have to help them, and that requires us to overcome our fears, and it requires education and commitment.'

There is an alternative to this bloody festival, as Jo-Anne explains: 'Not all roundups are lethal. There are roundups where you catch a snake and it's weighed and measured, and you get an award for catching a big snake but then it goes back to where it came from.'

A photo of a wooden block with a machete stuck in the top and a glove resting on top. A blood-stained floor can be seen in the background.


Melissa from ASP explained that more and more roundups have reformed in recent years. She says, 'When we started our work on rattlesnake roundups, there were about two dozen still slaughtering snakes during or immediately following their events, but today there are only 14.'

Welfare groups like ASP have been working towards promoting non-violent events across the USA. While these are being taken up in some places, local support for this kind of initiative in Texas has been slow to develop.

A world stage

Jo-Anne became interested in photography as a means of raising awareness about animals and animal rights. She sees the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition as a 'world stage' and a great platform 'to tell stories about all sorts of animals'.

Her organisation We Animals Media, works to highlight stories of 'the invisible animals' which are used for food, fashion, entertainment or labour, and give them a space in the public eye.

'It's a way for us to amplify the stories that we want to tell,' she explains. 'Raising awareness is one part of the puzzle. Other really important pieces are policy, law, science, grassroots work and education.'

'Though I want us all on an individual level to change our minds about our relationship with animals, it's systemic. We need a huge systemic and ideological change so we have a more equal relationship with the natural world.'

Jo-Anne's image was highly commended in the photojournalism category. She says, 'I don't know why I selected that image. I guess I did because it's unique. I thought, "I know no one else is going to be submitting an image that looks like this."

Although it is a shocking image, Jo-Anne's record from her time at the Rattlesnake Roundup festival has helped to spread awareness of the gruesome reality of such events.

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