There are some situations and places I hope to never find myself in, not because they are particularly dangerous but because I worry about my own actions or well-being in the context. If I were to score such situations on a scale of 1 to 10, Las Vegas is a 4, an evangelical “megachurch” is a 7, and a rattlesnake round-up is a 9. (Most of the 10s I can think of involve witnessing violent, criminal acts.)
I have already passed through Las Vegas once; I hope to avoid it in the future. For me, it represents all that is wrong with contemporary American culture. Whether looking down from the airplane on approach or out of a city bus cruising down the strip, the sprawling wasteland of vulgar displays and unforgivable consumption made me uneasy and even angry. Fortunately, for me Vegas was but a pit stop on my way to Arizona for a rafting trip on the Colorado River. Still, I pledged to never again enter city limits unless I couldn't avoid doing so.
I have never been present at an evangelical rally and, despite a sick curiosity about such gatherings, I do not plan to attend any in the future. The core values espoused in most religions are positive, but any variety of religious fundamentalism causes me to cringe. A stadium or “mega-church” full of devout, born-again Christians has few equals among my nightmares.
Yet even a Las Vegas mega-church could not provoke me as thoroughly as a rattlesnake round-up. Just reading about these barbaric events makes me flush with anger. I am deeply troubled by the reckless, excessive collection of the animals and I react badly to snakeskin wallets, boots, belts, and so on, but it is the attitudes of the “wranglers” that I most detest. Public fear not withstanding, there is little respect, if any, shown the reptiles. Whether pouring gasoline into snake dens, roughly throwing them into canvas sacks, or kicking the more “aggressive” reptiles in the head, rattlesnake round-up participants are not out to educate. These events are celebrations of human dominion (a word I’m hearing more often these days) and ignorance. In one corner we have white-hatted man and, in the other, the evil, fork-tongued serpent.
Anyway, this Los Angeles Times article by Ann Japenga doesn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know, but she does a nice job of describing the 33rd Annual National Rattlesnake Sacking Championships. I’ve excerpted a few “highlights” below.
“As more hunters arrive in pickups, drag out coolers and release their squirming wares, it becomes obvious that a rattlesnake is hardly a demon. When a handler's attention strays and a snake is momentarily free, it lies still or tries to crawl away. Throughout the event, the men strive to make the snakes look menacing while the snakes mostly try to escape.No, Mr. Garrett, they aren't. Your literalist interpretation of the Bible is thoughtless, offensive, and embarrassing. You and your "wrangler" buddies should be ashamed of your fearful, prejudiced, and ignorant behavior. May your grandchildren feel similarly to me.
The air smells of popcorn and beer, and a wet-dog stink emanates from a booth where vendors sell snakeskins. The stage is enclosed with Plexiglas and elevated so that spectators can watch the show from the snakes' point of view. Some 80 diamondbacks skulk in the corners. A few shimmy up the walls trying to escape, but most — even the huge ones with heads the size of a man's fist — try to crawl to the bottom of the pile, away from kids rapping on the side of the pen.
As many as four or five men stand around the snake pit. They wear starched jeans and high boots to protect themselves from ankle strikes, and they kick back into place any snakes that venture from the corners. Coiled snakes skate across the polished floor like hockey pucks. To incite strikes, the handlers wave a boot inches over the huddled snakes. The snakes that spring out are rewarded with a kick to the head. As the tension mounts, the rattling sounds like steady rain.
[Ken] Garrett claims to be something of a snake whisperer, handling the snakes before a competition to sense their temperament and trying to calm them rather than rile them. ‘I'm a hunter,’ he says. ‘I believe in man's dominion over all animals. The snakes are there for the use of man.’”
Photo credit: Thad Allender/Journal-World Photo