Snake Pit at the Claxton Georgia Rattlesnake and Wildlife Festival

I am going to be completely honest — I was a little afraid
to go the Claxton Georgia Rattlesnake and Wildlife Festival. Granted, you can
never go wrong with Rattlesnake Queens, fried food, a mechanical bull, and
catfish roping. But as a member of a snake conservation group, I was afraid we
would look like the enemy. I am grateful to say that my fears were ill-founded
and I had a great time!

For those of you not familiar with the Claxton Rattlesnake
and Wildlife Festival (a new name for the 45th year of the event) it
was previously known as the Claxton Rattlesnake Roundup. Historically,
rattlesnakes, particularly wild Eastern Diamondbacks, were caught and brought
to the festival to be milked for venom, and were often killed and sold for
skins. Rarely, if ever did these snakes make it back to the wild.

  Enlarge Photo

Bruce Purcell, President of the Evans County

Wildlife Club, holds an Eastern Indigo Snake
with Heidi Hall, Program Manager for The
Orianne Society

As Eastern Diamondbacks started to show declines in
populations, many interest groups contacted the organizers of the event, the
Evans County Wildlife Club, and petitioned them to stop the roundup. The
Club’s president, Bruce Purcell, an intelligent and friendly gentleman, listened,
and realized the need for conservation. Earlier this year, he asked the club to
make the change from a roundup to a celebratory festival that highlighted
education and conservation of wildlife. Though some were resistant to the
change, the Club made the move.

No doubt Mr. Purcell was a bit worried that the festival
would not draw as much of a crowd as the roundup — an event that created
significant economic gains for the town. As a matter of fact, he was probably
as nervous as I was walking through the gates that first day. His fears were
ill-founded as well.

The club expected and attendance of 15,000 people that
weekend; they definitely got what they expected and then some. Local
conservation groups and snake enthusiasts donated over 131 rattlesnakes to the
event, significantly more than would have been there if they had
continued the round up and all of which lived through and beyond the event.

Vendor participation was higher than it had been in previous
years. There were a lot of new faces, in addition to The Orianne Society,
other organizations, such as The Gopher Tortoise Council, Zoo Atlanta,
Jacksonville Zoo, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, and many more turned
out to show their support for the new direction of this Wildlife Club.

  Enlarge Photo

Fred Antonio, Director of the Orianne
Center for Indigo Conservation

(OCIC), shows a snake to curious
children at the 2012 Claxton Georgia
Rattlesnake and Wildlife Festival

The festivities were led by proclaimed “Snakemaster” Steve
Scruggs, whose gave colorful presentations on snake behavior and conservation.
The Orianne Society and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources also gave
presentations on the Eastern Indigo Snake, our flagship species, which often
inhabits the same Gopher Tortoise burrows as Eastern Diamondbacks and also
suffered declines from the gassing of burrows, an arcane practice to catch and
kill Eastern Diamondbacks.

But the best part of the event? The people! For me, it is
very rewarding when someone comes to our booth terrified of snakes and walks
away having held one, and is amazed at how different the experience was to
their initial perception. When someone walks up to the booth talking about
killing snakes, particularly rattlesnakes, and then end up being interested in
your reasoning on why these species are important and to marvel at what they
learned about the ecology of these species, is an incredibly rewarding
experience.

Don’t misunderstand me; we didn’t change the minds of every
snake hater at the event. But I feel like we really reached a lot of people.
They may never have the same dedication to snake conservation as we at The
Orianne Society do, but maybe they will think twice about intentionally running
them over or killing every snake they see, venomous or otherwise. And for
those of you that went to the festival and brought your children by our booth —
thank you. These are the future conservationists of the world. They have open
minds, loved the snakes and sucked up information like a sponge, asking
question after question. We answered them all — even told some of them to come
see us in 20 years, there will be room for them at The Orianne Society.

Is the new format and message of the event perfect? Not
yet, but it is far better than before. I anticipate it will keep changing for
the better in the coming years and will continue to be successful at drawing a
crowd. To the Evans County Wildlife Club and the people of Claxton, thank you.
We appreciated the opportunity to be a part of it and look forward to next
year.

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