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Queens of the Rattlesnake Roundup in Sweetwater

Photo: Kristina Meyer, License: N/A

Kristina Meyer

Kayla Chowning grins before a crowd of spectators and photographers, a tiara atop a thicket of blond curls bouncing down her back. Wielding a live, writhing Western diamondback rattlesnake, the 16-year-old competitive cheerleader has just joined an even more exclusive club. Opening the 54th annual Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup, a community tradition in which thousands of rattlesnakes are captured, “milked” for their venom, displayed for education and entertainment, before being killed, processed and sold by part, Chowning has just been crowned queen of the Miss Snake Charmer Scholarship Pageant in Sweetwater. The event draws 30,000 people annually, according to the Sweetwater Jaycees, who hold the event each year. The population of Sweetwater? Just over 10,000.

The business of running a rattlesnake roundup is dirty and particularly smelly work. The snakes are often roused from their dens with gasoline fumes in the days and weeks leading up to the event; the rattlers empty their bowels from stress over the course of the Roundup, filling Nolan County Coliseum with the strong stench of uric acid.

Men wander through the snake pits in boots and thick chaps, ankle-deep in the rattling snakes that crowd the circular pits. But the men of Sweetwater are not solely responsible for the success of the bizarre spectacle. Women — from the tiara-laden to the fully-chapped — ensure that that all creatures, reptilian and human, play their part. “We get just as dirty as the men, and then we have to keep them in line, too!” said Theresa Cowart, secretary of the Sweetwater Jaycees, laughing.

Cowart’s job requires a bit more wrangling than most at the Roundup. As secretary of the Sweetwater Jaycees, Cowart has taken on the project of running the Jayteens, the Jaycee’s youth organization. At the Roundup, the Jayteens are responsible for the skinning and gutting many of the snakes that are harvested.

"My family put me in [the snake skinning pit] to keep me busy, but it’s actually a lot of fun,” said Jennifer Shaw, the 16-year-old vice-president of the Sweetwater Jayteens. “A lot of people don’t like skinning the snakes because they think it’s gross and disgusting, but it just seems normal to me.”

Ashton Hannah, the 15-year-old president of the Jayteens and Cowart’s daughter, agreed. “It’s fun. You just take out all your anger — get over a breakup,” said Ashton, miming a snake-gutting action. Cowart says the skinning pit isn’t for everyone, however, and that some members of the Jayteens decide to keep a distance from the station. “I have no problems with the girls gutting snakes,” said Cowart, “but several of the boys won’t go near them.”

This year, Cowart is spending most of her time at the festival with teens and decapitated snakes. Next year, she hopes to work in the research pit; her pregnancy prohibits her from doing so this year. Texas Parks and Wildlife hopes Theresa Cowart isn’t the only pregnant female being kept away from the pits. While the Jaycees collect data for the rattlesnakes they have amassed: their length, weight, and sex, TPWD wildlife biologist Kathy McGinty monitors that data to make sure the number of females being harvested remains low. “Last year, 85.11 percent of the snakes collected were male, and 14.89 percent were female. That’s typically what you want to see,” said McGinty. “The number of females being collected is low, so it’s not hurting the population. There are still plenty of snakes out there.”

And there are still plenty of people who pay to see, skin, and eat rattlesnakes each year. The event earns money for various charities and has generated millions of dollars for the Sweetwater economy, according to the Sweetwater Chamber of Commerce. The Miss Snake Charmer Scholarship Pageant also awards college scholarships to those who place in the contest.

After being crowned, the queen of the Miss Snake Charmer Scholarship Pageant is traditionally expected to skin a rattlesnake or milk one for its venom. While some teens might flinch at the thought of gutting a still-wiggling pit viper, Kayla, the youngest queen in the pageant’s history, doesn’t blink. “I want to get in there and skin the snakes and all that, because it’s fun for people to see the queen getting in there,” Kayla says through a grin. “I’m just a blonde-headed girl tryin’ to handle these snakes. It’s a lot of fun.”

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