Dodge & Burn: Whigham, Georgia Rattlesnake Round-Up

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Entering the Rattlesnake Round-Up, you must make a choice on your first stop: Shop or Snakes? Photo by Ryan Nabulsi.

For the past 52 years, the small town of Whigham, Georgia, normally just a blip on US84 in between Cairo and Bainbridge, has been overrun with thousands on the last Saturday of January. People come from all over the state to attend Whigham Community Club’s annual Rattle Snake Round-Up. The origins of the event are varied, but the story goes that in 1960, the local community club started to gather snakes as a way to keep the rampant serpent population down, as well as to educate the local community. Today, the snakes are gathered throughout the year by hunter groups and individuals who compete for cash prizes in categories such as, “largest snake” and “most snakes caught.” The snakes are then milked for their venom, which is given to medical labs for research. What happens to the snakes afterwards depends on who you ask; but at least a portion of them are broken down for their meat and skin. Although rattlesnakes are the reason behind the gathering, the Round-Up features a variety of vendors selling wares from t-shirts to carnivorous pitcher plants, not unlike the Inman Park and Dogwood Festivals in Atlanta. Additionally, the food available runs the gamut of traditional fare such as burgers and BBQ to such delicacies as alligator kabobs and fried rattlesnake.
Vendors offer a wide variety of wares, but typically people mill about catching up with old friends as they peruse what’s on sale. Photo by Ryan Nabulsi.

A hunter pauses to admire some of one of the vendor’s offerings. Photo by Ryan Nabulsi.

A Rattlesnake Round-Up speciality: fried alligator is one of the more popular food stands during the event. Photo by Ryan Nabulsi.

A snake hunter admires the catches of her fellow hunters in the middle of the snake pit. Photo by Ryan Nabulsi.

The Round-Up was a staple of my childhood. Growing up in Cairo, Georgia, the Round-Up was a yearly event that you just attended, whether you wanted to or not; there was simply nothing better to do on the last Saturday in January. As a kid, it gave us the opportunity to find gag gifts such as itching powder, snap-pops, stink bombs, fake cat poo, or something else that would surely get us in trouble the next week in school. We would gorge ourselves on funnel cakes and try the occasional bite of rattlesnake if we were feeling brave. For parents, there was a chance to find deals or decorative novelties.The event also offered educational opportunities to teach us kids the dangers of poisonous snakes and how to avoid and respect them. What I mainly remember, however, was the overwhelming number of people—the throngs of crowds packed around the snake pit’s fenced in area, pushing through to get a closer glimpse of the prize winner. This year the event seemed smaller, an observation due, perhaps, to my growth in height and a life lived since, rife with larger crowds. The attendance was estimated at 8,000 according to the Whigham Community Club Treasurer, Bill Harrell—a number slightly down from the previous year, but definitely still large. Perhaps the unseasonably warm and beautiful weather distracted some from attending.
Ken Darnell, a renowned snake milker, poses at the fence with a smaller eastern diamond back rattlesnake. Photo by Ryan Nabulsi.

Ken Darnell milks an eastern diamond back. According to Darnell, all the venom collected at Round-Up events is used for medical research. Photo by Ryan Nabulsi.

One of the stars of the event is coiled and ready to strike. Photo by Ryan Nabulsi.

Rattlesnake Round-Ups are common throughout the South with the largest held in Sweetwater, Texas, estimating an attendance of 30,000. Ken Darnell, a famous snake milker who travels to most (if not all) of the Round-Ups each year, was on hand to attend to the snakes. Rattlesnake venom is a complex mixture of enzymes and hemotoxins, which effec the blood cells, the heart, and can eventually spread into the lymphatic system. Darnell, who has his own venom collection operation, collects the venom during the Round-Ups because there simply isn’t enough venom produced by captive snakes in labs. According to some, the venom collected at the Round-Ups cannot be used for anti-venom; for, in order to produce anti-venom the material has to be collected in a totally sterile environment. According to Darnell, however, wild snake venom can be used: even if it’s not satisfactory for anti-venom, it still has plenty of research applications. In fact, Darnell claims that the venom sent to the research labs over the past years has led to the development of synthetic high blood pressure medications and anti-clotting agents. Some will go on to argue, however, that the Round-Ups are just a spectacle for bragging rights, and offer no valuable venom for research purposes. Darnell seems to sit somewhere in between, thinking of them as necessary in order to collect the venom for medical research until there is a herd of captive snakes that can provide enough venom. For me, the controversy is irrelevant; the event holds a place in my childhood as a collection of fun times with friends, family, and community.
I’d like to thank Brian Dekle of the Cairo Messenger for all the valuable information provided in this article.

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Dodge & Burn is a series of photo essays documenting local culture with a focus on artful imagery, movement, and light. Check BURNAWAY’s homepage for new photography every week, and watch our Flickr account for regular updates!