SWEETWATER, Texas (CNN) — The beauty pageant contestants had been preparing for months, designing elaborate outfits, rehearsing talent acts and practicing flawless walks across the stage for their town’s most highly anticipated event.
But this would be no ordinary beauty pageant.
“We probably are the only beauty pageant that does kill and skin snakes,” said Cyera Pieper, a high school sophomore and contestant in Sweetwater’s “Miss Snake Charmer” pageant, a west Texas tradition that dates back decades. The winner of the contest is expected to take on responsibilities of a traditional beauty queen — attend community events, take photos with residents and preside over the next year’s contest — but here in Sweetwater, they also agree to climb into a pit of poisonous snakes, decapitate and skin them.
For nearly 60 years, this town of around 11,000 has hosted what has become the world’s largest “rattlesnake roundup,” where hunters bring live, poisonous snakes to the city’s fairgrounds that are put on display, slaughtered and sold.
When the snakes arrive, they are weighed, measured and milked for venom. They await their ultimate demise in giant pits surrounded by curious onlookers and tourists, some of whom travel from across the globe. Once data is collected on the snakes, their heads are chopped off and their bodies are skinned and processed to be used for meat and goods like wallets, hat bands and boots.
The tradition began in the late 1950s, when ranchers, worried about rattlesnakes biting their livestock, workers and families, held an informal roundup. The roundup took on a life of its own over the years and now serves as the year’s biggest fundraiser for Sweetwater’s local Jaycee’s group, a fraternal organization. Last year, the festival took in a record haul of 24,262 pounds of rattlesnakes; this year, organizers capped it at 6,500 pounds. Today, the weeklong celebration includes a parade through the streets of Sweetwater, a carnival, a neighboring gun and coin show, a cook-off, a beard contest and the beauty pageant.
“It’s a very big thing for our economy,” said Rob McCann, a member of the Sweetwater Jaycees. “This event pays for basically everything we do in the community for a year.” Indeed, nearly 50,000 people flock to this town every year to see the spectacle, taste rattlesnake meat and watch beauty contestants dressed in sashes and tiaras climb into a pit filled with hundreds of venomous snakes.
For the young women of Sweetwater who participate, being able to kill and skin a snake is a point of pride.
“My guy friends are like, ‘No, I’m not doing that. I don’t know how you do that,'” Pieper said. “Woman power.”
The festival, as many outsiders may guess, is not without controversy. Animal rights groups have long condemned the practice as cruel and unnecessary to the rattlesnakes.
“The traditional roundups of Sweetwater need to end,” wrote Wendy Townsend in a 2014 CNN op-ed about the event. “The Jaycees could create a festival that raises money for the community and celebrates the rattlesnake as an icon of the American West.”
But festival organizers point to the massive economic boost the town receives from the roundup and say the roundup keeps their communities safer.
“We live in West Texas so we have this problem,” said McCann. “Don’t judge us because you don’t have rattlesnakes where your kids play.”
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