Rattlesnake sacking, particularly in its competition form, is easy to understand but difficult to accept. You and your buddy dump a sack of 10 presumably unhappy rattlesnakes on the floor of a small arena, then one contestant holds the empty sack open while their teammate uses a metal hook creatively known as a “snake pinner” to transfer the reptiles back inside. This is often accomplished by tossing them, meaning whoever’s holding the bag must open it wide enough to catch the flying snake on the way in, without also providing a way out for the existing occupants of the bag. Apparently you don’t have to be sober for this, which is interesting.
The finesse required for good clean sacking comes slightly more naturally if you’re a farmer or rancher in Texas, where the rattlesnake roundup (technically known as “field herping” if you’d like to irritate someone) is genuinely part of the culture, historically speaking. But members of the United States Junior Chamber — the service organization better known as the Jaycees — started sacking for sport decades ago.
In 1972, the Jaycees in Taylor — a community of 17,000 residents located about 45 minutes northeast of Austin — hosted a rattlesnake roundup event that would later become the National Rattlesnake Sacking Championship, held annually at different venues until 2012. The state’s largest rattlesnake event is now hosted by the Jaycees in Sweetwater every March, including this year despite a global pandemic.
But in 1978, the success of the sacking competition expanded far beyond the capacity of Taylor’s largest venues, and so the Jaycees decided it was high time to take their show on the road, requesting permission from Austin’s esteemed City Council to host the roundup inside the big Quonset hut on the southern shores of Lady Bird Lake known as the City Coliseum.
The Taylorites probably knew better than to try booking the much-newer nearby Municipal Auditorium — now the site of the Long Center for the Performing Arts — but even the Coliseum was too esteemed an environment for bagging rattlers, at least to Vic Mathias, executive director of our Chamber of Commerce at the time.
According to the Austin American-Statesman, Mathias “pleaded” with the Council to reject the Jaycees’ request, claiming the stereotypically Texan nature of the event might actually harm Austin’s cosmopolitan image enough to drive away new industry he could otherwise cajole into relocating — maybe it’s hindsight talking, but imagine saying something this ridiculous with a straight face:
“To some people, the rattlesnake is the most repulsive creature there is,” Mathias said.
He said a nationwide poll 15 years ago showed most people associate Texas with “cactus, sandstorms, cowboys and rattlesnakes. That image does not describe Austin,” he said.
Mathias said the Chamber of Commerce has been able to improve the city’s image and attract new industry to the city. Saying he fears newspaper headlines that might say “Rattlesnake Bites Only Four Sackers in Downtown Austin,” Mathias said it might inhibit the Chamber’s attempts to bring new industry to Austin.
— Austin American-Statesman, August 19, 1977
Esteemed council member John Treviño Jr. pointed out that if Austin’s annual livestock show — also held at the Coliseum — hadn’t run off potential investors, the snake handlers probably wouldn’t do much damage either. Council approved the request, and the roundup kicked off the first weekend of March, 1978.
Despite Mathias predicting shameful news headlines about four sackers suffering snakebites, he shouldn’t have worried — the competition only sent three men to the hospital that year. One of those contestants was Buddy Lange, famous for receiving a snakebite at the event at least five years in a row.
Lange, who took out an ad in the show’s program heralding his return despite his previous snake bites, was taken to Brackenridge Hospital for observation. A Taylor Jaycee official said the the hospital received extra anti-venom serum in preparation for the show.
— Austin American-Statesman, March 5, 1978
Despite a brief return to Taylor in 1979, the competition came back to grace the Coliseum in 1980 and 1982, its image seemingly no longer an issue for the city — a few wranglers were hospitalized every year, mind you, but nothing serious. (Don’t feel too bad for Mathias — the whole area around the Coliseum and Auditorium was later named after him, even if the memory of all those snakes still haunts the place.) The event finally went back to Taylor for good in 1983, and the Coliseum itself was torn down in 2002, perhaps the last snake-friendly venue Austin will ever see.
Despite its position in the culture of Texas towns like Taylor and Sweetwater, the environmental impact of the gasoline fumes the Jaycees use to to flush rattlesnakes from their dens for collection caught the ire of state wildlife officials in 2016, though avoiding an outright ban — not to mention the growing sentiment that the events are, well, kinda cruel to the snakes. Opponents of the Sweetwater event illustrated the latter point by promoting a satirical “Kitten Roundup,” to prove that we wouldn’t approve of the snake hunts if the snakes were kittens. They might have us there.