Monday, 16 March 2015

Snakes on the plain: Texas festival sees pageant winners wade through rattler pit

Tom Dart in Sweetwater, Texas

Saturday 14 March 2015 16.02 GMTLast modified on Monday 16 March 201511.24 GMT

With her winsome smile, wholesome personality and soulful singing voice, Mikeilah Foust was a popular victor in her hometown pageant on Thursday night. The 17-year-old’s reward was a $1,500 scholarship and a walk through a pit of angry rattlesnakes the next morning.

Wearing a glittering tiara, camouflage chaps and a sash announcing her as “Miss Snake Charmer 2015”, the all-district volleyball player and member of a local Baptist church did her best to radiate elegance and self-assurance as she carried several restless reptiles around the hexagonal pit for the entertainment of the crowd. The high-school junior looked genuinely happy, for this, along with the opportunity to decapitate and skin western diamondback rattlesnakes, is one of the perks of the job.

Miss Snake Charmer is a quirky contest, but then Sweetwater is an unusual place. Fortunes in this dusty little west Texas town, 220 miles from Dallas, are heavily defined by the oil industry’s cycles – recently boom, now threatening bust.

But what is billed as the world’s largest rattlesnake roundup has been an annual tradition for 57 years. And since 1960, Miss Snake Charmers have been the pretty faces of a gore-steeped festival that is important to the town’s economy, vital to its identity and increasingly drawing the venom of environmentalists and animal rights activists.

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