Authored by Amanda Newsom
This year marked the 49th year of the Claxton Rattlesnake and Wildlife festival in Claxton, GA, and it was its fifth year as a rattlesnake-friendly event. Before 2012, this festival was a rattlesnake round-up contributing to the declines of Timber and Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes in Georgia. But the Evans County Wildlife Club worked closely with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (GADNR) to transition the annual event from a round-up to a wildlife festival to educate the public about the positive contributions of rattlesnakes to local ecosystems.
This was my first year attending an event of this sort, so it was interesting to see the largely varying opinions about snakes among the crowd visiting The Orianne Society’s booth. There were certainly comments such as “that’s a bad snake” from kids (and adults) pointing to our educational Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake display, but there were also some very knowledgeable people who told us, “I never kill snakes when I see them, and I tell everyone else not to kill them, too.” Festivals like this provide our staff and volunteers with the chance to talk to people from all walks of life about why snakes are so important, and it gives people a rare opportunity to see and touch snakes up close.
Aside from our Gila Monster which is always a crowd favorite, every animal we had at the Claxton Wildlife Festival was native to Georgia, so our booth visitors were able to see the variations of snakes and turtles and learn more about each species as well as the ways that we are helping to conserve them and their habitats. They could see an Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake close enough to get a safe look; hold the threatened and largest species native to the United States, the Eastern Indigo Snake; see the difference between a baby and adult cornsnake; and follow a Gopher Tortoise around while it took a quick lunch break in the grass. It’s always a great experience to talk to people of all ages and backgrounds about why snake conservation is such an important topic, but especially at events like this where some members of the public still refer to it as “the round-up.”
The most memorable part of the event was Saturday afternoon, though. While we were setting up for the day, Dirk Stevenson was on the phone with Hannah Makarovich of GADNR who had recently caught an Eastern Indigo Snake as part of our collaborative population-monitoring surveys. She was to bring the snake to our booth where they could process the snake along with the help of Orianne volunteer Matt Moore. Dirk used this opportunity to teach Hannah and Matt how to implant a PIT (passive integrative transponder) tag beneath its skin while a crowd gathered around to see what they were doing. It was an incredible opportunity to show the public one of the ways we are conserving this species.
With Dirk’s assistance, Hannah and Matt processed the snake by measuring its length, weighing it and determining its sex. This particular Indigo was an adult female that had four or five developing eggs! Once she was processed and her PIT tag was scanned to be sure it was working properly, Hannah took the snake back to her capture location (a Gopher Tortoise burrow in Longleaf Pine/Wiregrass habitat) and released it while the rest of us went back to our education outreach at the Claxton festival.
All in all, it was a great weekend where we were able to talk to hundreds of people about the work we do to help conserve wildlife and restore and protect the habitats they need to survive!