I had seen her there many times before, but this time something was wrong. There were supposed to be two snakes. The other, a large yellow-phase snake, was missing. I shined a light under the rock, looked in all the nearby blueberries and shrubs several times, checked the rock again, and then checked all the nearby rocks. Confused, I got down on my hands and knees and shined a light under the rock one more time, but in vain. I gave up, stood, and turned back towards the trail when I heard a slither. I spun back around to see the snake uncoiling from the base of a shrub no more than 4 feet away (and no more than 2 feet from where I had just placed my head), and retreating back to her rock. She never rattled, she never struck, and she never moved until I wasn’t looking.
This happened over three years ago, and it really opened my eyes to not only how rattlesnakes are good at hiding, but also at just how docile the species is. All they want is to be left alone and, if left unprovoked, will leave you alone, too. It was an eye-opening experience that helped set the stage for helping others overcome their fears of this often misunderstood species.
I’ve hiked over cliffs, across fields, through woods, across bogs and back again many times while tracking snakes, and I’ve met many people along the way. One thing has become very clear; whether you love snakes or hate them, people LOVE telling their snake stories. This is especially true with rattlesnakes.
While human-rattlesnake interactions are rare this far north, pretty much any old-timer in rattlesnake country has at least one story and, as someone studying the snakes in our state’s only remaining population, I hear a lot of them. The story, and phrase, that seems to come up the most is “the time I almost got bit”. A few days ago a guy told me about the time he was down by a river and a rattlesnake buzzed at him. He said he’d almost been bitten, but when I asked him if the snake struck at him he said it had not. If that was almost a bite, then I’ve had hundreds of near misses, not least of which was my experience three years ago.
There is a lot of snake gossip in the area, and by far the biggest misconception I come across is that rattlesnakes are aggressive and will attack you without provocation. (Rumor has it that they go for the face!). In reality though, when a rattlesnake rattles its tail, it is not a sign of aggression but rather the snake’s way of saying “I’m here, you probably didn’t know this, and by the way I’m a rattlesnake so please leave me alone; I don’t want any trouble.” It’s unfortunate that many people take this the wrong way, and bring trouble to them. The bottom line is that if rattlesnakes were aggressive, and bloodthirsty, they wouldn’t have any need for a rattle at all. The only thing a rattle can do is give away a snake’s position—a poor tactic for a cold-blooded killer!
Through face-to-face interactions with the people I meet in the field on a regular basis, I try to convey this message, and slowly-but-surely feel I am making a difference. I would describe the story I heard the other day as a close encounter, but by no means a close call.
Two people I know were once outright standing on Timber Rattlesnakes, completely unaware of this fact, until they felt something whacking the side of their leg. To their surprise, the rattlesnakes were not trying to bite them but rather just whacking the side of their head against the side of the person’s leg (apparently they were standing on the rattle!). From what I am told by people who saw this happen, you never would have guessed these two folk could move so fast or jump so high! Timber Rattlesnakes only bite as an absolute last resort and I’m continually amazed at the lengths they will go just to avoid conflict. The potential for a bite is always there, and I will always discourage people from getting less than 5 feet from a rattlesnake for that very reason, but the point that I try to get across — that many people find hard to believe — is that the rattlesnakes aren’t out to get you.
In Vermont, while rattlesnakes have been legally protected as an endangered species since 1986, people still kill them every year. We don’t know exactly how many are intentionally killed, but as perception of this species changes, I am pleased to say that the number does seem to be dwindling. Even this past year, I have watched a couple of key landowners gradually evolve from snake-haters who, historically, would have killed any snake they saw, into snake protectors. I recently got a call from one of these guys asking if I wanted to come get a snake he just found (to be outfitted with a radio transmitter). After I captured and secured the snake, I asked if he wanted to get a closer look. He said, “I’m good right here, I mean, I don’t want to kill it, but I don’t want to get any closer either.”
If only more people could feel that way!
I even found out this spring that he had done some work on his property to help the rattlesnakes. A year ago, I don’t think anybody would have believed me if I said this guy would be trying to save the rattlesnakes, but here we are.
Yes, some people probably will never change, but all it usually takes is a little education and some non-threatening exposure to the animals.
While it will be extremely important to learn more about where and how our snakes spend their time, the other piece of the puzzle will be changing public perception of what has been a persecuted species for many generations. We are making a lot of progress on this front but there is much work that still needs to be done. Originally, I thought tracking the snakes would be the hard part. Compared to changing a landowner’s mind about the importance of rattlesnakes as part of the environment, it’s nothing.
Thanks to some fortunate relationships forged this past year, progress is being made. But at the end of the project, when we learn as much as we think we need to effectively protect the species, it’s the human factor that will be the largest hurdle remaining.
It may seem odd, but I am looking forward to the challenge.