From the Field

Recovery: Saving Timber Rattlesnakes, Why Wildlife Recovery Isn’t a Popularity Contest

April 25, 2016

A yellow morph timber rattlesnake waiting for prey. Photo © Tom Tyning

If you can look with equal appreciation and concern at timber rattlesnakes and, say, New England cottontail rabbits — both gravely imperiled in the Northeast — you’ve arrived as a naturalist.

Most Americans aren’t close to that. But there’s progress in Massachusetts thanks to the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, created in partnership with The Nature Conservancy.

Many states protect their rattlesnakes, but Massachusetts possesses the spine to breed and release them — “headstarting” it’s called. So far, this desperate effort to save New England’s most endangered vertebrate has been limited to two of the five isolated populations. After centuries of persecution and habitat destruction Massachusetts is down to about 200 rattlers. The species is in no better shape elsewhere in the Northeast.

While the Division doesn’t treat its legally mandated recovery plans as classified documents, it doesn’t hold news conferences about them either. It did discuss, with appropriate entities, its plan to create a timber-rattler sanctuary on Mt. Zion — an uninhabited 1,352-acre wilderness island in Quabbin Reservoir (Boston’s water supply). The island, off limits to the public, undoubtedly sustained rattlers in the past. It has a lush prey base and a large boulder field for hibernation. No other hibernaculum exists for miles.

Timber rattlesnake emerging to bask. Photo © Tom Tyning
Timber rattlesnake emerging to bask. Photo © Tom Tyning

In February Peter Mallett, president of the Millers River Fishermen’s Association, got wind of the plan and fired this screed to multiple contacts: “Who are the idiots that think this is a smart thing to do? Doesn’t anyone realize that these reptiles travel through water and land and will multiply? And what about the many people that this will endanger; not just in the Quabbin, but everywhere?” Within hours the story went nationally viral.

Snakes on an Island

No one was more outraged than the state’s most powerful environmental legislator, Sen. Anne Gobi (D-Spencer), chair of the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture. She promptly ordered an oversight hearing.

When I interviewed her, she offered this: “It puts me in a lousy position when we’re kept in the dark. If the goal is to have a population of rattlesnakes, it would seem to me that the best place would be a controlled setting like a zoo.”

Media hype and misinformation panicked the ecologically challenged. Venom was going to leak into Quabbin’s 412 billion gallons of water, poisoning Boston residents. Snakes would be slithering out of faucets. The ravenous serpents would devour every living thing on the island, then swim to the mainland and overrun the state.

Dark and light morphs. Photo © Tom Tyning
Dark and light morphs. Photo © Tom Tyning

“Snakes on a plane? No, on an island, but just as scary,” screamed a Boston Globe link to hardcopy news alleging that the Division would “breed and raise 150 venomous timber rattlesnakes and turn them loose.” The Division will be delighted if it can breed five a year. Provided they survive and reproduce, natural recruitment might push the population close to 150 by mid-century.

The Globe’s Meredith Warren called the plan a “Jurassic Park-like experiment,” wrongly reporting that “your tax dollars will be paying for snake baby-sitting.” Of the Division’s $6.5 million budget, just $150,000 issues from the General Fund. Each year all Natural Heritage and Endangered Species projects combined cost taxpayers 2 cents each.

In an interview with former TNC biologist and the Division’s current Natural Heritage director Dr. Tom French, CBS Radio’s “Nightside” host Dan Rea continually voiced his hatred of all snakes. He kept asking why we need rattlesnakes, what they’re good for and why the Division is wasting resources protecting them in the wild when they’re dangerous, ugly, unpopular and, if allowed on the planet at all, should be kept in zoos. Somehow French maintained his cool, occasionally breaking through the monologue with clarity and humor.

Not Just About the Cute and Cuddly

The snakes are being headstarted at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, Rhode Island where my wife Donna and I were met by their doting keeper, conservation-program director Louis Perrotti. “We’re out to save the endangered species of New England,” he said. “It’s not just about the cute and cuddly; all species matter. It’s not for us to pick and choose. I want all the spokes in my wheel.”

Juvenile timber rattlesnake being headstarted at Roger Williams Park Zoo, Providence, RI. Photo © Donna Williams
Juvenile timber rattlesnake being headstarted at Roger Williams Park Zoo, Providence, RI. Photo © Donna Williams

The five babies stretched up against their glass cages, showing us their ivory bellies and chocolate-patched gray-brown backs. “Ugly,” they weren’t. In another year they’ll be big enough to have radio transmitters surgically implanted. If any swim off the island, they can be fetched — a precaution for them, not people.

The feared rattler explosion is impossible. Females rarely bear more than a dozen young; they only start reproducing when they’re about eight and then only every three to five years. Nor would the snakes affect Mt. Zion’s prey base. On a good growth year a timber rattler might consume three rodents, and it can get by on one.

Cornell herpetologist Dr. Harry Greene classifies snakebites as “legitimate” and “illegitimate.” In Massachusetts there have been none of the former for at least 50 years, this despite the fact that 200,000 people annually tramp through one of the rattler refuges, the Blue Hills Reservation.

Greene would classify the late Cotton Dillard’s 45 rattler bites as illegitimate. I met Dillard at the Opp, Alabama Rattlesnake Rodeo (now in its 56th year), an event that taught me much about America’s perception of rattlesnakes. He excelled at “sacking,” bare-handed competition to see who can toss the most snakes into his sack. (The secret to winning, he confided, is “to stay sober.”) Sacking was more than sport to Dillard; it was “witnessing for the Lord.” Whenever he got bitten onlookers could see that the Lord kept him alive; and no, he didn’t think this was about acquired immunity. (And no; he didn’t die of snakebite.)

Yellow morph. Photo © Tom Tyning
Yellow morph. Photo © Tom Tyning

I left Dillard in order to observe the roundup, this for eastern diamondbacks. You insert a hose into the hole of a “gopher” (tortoise, not rodent), holding the end to your ear. If you hear only “poof, poof, poof,” that’s the tortoise, and you move to the next hole. If you hear “poof, poof, poof” and “buzza-buzza-brrrrraaap,” you pour in gasoline, killing the tortoise (and perhaps a cohabitating eastern indigo snake), but driving the rattler up to where you can snag it with a treble hook. Rattlesnake roundups are declining but still popular in the South and West. At the 2015 Sweetwater, Texas roundup participants killed 3,787 pounds of western diamondbacks.

A Welcome and Wise Move

In a letter to the state’s top environmental official, the Conservancy voiced a position that echoed the broader Massachusetts environmental community: “The Conservancy supports the Division’s efforts to conserve the timber rattlesnake by restoring populations in suitable habitat, with consideration for public safety, such as on Mt. Zion Island.” And French’s calm, endlessly-repeated explanations may be quieting some of the caterwauling. Now for every ignorant letter to the editor I see at least two intelligent ones.

NPR aired an interview with French and other snake experts in which enlightened host Audie Cornish asked all the right questions and listened to all the right answers.

Yellow morph basking. Photo © Tom Tyning
Yellow morph basking. Photo © Tom Tyning

So tight is the prose of accomplished naturalist Mark Blazis, who writes the award-winning outdoor column for the Worcester (Massachusetts) Telegram, that he’s able to tell all in a mere headline: “State’s Plan to Save Timber Rattlesnake a Welcome and Wise Move.”

The Quabbin Watershed Advisory Committee has voted in favor of the project. And, ignoring an online petition demanding he nix it, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has stated his support.

But the most encouraging comment I’ve heard issued from none other than Peter Mallett when I interviewed him a month after he’d ignited state and national hysteria: “Well, I’ve changed my mind,” he declared. “I’ve listened to Dr. French, and he makes a lot of sense. I know people freak out at the word ‘snake.’ But this planet was not made just for humans. Every species on Earth needs a place.”

Ted Williams

Ted Williams detests baseball, but is as obsessed with fishing as was the “real” (or, as he much prefers, “late”) Ted Williams. What he finds really discouraging is when readers meet him in person and still think he’s the frozen ballplayer. The surviving Ted writes full time on fish and wildlife issues. In addition to freelancing for national publications, he serves as national chair of the Native Fish Coalition. More from Ted

Join the Discussion

Please note that all comments are moderated and may take some time to appear.

65 comments

  1. Let the powers that be know that I am willing to share my expertise about timber rattlesnakes and dispel much of this misinformation about the species. I have been working with and studying timber rattlesnakes for over 25 years.

  2. Ted,
    As usual, a well-thought out piece on real conservation. You have a gift and your writing puts some of the issues surrounding protection of endangered species into clear perspective. The entire environmental community – from regular citizens, children, naturalists, outdoors sports enthusiasts, hikers and butterfly watchers— should be happy to have a voice of reason and clarity. Tom

  3. This is excellent and I’ll be happy to share it around on social media. Thanks so much.

  4. With apologies for the fact that this is promotional: I suspect you’d be interested in a book that the University of Chicago Press (where I’m the promotions director) just published: America’s Snake: The Rise and Fall of the Timber Rattlesnake, by Ted Levin. If you’d like to see a copy, drop me a note: levi@uchicago.edu.

  5. I do not believe this snake is endangered. It is only “endangered” within the artificial boundaries of the state of Massachusetts. If it only consumes a few mice in a year, then its recovery will have little positive impact ecologically. I am not certain why such a large amount of money and effort would be spent on this project. Why not work on actually endangered species that have larger ecological impact?

  6. Hi Randall: I don’t intend this comment as a rebuke. But I’d be interested to learn why you imagine that Massachusetts constitutes an “artificial boundary” for this native species that was quite common in our state before we drove it to the brink of extirpation and why you imagine that increased consumption of native rodents constitutes a “positive” ecological impact.

    1. Ted, I meant the boundary is artificial in the sense that it is man-made. The boundary exists only on a map. The rattlesnakes do not know they are in Massachusetts. As far as the snakes are concerned, the border does not exist. The snake is not classified as endangered. My understanding is that there are several viable populations of the snake in other locations. The species will continue for decades into the future. As long as nothing changes, there will be timber rattlesnakes for years to come. The conservation efforts in Massachusetts are not saving the species. The species does not need to be saved.

      Therefore, the conservation effort must be using some kind of reasoning to boost the population of an unendangered species in a particular location. Generally such a move is justified by demonstrating the positive impact of the species on the local ecosystem. For instance, my understanding is that wolves were reintroduced in the Rockies partly to control the overpopulated mule deer. I do not necessarily think controlling the rodent population is beneficial. My point is that the rodent population would seem to be the main place in the ecosystem where the snake would have any kind of impact — whether positive or negative. However, since the snake consumes so few rodents, the snake has no significant impact on the ecosystem — whether positive or negative.

      Therefore, there is no real reason to boost the snake’s population in Massachusetts except for more arbitrary criteria like that the snakes were here when the settlers came here or that we just would like there to be rattlesnakes in Massachusetts. The former criteria is somewhat understandable, but I maintain it is rather arbitrary. The timber rattlesnakes have not been in this area forever. At some point thousands/millions of years ago there were no timber rattlesnakes here. Where did they come from? Did they migrate here? How long have they been here? Maybe the snakes were here when the settlers arrived, but for how long before? What if the snakes had only been there for 100 years or so? What if they are relatively recent visitors to the area?

      In one sense, I get it. If Massachusetts wants rattlesnakes, fine, but I would rather see money and effort spent on saving species that are in danger of total extinction and/or are necessary to maintain a balanced and healthy ecosystem.

      1. Right, Massachusetts wants timber rattlesnakes. Minnesota wants timber rattlesnakes, etc..

        The reasons value wildlife aren’t don’t boil down to simple equations of factors like 1) “how many of them are there in other parts of the country?”; 2) “what quantity of rodents do they consume, relative to other rodent predators?”; and 3) “in what period of geological or human history did they exist in this part of the country?”

        If those were the only questions to be answered, then 1) we could count the wolves in Alaska and northeastern Minnesota as “enough” for the whole country; 2) we might be able to find some super-efficient, potentially non-native rodent predator more easily, to take the place of all those we’ve killed off; and 3) we would have to suffer from a serious lack of pre-colonial natural history on all the species we’ve killed off.

        Some of the reasons people value wildlife are embodied in the U.S. Endangered Species Act, including our concerns that threats to a species in one place and time are likely, also, to be threats in others. We want to be good stewards of the earth (as it was created, or as it was given over to our dominion, or as we found it, etc.). We want to avoid extinctions. We see, we appreciate, we believe, etc.

        Variations of this article have probably been written about the Eastern Hognose Snake in Minnesota. All of the intrigue over the inconvenience and financial costs of habitat conservation, and the problem of lower popularity, but fortunately with a bit less of the panic, since the Eastern Hognose Snake is non-venomous. By the way, as I understand it, the best way to avoid snakes (for whatever reason, especially just to “let them be”) is to avoid their generally highly-secluded hiding places. And zip up the tent at night, so you don’t wake up on a cold morning, having been found as a warm spot on your odd choice of a campsite. Or so I did every night on my visit to Big Bend in Texas.

  7. Fantastic….Anne…good job ! Are you up for another field trip like last year…let me know. Keep up the good work. Ed

  8. Thanks Randall: Actually, timber rattlers are classified as endangered–by the state. The argument that we shouldn’t bother to save a state-endangered species because it is doing okay in other states has never been accepted by wildlife managers or wildlife advocates. As Aldo Leopold wrote, “Relegating grizzlies to Alaska is about like relegating happiness to heaven; one may never get there.” (I understand that some people might think grizzlies are more valuable than timber rattlers, but that’s not a biological judgement.) And you have it wrong about wolves. They were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park simply because they were the only major natural component missing from that ecosystem. I’m proud to have played a hand in that. “Impacts on ecosystems” is not a reason to preserve biodiversity. We need to preserve timber rattlers not because they do anything for ecosystems, although they do, but simply because they exist. Not sure what you mean when you say “timber rattlesnakes have not been in this area forever.” Nothing has been anywhere forever. Timber rattlers were here long before the European settlers arrived. They spread north after recession of the last glacier 9,000 and 5,000 years ago when temperatures were increasing. At that time there were jaguars in Georgia and armadillos in Virginia. Timber rattlers adapted to decreasing temperatures by hibernating below the frost line; unlike many of our other native snakes that can tolerate freezing. Say the timber rattlers were, as you suggest, only here for the last 100 years. Why do you imagine that would be a reason not to keep them here? The cattle egret wasn’t here 100 years ago; but it is now a native, having arrived on its own. And, as it should be, it is protected.

    1. Ted, I am not sure what you mean by “…has never been accepted by wildlife managers…” I may have my history wrong, but didn’t wildlife management practices exist centuries before the settlers came to this continent (e.g., the managers on the estates of noblemen, etc.)? Wildlife management philosophies have changed greatly over time. At one point, “dangerous” predators were intentionally hunted out of areas populated by humans. Now the pendulum has swung back to trying to negotiate peaceful human-predator coexistence.

      With the example of wolves, I am not talking about how the conservationists justified the reintroduction of wolves to themselves. I am talking about how it was justified to farmers and the public. I just did a quick search of the internet, and controlling deer populations appears to be the main justification for reintroducing wolves anywhere. It is the current argument in the UK, for instance. The reason I bring it up is that the issue with reintroducing rattlesnakes is convincing the public it is a good idea to have rattlesnakes around. It is hard to convince the public when the rattlesnake is not providing any significant ecological benefit. Biodiversity may be a good enough reason, but the family with small children and two dogs living near rattlesnakes may not be easy to convince. It’s a lot easier to convince the family if you can point to some clear ecological benefit.

      Your discussion of the history of the rattlesnake (very interesting, thank you!) demonstrates the basic point I was making: animal populations ebb and flow in numbers and in location. Calling a species “native” is ultimately a subjective, arbitrary judgment. The basic assumed motivation underlying the drive to conserve the rattlesnake is that the arrival of the settlers in New England disturbed the ecosystem to such an extent that the rattlesnakes have been driven out of their “native” territory. In other words, we have arbitrarily decided that the biodiversity in Massachusetts should at least reflect the biodiversity that was here when the settlers arrived (with maybe a few added species that have shown up since). Why did we pick that time period? Why not seek to achieve and maintain the biodiversity of 1,000 years ago or the biodiversity of 1957? What is wrong with the current array of animals in Massachusetts?

      Again, if Massachusetts wants rattlesnakes, then fine. If Massachusetts thinks rattlesnakes ought to be well-represented in their cross-section of ecological biodiversity, fine. My point is simply that such a decision is relatively arbitrary. As such, it is a hard sell to the public.

  9. Hi again Randall: Thanks. I appreciate your endurance. Well, yeah, “wildlife management” before [and well after] the settlers came” consisted of killing every wolf and rattlesnake that showed in gun or hoe range. What’s a “dangerous predator”? Certainly not a timber rattlesnake (unless you’re messing with it). Again, you have it wrong about wolves. Controlling deer was never an argument or even excuse for reintroduction. I certainly agree that it’s “hard to convince the public” to save species it sees as worthless or wrongly imagines to be “dangerous.” No, calling a species native is not “a subjective, arbitrary judgment.” It’s either native or alien. If it got somewhere it is on its own, it’s native. Why do you imagine we “arbitrarily decided that the biodiversity in Massachusetts should at least reflect the biodiversity that was here when the settlers arrived”? Timber rattlers were here then and are here now. You ask, “What is wrong with the current array of animals in Massachusetts?” Are we to understand that you are fine with the extirpation of Atlantic salmon? Should we abandon the effort to reestablish federally endangered American burying beetles on Nantucket and salter brook trout on Cape Cod? Should we not have restored the extirpated peregrine falcon? Should we not have hacked bald eagles to the wild and gotten them nesting again in our state? You happy with “the current array” of aliens like house sparrows, starlings, Asian longhorn beetles, European carp…?

    1. Ted, as a member of the general public and not the conservation community, the defense I have consistently heard and read for the reintroduction of the wolf is the positive ecological impact. I am sorry if you, as someone involved in the project, do not consider that to be an accurate representation of the facts.

      I do not necessarily consider any particular predator to be “dangerous.” I am speaking of public perception. At the very least, a timber rattlesnake is dangerous if it bites you — even though such an event may be rare.

      I do not necessarily have a problem with reintroducing species that were once here. In fact, I am generally a fan of the idea. I love nature. I love wild animals. I like having lots of animals around. Again, I am talking about public perception. Bald eagles are an easy sell. Who doesn’t love our national bird? On the other hand, a timber rattlesnake does not immediately grab a lot of people as a fun idea. It helps if you can give a good reason besides simple biodiversity. Biodiversity may be a cause you personally love, but a mother of small children may not think biodiversity is worth reintroducing a species she thinks might endanger her child (however accurate her perception is).

      And of course calling a species “native” just because it moved here on its own is arbitrary. If a species of hawk were to move to Massachusetts and were to begin hunting the timber rattlesnake out of existence, I think you would be upset. You would call it an “invasive” species and take steps to relocate the hawk or something — especially if the hawk had a large population elsewhere. The idea of a “native” species includes subjective evaluations about whether or not a particular species is causing damage to the ecosystem, etc. When a species moves into the area on its own, wildlife management has to evaluate whether or not such a species is going to unbalance the local ecosystem. If it were to do so, you would take steps to curb the encroachment. If the new species can happily coexist with the current ecosystem, then you’ll adopt it as “native.” Otherwise, it will get labeled as “invasive” or something similar.

      Anyway, I should stop causing trouble. I am happy there are timber rattlesnakes and wolves in the world. Keep up the good work!

  10. We are called to be good Stewards of all God’s creatures. Not just the cute and cuddly ones. My ears perked up when the information for went nationally. I worked as a law enforcement officer on Eglin Federal Reservation for 18 years enforcing laws for enviromental, hunting and protection of endangered animal/plant life. I am fully aware of the delicate balance that must be maintained. I grew up in Athol, MA. until I entered the military at 18 and I was never aware that timber rattlers exsisted in MA. Reading the above article, I support the measure if only to save another creature from being wiped out. Your in place safety precautions (tagging) is excellent.

  11. Thank you so much for this post! I offer a distance learning program at the Perot Museum each spring to dispel the stigma of rattlesnakes. The decline in rattlesnake populations will ultimately kill the agricultural flow here in Texas, especially in the rural parts where rattlesnake roundups take place. Education is key!

    Thank you again,

    Whitney

  12. Ted…
    My only comment on your very well written article, besides the fact it could have been a bit longer (you usually are more lengthy in your analyses) is that with rattlesnake bites, you don’t acquire an immunity – this isn’t a bacterial vector – but the rattlesnake wranglers I’ve met (they mostly collect venom that is used to produce antivenin but also makes belts and canned meat) tell me with each bite you become more sensitive to venom and susceptible to damage, and/or death, at least with hemotoxic venoms.
    Larry Copenhaver

  13. I absolutely agree,i think that the rattlesnake round-ups are despicable.These stunning creatures have to the right to live without persecution.

  14. What a fascinating and interesting article on preserving one of our most treasured treasures, I have personally caught and let go a 4-5′ timber rattler(yellow phase).

  15. I have learned to live with the western diamondback rattlesnake for about 35 years. NO…I didn’t want to…NO, I didn’t like it….but I sure learned a lot about them in 35 years…and I learned to respect them, too.

    Relocated about 30 a year…

  16. Great column, Ted. The New England chapter of The Wildlife Society recently issued a letter supporting MassWildlife’s plan and reinforcing some of the justifcations. We’re sharing that with all the members of Natural Resources Committee so they have it ahead of their oversight hearing.

  17. Well I have to admit a snake controversy is about some of the most heartening news I’ve heard out of Massachusetts since they stopped dunking witches.

    Just as many people from the east coast had an opinion on wolves so too do I have an opinion on rattlesnakes.

    I think a few on some island in the Quabbin is way way too few. Massachusetts is about 10,000 square miles and rattlesnake populations of 60 per mile are not too thick underfoot. I’d say another 600,000 snakes in MA would be about right. Breed em, two litters a year of fifty or so eggs per hatch and one would be there in no time at all. Bring them in like they did the .. well you know, those critters from Jasper National Park.

    A named rock star snake would generate support, I nominate the name Kaa from the Jungle Book, a learned and wise snake who helped Mowgli many times for instance in the war with the dholes, (local name for coy dog in India). Snakes are majestic and kind, wise beyond human ken and loving family members. Snakes would restore balance and trophic cascades out of the Quabbin. Jamie Clark are you listening? Where can I donate?

  18. The Universal Ethician Church in cooperation with The Ethician Foundation established a Timber Rattlesnake Sanctuary on the 1,000 acre Holy Trinity Wilderness Cathedral in E. Texas over 15 years ago.

    The sanctuary is now under a perpetual conservation easement.

    George H. Russell
    President
    http://www.ethicianfoundation.org

  19. ” Everyone, welcome to Snake Island- Tattoo, the antivenom…!…”

  20. Very interesting discussion!

    It seems to fall to one human generation to try and re-balance natural resources, usually having been depleted by the greed or irresponsibility of previous generations.

    Whilst we are conserving some now, could we also be depleting others, in ignorance?

  21. We all need the rattle snakes since they keep the rodent population in check. The day that this magnificent animals disappear, we will see an explosion in the population of rats that are carriers of deadly diseases. Bubonic plague is one of many deadly diseases that are transmitted by rodents. Also rats can and will be devastating to the corn and other grains farmers. Let’s keep this helpful creatures alive!

  22. I live in Montana and lost my dog last year to one of the big brutes. I grew up in northern Washington where they were abundant. Why anywhere would deliberately want to increase their population is far beyond me!!

  23. Snakes in general have been given a bad rap since the time of Adam and Eve and the serpent. Not every animal is liked by every one…but each animal needs to be respected for its uniqueness and contribution to the environment and well being of everyone….don’t they collect venom for various medical conditions..? It is not the animal causing problems but humans who do not respect the rights of animals..and some don’t believe they have rights…we are part of the animal world…what makes one better then the other? Man appears to be the most dangerous of all animals… we take away their habitat and…destroy waters, trees, air, land….etc..Who is the problem? humans….

  24. The Massachusetts State Senate adopted an amendment to the budget to put a “moratorium” on the introduction of the snakes. They should be ashamed of themselves. I hope that when the Senate and House negotiate the differences between their budgets that that amendment is dropped.

  25. Thanks for an excellent piece showcasing the breadth of species protection and restoration that’s needed. In Texas we’re still dealing with the culture and local pageantry of rattlesnake roundups. Because many favorite hunting sites are in layered and/or fractured rock, the use of gasoline in flushing out snakes threatens a broader range of biota than just the visible mammals who might be present. It also risks contaminating groundwater and streams fed by local springs.
    Best wishes to the Conservancy and its Massachussets partners in the program and to the journalists and elected officials who have show a willingness to listen and learn.

  26. Here in coastal San Diego our rattlesnake population has crashed while the human population has exploded. I had pet snakes as a child (NOT poisonous snakes) and am part of the small human minority that views all snakes with affection. I’m passionate about their protection and gently encourage snakes on a trail to get off the trail so they don’t get run over by mountain bikes or killed by ignorant young men.

    Rattlesnakes, they only bite large animals defensively: when threatened, attacked, stepped on, or handled by stupid people. They give a loud and unmistakable warning if they can and they are never aggressive if left alone or if you just back off from a coiled rattling snake. They help keep the rodent population stable and actually provide food for our large hawks. I agree strongly that they deserve protection, should be restocked if needed, and that they help a healthy ecosystem stay healthy.

  27. I think saving these snakes on an island in the Quabbin is a wonderful idea. I used to live fairly close to there in Williamsburg, MA – never lucky enough to actually sight a rattlesnake during my many woodland walks but I’m sure they were out there somewhere. I am glad to hear that the initial opposition is coming around. We are living in California now – plenty of rattlesnakes around here, not to mention cougars, and I’ve not been lucky enough yet to spot either! Keep up the good work.

  28. How encouraging to read about the patient and intelligent work of people paying off in shifting public opinion!

  29. People are too often just uninformed. Some celebrate that disengagement. Others welcome the chance to learn. Years ago, a “city dweller” moved into our rural community and complained to me about the huge rats on his property. It took me 5 minutes to realize he was talking about ‘possums. I told him with great enthusiasm that he was fortunate enough to have North America’s only marsupials, reminded him of Pogo, and left him eagerly returning to tell his wife how fortunate they were. Many people think opossum are ugly too. I am happy to know that we have rattlesnakes and copperheads in our rocky cliff.

  30. This is the first article I’ve read here, and I think it’s a real WINNAH! Most encouraging was the news that the project proceeds and that Mr. Mallet had ‘seen the light’! Now what can be done to introduce this vision of living with/being part of our natural world to kids of every age in our schools?

  31. I think you need to expand on two points.
    1. Rattle snakes are very shy and try to avoid people. A person is too big for them to eat, so they will striker only when they feel threatened. They do not want to waste their venom.
    2. You need to expand on the concept of balance of nature. Without snakes, including rattlers, we would be overrun by rodents. Example, rabbits were introduced in Australia, where there are no natural preditors, and Australia has a rabbit problem.

  32. You still didn’t address why we should save them.What is the benefit?

  33. I live in a small town east of Salem, Oregon. A beautiful spot, and according to the literature, good rattlesnake habitat until humans extirpated them from almost the entire Willamette Valley. Except near this town.

    I can’t find much information on it, but there is a known denning site near the town. It is, reportedly, on private property and the property owners protect it.

    Even more interesting is some of the reaction to any threat to the denning site. A recent expansion of a local gravel mining operation on the North Santiam river brought concerns from some resident that any blasting down at the gravel operation might “disturb” the rattlesnake den. The concern was for the snakes safety and comfort, not that they might wander out to see what might be going on.

    I always appreciated the enlightened attitude of some of the locals. Of course, that might change if folks fishing for Chinook Salmon and Steelhead along the North Santiam were to start having confrontations with rattlesnakes.

    As always, it seems to be a matter of education, but there will always be that concern that if one doesn’t kill the rattlesnake, then that snake might bite someone and cause serious injury or death.

    For my part, I let them be if I see them.

  34. I’m terrified of snakes of any kind BUT they were put here by Jehovah for a reason. I’m o.k. if someone IS holding one or it’s in a cage, But out loose – no way. Just leave them alone and most of the time they will leave you alone.

  35. I am dismayed but not surprised at much of the negative reaction to reintroducing a rattlesnake population in Massachusetts. Maybe people fear what they do not know. I live in California and find a rattlesnake or two in my yard each year. They are nothing to be afraid of and actually seem to welcome my assistance in getting them back over the fence and into the wild. These pretty amazing creatures do their part in keeping the rodent population under control and seem to have no interest in attacking humans as long as we respect their space.
    I also think the Texas rattlesnake roundups are barbaric, what kind of people would partake in such a thing? People who are very out of touch with nature apparently.

  36. I grew up in Texas where the only good snake was a dead snake. Now I am afraid of snakes but I respect their right to live. They are definitely needed to keep nature in balance. I believe it is a wonderful idea and hopefully viable plan to help the snakes live in safety from humans and us from them if we would just respect their habitats. Thank you.

  37. Snakes have sadly been maligned for eons. I am appalled at the rattlesnake roundup held every year in Texas. Even in our present time of readily available information on the internet, people are misinformed. Unfortunately, the media can blow information way out of proportion and people are gullible enough to believe it. Snakes play an integral part in our ecosystems. They are NOT bad guys. I get so angry when people find a snake in their yard or business and first response is to kill it. Although I am not a snake lover, I respect and admire them just as I do ALL of nature. I would relocate a snake I found in my yard if it was venomous (or call a wildlife center to assist me). Stay informed so more species can survive this human overpopulated planet.

  38. If all wildlife was left alone to manage this planet they would do a darn sight better job of it than man.

  39. I agree with all that against reintroducing the Timber rattler? Are you NUTS!! for heaven’s sake, most were gotten rid of because backpackers and Washington’s Horsemen could not even use the trails that they fix and maintain because of the tens of thousands of Timber Rattlers in the Mountains of this our state of Washington, people could not even camp in the campgrounds, people were scared!

  40. I salute the staff and supporters of the snake-husbanding project at Roger Williams Park Zoo for two kinds of bravery: (1) for helping to preserve a misunderstood species in the face of uninformed media/public criticism, and (2) for working with venomous (and somewhat dangerous) creatures. As a field geologist/paleontologist, I’ve had MANY close encounters with Western Diamondbacks and Mohave Green rattlers. One diamondback actually crawled into my backpack that I had left on the ground while doing a surface mine survey. It was a very cold morning and the poor thing had evidently sensed the residual heat inside the pack that had accumulated after being on my back for several hours. When I spotted it coiled up inside and gingerly upended the pack, the cold-stiffened snake rolled out onto the ground, much like a disconnected bicycle tire rolling down a hill! It took several minutes for it to recover and move away. As a volunteer at a local herpetology museum, I’ve had ample opportunity to handle non-venomous herps like gopher snakes, king snakes and boa constrictors. They’re beautiful to behold that intimately, but even I experienced that instinctual sweat-inducing fear humans have of large snakes. I can appreciate the community’s bias against the rattler-preservation project. That’s a tough one to overcome!

  41. I’d back of the insults as “other” people who like to hunt, fish, camp, hike, canoe, etc., and are naturally afraid of rattlesnakes–especially if they have children–as ignorant, scared, obsessed, etc. No sense offending the type of reader you need to enlist in your conservationist efforts. Most people who like to ramble in the out-of-doors are “conservationist”–they just don’t know it yet (yes, “ignorant” but don’t call them that, especially when written in an obvious challenging “offensive” tone. I hunt and fish, go camping and canoeing, etc. I’ve seen dozens of rattlesnakes and I’ve killed a few. There is a time and place for them. Camp ground full of children? No. Out int the “wilderness” which Oregon has.., leave them alone. 2 or 3 rodents per year is not exactly what I call rodent control.., it would take thousands of rattlers to control rodents at that rate. Get these “Anti-types” motivated by stopping people from illegally bringing in invasive species of (poisonous ?) snakes from out of country. Look how messed up Florida has become. I’ve read about Anacondas and Pythons etc., but now I’ve heard there is some kind of cross bred Cobra in Florida. Deal with the invasive species and leave the native rattlers alone.

  42. I have a question. My dogs found a snake that looks very similar to this rattlesnake, but it did not have rattles. I got the snake away from the dogs with a stick and put it in a cart thinking it was dead, but when I checked the cart, it was gone. Nothing had access to this cart other than myself. The snake was approximately 4 feet long. I have a sincere respect for all wildlife on this planet. If it is here, it is here for a purpose, but I did not want a snake to bite the dogs nor did I want the dogs to kill the snake. My question – could this have been a rattlesnake who had just not grown the rattles yet? Thank you for any replies.

  43. Hooray for Mass! Rattlesnakes are fearsome beasts, but from experience and my dad’s instruction, I am in favor of preserving these rat eaters! They usually eat undesirable vermin, and occasionally the stray cat. In fact, Dad told me that all snakes are beneficial animals in America! Not so where cobras, mambas, tiapans, and other vicious snakes kill thousands annually.

    Our governments teaches snake capture and eating in survival school! We should give space to all wild critters – they could save our lives some day.

    If you are hell-bent to kill snakes, go to florida and kill all the Pythons you can find; feed their carcasses to Alligators or grind them up for fertilizer!

  44. Rattlesnakes are dangerous but extremely important to the environment. I like and respect
    rattlesnakes but from a distance. Mark in Seattle

  45. The snake population is an important part of our world. I live in the desert area near the mountains of Scottsdale. We have many kangaroo rats that eat everything they can which could barren our land. I have seen many snakes in our area. We are always careful to watch for them and they avoid us. I have saved several snakes of all kinds by stopping cars in our roads. They are vital to the desert.

  46. Snakes are one of many critical predators that keep rodent populations in check. Without them,
    you get a decimated ecosystem filled with hoards of rabbits, gophers, mice, vole, rats, etc., and then those animals eat everything and cause other animals to starve. It’s a matter of balanced populations along the food chain to keep the entire ecosystem in dynamic equilibrium.

    It blows my mind that the general public is less educated about nature today than 50 years ago, and nature awareness was bad way back then, but it’s worse now because most people are so disconnected from nature that they often do not think or care about it, and much less understand how it should function.

    We will never improve on this until the study of wild Ecosystems is a regular (yearly) part of general (lower) education, until all children grow up having a very good working knowledge of the wild ecosystems and species of this planet. Only then will people begin to value all wildlife. Part of this education must include the devastating impacts of human over-population and the pain and suffering it causes to people around the globe as well as the massive destruction it causes to wildlife and ecosystems. Yearly classes should be taught on how to humanely and fairly limit human reproduction such that human numbers, worldwide, slowly and steadily drop to under 1 Billion.

    There is NO way that nature as we once knew it will survive much longer. Thousands of species a year are dropping into extinction, and the main reason for that is human-overpopulation and the direct impacts we cause due to our high numbers on this planet. Even if every person consumed far less, the impacts would still be too much. The world will have 8 Billion people by 2020 and over 11 Billion by 2100. The world had only 1 Billion in 1810, and humans had already devastated many environments and species back then, over 200 years ago. It has only gotten worse since that time.

    Every advance in technology throughout the ages has only led to more resource exploitation and higher human populations, and the cycle goes like that over and over. It’s time to take a hard look at our cultural, religious, and biological urges and see the damage that our actions and beliefs have caused us.
    Nearly all societies value having lots of children, and it’s killing the planet, wildlife, and leading to endless wars in a grotesquely over-crowded planet.

  47. I VERY MUCH agree. We need to protect these beautiful snakes. We need to protect ALL snakes.
    A wise person, knows and realizes, just how helpful snakes are to our planet. We must LEARN to accept and live around them. ( this begins with the CORRECT EDUCATION about snakes, they are reptiles, Not folklore, and old wives tales)
    They are God’s creatures. He made each and every scale and their beautiful designs and colors. He don’t want them to be killed.
    May God, bless, and protect all snakes everywhere.

  48. The hysteria about the release of rattlesnakes on Mt Zion is fueled by what I call “Emotional Ignorance”. Isn’t it amazing that those who know the least about a subject ALWAYS have the strongest opinions and the most to say.

  49. Rattlesnakes are very important in the ecosystem and they would prefer to be left alone and will not attack unless cornered or threatened.

  50. This just in from Advocates for Snake Preservation:

    The Conference Committee decided to let science drive conservation and removed a proposed amendment to the Massachusetts budget that would have hampered the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife’s ability to make independent conservation decisions! Now we need to thank these Snake Heroes for standing with science-based conservation in Massachusetts.

  51. I am a retired fishery biologist from the West Virginia DNR and have raised snakes, given lectures and exhibits to at least 10,000 people during my 45 working years. During every summer, I probably got a daily phone call from someone throughout WV who had a snake problem or concern. So I’ve heard every rumor, misconception, or old-wives tale that you can imagine. About 20 years ago I analyzed death certificates to determine the number of snake bite deaths in WV. Extrapolating to 2016, there were 13 snake bite deaths in 60 years but nine of those were in church! Dogs, horses, cows, and bees are far more dangerous to people in the USA than snakes are. I am presently inventorying timber rattlesnakes on a popular and high-use state forest. We have encountered 60 snakes this year throughout a 15,000 acre area. Only six were in picnic areas and we relocate them if we can. It’s not a big deal in WV. Repopulating Mt. Zion Island is a great idea and should be treated as an unique educational opportunity by area residents.

  52. Great program and great piece Ted. But I must stress that The Roger Williams Zoo should be included with the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program and The Nature Conservancy in the second paragraph. The staff at the zoo are responsible for making the magic happen.