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May 2000

Love Thy Rattlesnake

Encountering a rattlesnake is a splendid moment in time, a cherished wilderness event--at least that's the view of Arizona researchers trying to change public perception of all things fanged.

There was a swamp near the house where I grew up, and thus, a lot of snakes in our neighborhood. They slithered into our living room if the sliding glass door wasn’t tightly closed. They sunned themselves on the patio. They lurked around the woodpile. Somewhere in my formative years-I don’t know how-I became the family’s official snake killer. And I was good at it.

My killing hoe was propped against the back door, so I could easily grab it and quickly dispatch any and all copperheads, cottonmouths, or rattlesnakes. At least that’s what I assumed they were at the time. Looking back, my victims were probably harmless water snakes, but that was beside the point. I was doing a good deed and my reputation as a serpent serial killer drew high praise from everyone in the neighborhood. In our neck of the swamp, there was zero tolerance for all things that slithered.

It’s been 25 years since I retired my hoe, and I’m now a mature, learned, politically correct adult-still haunted by snakes. I live and hike extensively in Arizona (home to 11 different species of rattlesnakes), and constantly worry about running into a poisonous snake. Oddly, though, a small part of me wants to encounter snakes because I enjoy seeing wildlife in the wild. It’s the other part of me, the one that can’t shake the notion that snakes are akin to vermin and are a pestilence damned by the Almighty, that wins out in the end.

I tried to explain my conflicting feelings during a conversation last summer with Harry Greene, renowned herpetologist and professor at New York’s Cornell University. I even confessed that I had killed “a few” snakes as a kid. “We’re all atoning for sins of the past when it comes to snakes,” consoled Greene, adding that he meets eco-minded, snake-loathing people all the time.

As part of my atonement, I ventured with Greene and Hardy to the Chiricahua Mountains of southern Arizona, where they’d track blacktail rattlesnakes and hope to catch glimpses of the secret lives of serpents. If we were lucky, they told me on the drive in, I’d get to hold a snake or carry one in my pack back to their field research station. I tried to summon up my best, “Ohboyohboy!” but realized my vocal chords and several other vital organs were in my shoes. I smiled the smile of the damned.

“We’re looking for No. 9 Male,” says Hardy as he aims a hand-held antenna and turns a dial on the radio receiver attached to his belt. For the past 11 years, Greene and Hardy have used a process called radiotelemetry to track blacktail rattlesnakes throughout Arizona’s Coronado National Forest. Hardy, an anesthesiologist by profession, puts the snakes under and surgically implants a tiny radio transmitter inside the serpent’s body cavity. The transmitter lets the two men monitor snakes for years at a time, gathering knowledge about behavior that heretofore was mere speculation. Right now, they have radios in 14 snakes. No. 9 is one of their oldest study participants; they’ve been following him for 8 years.

“I’m getting a signal,” says Hardy, his voice rising in excitement as the radio beeps faintly. Walking through desert scrub in the direction of the signal as the beeps grow louder, Greene tells me they’ve worried about No. 9 lately. Rather than hunting and looking for mates during the busy summer monsoon season, No. 9 has been inactive. Until a few days ago, he stayed coiled under the same bush for almost 2 weeks.

“He’s right where he was yesterday,” says Hardy, the first to reach No. 9’s hiding place. I lag behind, still squeamish about purposely approaching a rattlesnake, but a tad empowered by the harmless, earlier encounter with No. 34.

Over the years, they’ve watched No. 9 in all facets of blacktail life. “One time,” Greene recalls, laughing, “we saw No. 9 in combat with another, smaller male who was copulating with a female. No. 9 sat on the guy to dislodge him and win the female.”

Those must have been the salad days for No. 9, now estimated to be near the ripe old age of about 15 years. “He could be getting senile,” adds Greene wistfully. “We may be watching his decline.”

A senile snake? That’s a new one for me, as is the tinge of sympathy I unexpectedly feel for this cold-blooded reptile entering his autumn years. I ask my herpetologist hiking partners if they have sentimental feelings about their subjects. “Oh yes!” Hardy responds emphatically. “We identify with each snake as an individual. When No. 9 dies, we’ll be sad.”

Much like Diane Fossey and her Rwandan gorillas, a big part of Hardy and Greene’s lives revolve around their field subjects. During the summer months, when the blacktails are most active, Hardy and Greene spend the better part of each day traipsing around a trail-less study area, climbing boulder-strewn hillsides and pushing through thorny brush in stifling heat, all in the name of research.

Yet it’s unlikely Hollywood will make a movie about the pioneering wildlife research of these two. As Greene points out, snakes lack the “intrinsic cuteness” of, say, a panda, so it’s hard to get the public to rally around saving snakes or even to want to learn more about them. Which is a pity because snakes play a critical role in maintaining healthy ecosystems. If we didn’t have snakes, we’d have disease-carrying rodents (a favorite food source) up to our ears.

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