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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.

We make the rounds in Silver Creek Canyon and check on snakes Hardy and Greene located a day earlier. Hardy turns his radio dial and tries to pick up No. 41 Male, who’s been “hanging out lately” with No. 24 Female.

Standing in a dry drainage carpeted with brown forest duff and covered by a canopy of oak trees, he picks up No. 41’s signal loud and clear. While their enthusiasm mounts, I frantically scan the ground for the rattlesnake. My aversion is still strong enough that I have to fight off panic when I know one is nearby, even though I’ve been within 20 feet of three blacktails today and they all could have cared less.

“I spot a blacktail,” says Greene after a few minutes of searching. He points to a sun-dappled slope on my right. There, a few feet away, is a fat, 31?2-foot-long rattlesnake stretched out on the leaves. Like all rattlesnake species, the blacktail’s skin coloring and patterns are designed to blend seamlessly in with its environment. “Without the signal, you’d have walked right past him, never knowing he was there,” he adds.

As we watch No. 41 soundlessly navigate the thick layer of dead leaves and slip behind a log to get away from us, I’m faced with a realization that’s both disturbing and comforting. For all the snakes that have rattled at me while hiking-there have been more than a few-I’ve probably unknowingly passed 10 times that many that silently watched me amble by. Where are all of the fanged demons of my hoe-wielding youth? The ones lying in wait, anxious to strike a hapless human?

“These snakes will always move away without being seen, if they can. Concealment is their best defense,” explains Greene. “If they feel exposed, then they’ll rattle to let you know they’re there. It’s a very effective warning.”

Indeed, wilderness wanderers should be thankful that almost all of the most commonly encountered poisonous snake species in North America are “buzz-worms” with a tail-end alarm that shakes up to 55 times a second and stops hikers dead in their tracks. In Asia and Africa, where many species of dangerous snakes don’t rattle (and good footwear and medical care is often hard to come by), snake bite fatalities are significantly higher than in the United States. Even though 63 percent of the U.S. population is afraid of snakes, according to a recent Harris poll, Americans stand a greater chance of slipping and dying in the shower than succumbing to a snake bite. Greene, an avid backpacker, points out that there are far worse things that can happen to wilderness travelers. “If a rattlesnake gets me, I’m going to hurt really bad, but I’m probably going to be able to hike out to medical care. That wouldn’t be the case if I gashed my femoral artery.”

Still, it’s wise to heed the warning of the buzzworm. And, of course, never attempt to handle a poisonous snake in the wild, or kiss one. (Every year, the folks at the Arizona Poison Center in Tucson get a bite victim or two who, for some unfathomable reason, was trying to plant a wet one on a rattlesnake.) In snakey places like Arizona, California, Texas, or Florida, hikers should be extra aware of where they’re placing feet and hands. “When you’re hiking down the trail and a snake rattles, it’s only sending a warning not to come any closer,” adds Greene. “Just walk around (giving it plenty of room). It’s not going to come after you.”

The more I learn about the habits of these rattlesnakes, the more I appreciate them. For instance, like all rattlesnake species, blacktails are creatures of habit. Each snake has its own hibernation site it faithfully returns to in late fall and emerges from in March. Although the snakes aren’t territorial, Greene and Hardy’s research shows that each blacktail seems to have carved out its own home range about .5 square mile in size. They have preferred hunting sites and travel routes. The staple food is rodents.

Like us humans, they also have complicated sex lives. “When the monsoon rains begin in mid-July, males start looking for receptive females,” explains Greene. What follows is a form of snakey foreplay that involves tongue flicking, back stroking, and eventually, the female not being easily won over. “She usually slaps the male away with her tail, then he tries again. Eventually, after hours of courting, she’ll either get away from him or let him do it.”

Last summer was something of a love fest, thanks to an unusually long monsoon season. Hardy and Greene observed seven couples mating, including one pair that went at it for 22 hours. The two men have also witnessed bouts between males wrestling over a female and males doggedly pursuing a female. Just like humans.

By the second day my attitude toward venomous serpents has shifted. Although the need never arises for me to carry a snake in my pack, I do handle a blacktail without it harming me, although I almost harm it. In an effort to ensure that the snake doesn’t wiggle loose, I squeeze too hard. The snake writhes in discomfort before Hardy tells me to loosen my death grip. After relaxing (me, and probably the snake, too), I’m surprised at how warm and fuzzy it feels, and how frightened and vulnerable it seems.

But the epiphany comes when we check on No. 20 Female. Although I’ve observed seven blacktails in the past 24 hours, this snake that we find coiled under an agave is the first one I’ve viewed the same way I do other wildlife. I see a creature intricately woven into the fabric of the wilderness, a highly evolved creature superbly capable of surviving in the brutal, potentially deadly high desert environs. I stare at her lidless eyes and she stares back at a reformed snake killer who feels only respect.

My intimate glimpse into the lives of rattlesnakes has me thinking about them months after my trip. Did No. 15 Female, who was in a woodrat hole hiding from No. 27 Male, dump him or mate? Is No. 26 Male, who was in hot pursuit of No. 34 Female, going to make No. 41 Male pay for moving in? Is No. 9 Male going to see another spring?

I eagerly read e-mail updates from Hardy on the status of the snakes. In late October, when the blacktails are moving to their hibernation sites, Hardy sends me a report. “I just tracked No. 9, and he looked to be in excellent condition.”

The hiking herpetologists will be back on the trail of the blacktails this spring and summer, hoping to observe some birthing females and their young. I’d like to pay the babies a visit, and most of all, see how No. 9 is doing. I’m rooting for that tough, slightly senile snake. I just hope he doesn’t run into anyone from my old neighborhood.

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