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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.

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I was raised to believe that the underworld is not the sole domain of Satan’s spawn, that evil incarnate is right here on Earth, slithering around, preying on the innocent, and perpetuating the eternal nastiness it started in the Garden of Eden.

And right now, it’s headed straight toward me at a steady clip.

My leg muscles tighten and my veins flood with adrenaline as a deep primordial instinct, combined with my east Texas cultural bias, kicks in. My mind tells me to be reasonable, ignore my lifelong beliefs that serpents are emissaries of death and darkness. But logic stands little chance when you’re face to fang with a blacktail rattlesnake that’s almost 3 feet long–and closing fast.

“How beautiful.” The comment slices through my anxiety and I glance over at Harry Greene, who’s peering through binoculars at the snake he knows well. It’s No. 34 Female. “Look at that beautiful head. She’s flicking her tongue to find a rodent or rabbit trail.”

While Greene gushes admiringly at the snake still slithering my way, his logic gives way to my fears and I take a few steps back. Much to my relief, the snake curls up next to a rock. “A resting coil,” notes Dave Hardy, Greene’s research partner and another man who obviously knows his reptiles.

As I try to jump-start my lungs, I think about a passage from Greene’s book, Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature in which he explains his motivation for traipsing around the backcountry in pursuit of poisonous serpents: “I was curious to find out what it was like to be a snake.”

Beyond that, he believes snakes “are an icon for wilderness” and help us understand and appreciate “the profound uncertainties one lives with, and learns from, in remote places…. My goal…is to help change society’s attitude about snakes. I look forward to the day when people come back from a hike bragging about the beautiful rattlesnake they saw, just as they might cherish an encounter with a bobcat or peregrine falcon.”

I stare at No. 34 Female. While always eager to learn more about wilderness icons and “profound uncertainties,” I can’t help but wonder how anyone could see beauty in a snake or consider a chance meeting a cherished encounter. The cold fact of the matter is that snakes make my skin crawl. I’d rather find maggots in my oatmeal.

Which is not a great attitude for a backpacker to have, since just about every hiking destination in the United States is also snake habitat. That’s why I’m here with Greene and Hardy. It’s time for me to probe the soft underbelly of Crotalus horridus and family, to consider the positive-even humanlike-side of rattlers, and try to swallow some deep-seeded fears.

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.

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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