America's Snake: The Rise and Fall of the Timber Rattlesnake
Why would Alcott Smith, at the time nearly seventy, affable and supposedly of sound mind, a blue-eyed veterinarian with a whittled-down woodman’s frame and lupine stamina, abruptly change his plans (and clothes) for a quiet Memorial Day dinner with his companion, Lou-Anne, and drive from his home in New Hampshire to New York State, north along the western rim of a wild lake, to a cabin on a corrugated dirt lane called Porcupine Hollow? Inside the cabin fifteen men quaffed beer, while outside a twenty-five- inch rattlesnake with a mouth full of porcupine quills idled in a homemade rabbit hutch. It was the snake that had interrupted Smith’s holiday dinner.
Because of a cascade of consequences there aren’t many left in the Northeast: timber rattlesnakes are classified as a threatened species in New York and an endangered species everywhere in New England except Maine and Rhode Island where they’re already extinct. They could be gone from New Hampshire before the next presidential primary. Among the cognoscenti it’s speculated whether timber rattlesnakes ever lived in Quebec; they definitely did in Ontario, where rattlesnakes inhabited the sedimentary shelves of the Niagara Gorge but eventually died off like so many failed honeymoons consummated in the vicinity of the falls.
That rattlesnakes still survive in the Northeast may come as a big surprise to you, but that they have such an impassioned advocate might come as an even bigger surprise. Actually, rattlesnakes have more than a few advocates, both the affiliated and the unaffiliated, and as is so often the case, this is a source of emotional and political misunderstandings, turf battles and bruised egos. As you may have guessed already, Alcott Smith is a timber rattlesnake advocate, an obsessive really, who inhabits the demilitarized zone between the warring factions. How else to explain this spur-of-the-moment, four-hour road trip?
By the time Smith arrived, the party had been percolating for a while. Larry Boswell opened the door. As he spoke, a silver timber rattlesnake embossed on an upper eyetooth caught the light. Boswell owned the cabin and access to a nearby snake den, a very healthy one, where each October the unfortunate rattlesnake outside, following its own prehistoric biorhythms, had crawled down a crevice and spent more than half the year below the frost line dreaming snake dreams. Porcupines also favor sunny slopes, which likely is how the two met, one coiled and motionless and the other blundering forward.
You’d think that after thousands of years of cohabitation on the sunny, rocky slopes of the Northeast, rattlesnakes and porcupines might have worked things out, but not so. No doubt, both animals instinctually took a defensive stance, and whether the snake struck and quills came out, or the startled porcupine lashed the snake with its pincushion tail both had been severely compromised. Without Smith’s help, the rattlesnake might have been doomed to starve as the quills festered. Ailing snakes die slowly, very slowly. One western diamondback is reported to have survived (and grown longer) in a wooden box for eighteen months without food and water, and a timber rattlesnake from Massachusetts lived twelve months (in and out of captivity), with its face consumed by a white gelatin-like fungus, a Quasimodo in the Blue Hills.
The cabin was small, dank, poorly lit. There wasn’t a sober individual in the group. Lou-Anne thought of Deliverance, and all evening she stood by the front door. Smith examined the snake and found fifteen quills embedded inside its mouth, which curled back a corner
of the upper lip and perforated the margin of the glottis, gateway to the lungs, compromising both the snake’s breathing and its eating while protecting the outside world from the business end of the fabled, hollow (and grossly misunderstood) fangs. Essentially, the snake’s mouth had been pinned open. Although this was a rattlesnake-tolerant (if not friendly) group, Smith wasn’t about to trust any of their less-than- steady hands to hold the animal. With imaginary blinkers on, Smith worked on a cleared-off coffee table in the middle of the cabin, with the overly supportive crowd keyed to every nuance. Smith gripped the head with one hand and pulled quills with the other, while the snake’s dark, thick torso sluggishly undulated across the coffee table. Slowly, methodically, he plucked each quill with a hemostat, and the men, who had tightened into a knot around the coffee table, cheered, toasted, chugged. After the last quill was pulled, the ebullient crowd roared approvingly, and the snake was returned to the hutch. Eight-years later, Lou-Anne, still jazzed by the potpourri of emotions, intensity, and images of that night, remembers feeling “relieved to have left there alive” as the couple returned home on the morning side of midnight.
The timber rattlesnake had been discovered several days before the tabletop surgery. Three of the unaffiliated herpetological adventurers—a couple from Connecticut and a man from northern Florida—had concluded an annual spring survey of the bare-bone outcrops behind the cabin. There, in the remote foothills above the shores of a narrow valley, where a wild brook strings together a series of beaver ponds, is one of the most isolated series of rattlesnake dens in the Northeast, perhaps in the entire country. (The word infested might come to more discriminatory minds.) For me, seeing those small, gorgeous pods of snakes basking in the October sunshine is stunning, a natural history right of passage, sort of like a bar mitzvah without the rabbi.
Beside the rattlesnakes, the trio found a fresh porcupine carcass in
the rocks, unblemished, and on their way back down the mountain, they found the quilled snake, coiled loosely in a small rock pile one hundred fifty feet behind the cabin, last snake of the afternoon. The rock pile was at the base of a corridor, a bedrock groove in the side of the mountain that rattlesnakes use as a seasonal pathway from the den to the wooded shore and back. The cabin’s unkempt backyard is a veritable (and historic) snake thoroughfare. One of these three, a man who calls himself Diamondback Dave, thought he could pull the quills. Well known in the small, fervid circle of snake enthusiasts, Diamondback Dave maintains the website Fieldherping .com, where, among scores of photographs posted of himself (and a few friends) holding various large and mostly venomous snakes, you can view a full-frame picture of his bloody hand, the injury compliments of a recalcitrant banded water snake. You can also read synopses of field trips and random journalistic entries like this one:
I had a meeting with the director of a wildlife conservation society to discuss strategies on protecting rattlesnake populations in Eastern North America. What turned out was a weird combination of trespass warnings and a lengthy and unnecessary lecture on going back to school and finishing my degree, so that I could make 80,000 a year . . . welcome to the new age of Academic Wildlife Exploitation! . . . Business as usual.
Although in the spring of 2003, Diamondback Dave had never “pinned” a snake, a term that means immobilizing a venomous reptile’s head against the ground using any of a number of implements—snake hook, snake stick, forked branch, golf putter, and so forth—he
convinced his two friends that he knew what he was doing. He did. Once the rattlesnake was pinned, Diamondback Dave directed his female companion to hold the body. Three visible quills protruded several inches from a corner of the snake’s mouth, fixed like miniature harpoons with their barbed tips. Dave’s efforts to pull them proved fruitless, however; not wanting to risk further injury to the snake, he released it.
On their way back to the car, they reported the incident to Boswell, who returned the following day and transferred the rattlesnake from rock pile to rabbit hutch. In his spare time, Boswell taught police officers and game wardens how to safely catch and relocate nuisance snakes, and he had been issued a permit by New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to harbor them on a temporary basis. This snake needed more than he could offer, though, so the next afternoon, Boswell phoned Alcott Smith.
After surgery, the timber rattlesnake recuperated in the hutch on Larry’s side of the bed. Three weeks later, when it was able to swallow a chipmunk, the snake was returned to the rock pile, where it immediately disappeared into a jumble of sun-heated stones. Today, the quilled snake can be found on Dave’s glitzy website among a host of other photographs. Just scroll down to the image labeled “Spike.”
When it comes to eliciting empathy, it’s the back of line for rattlesnakes, creatures seemingly with, face it, not much personality. One could argue that our squeamishness at the sight of a snake began with the story of the Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis, but it also may be coded in our genes, suggests Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson. Humans, says Wilson, could be hardwired to fear snakes. In Africa, where our closest primate kin have multiple predators to fear, chimpanzees have been observed shadowing dangerous snakes at a safe distance, staring and hollering. Charles Darwin even weighed in on the issue of ophidiophobia: “I took a stuffed snake into the monkey-house, and the hair on several of the species instantly became erect,” he wrote in 1872 in The Descent of Man. Though timber rattlesnakes rarely harm humans or domesticated animals, Americans nevertheless have a long history of organized efforts to collect and eliminate them.
In 1680, a Massachusetts hunter could earn two shillings a day killing timber rattlesnakes, and beginning in 1740, Massachusetts chose one day each fall for a community-wide hunt, called a rattlesnake bee, which took place in towns across the state. In 1810, hunters in Pennsylvania strapped powder horns to rattlesnakes, lit them, and released them back into their dens; in 1849, in Madison County, Iowa, teams competed for the most snakes killed. The prize for the winning team: two bushels of corn. Bounties were paid for rattlesnakes in New York and Vermont into the early 1970s.
Twenty-five years ago, I visited a Vermont town clerk to examine old bounty records. “Why,” she asked, “would anyone care?” That was a hard question to answer. I had just driven an hour and a half to learn something about the snakes and the people of western Vermont, maybe something about the hard-rock ledges. I found it difficult to articulate what I was after. She pressed me again.
“It’s not every day someone comes here to talk about snakes. I
don’t even know where that book is.”
She apparently found it hard to say the word rattlesnake.
“I saw one this spring, crossing the road near the Blatsky River. I can’t stand to look at ’em.”
A man in a three-piece suit walked into the clerk’s office. He was in a hurry.
“Hey, Bob,” the clerk said, “This guy wants to know about rattlesnakes.”
Finally, she had said the word, hanging on to the a’s and t’s as though she were shaking a castanet. (Until that moment, I hadn’t thought of the word rattle or rattlesnake onomatopoetically.) Bob apparently didn’t like rattlesnakes, either. He said he had killed one in East Steeple, not far from Crystal Lake, a couple years previously. Whacked off its head with a hoe.
No one wanted to touch the bounty book, so I collected it myself. What I found was that between 1899 and 1904, two hundred forty-one timber rattlesnakes were bountied, a dollar a piece. The earliest bounty was paid on May 9, and the latest on October 19. Of the two hundred forty-one snakes listed, sixty-two were killed between May 9 and May 31, and one hundred fifty-four after August 21, when the snakes, including the neonates, had returned to their dens. This seasonal pattern confirmed that timber rattlesnakes go to bed early and wake up late.
One snake hunter, Andy Howard, collected the one-dollar bounty on one hundred ninety-six rattlesnakes during that five-year period. According to the town clerk, Andy liked liquor, and the bounty payments warmed the long, cold winters, so he made it his business to find snake dens. On September 13, 1902, he killed thirty-seven rattlesnakes.
Only twenty-five snakes were bountied from early June to mid-August. This is not too surprising. Timber rattlesnakes need the ice to melt and the soil to warm before they are ready to expend energy on growth, to leave the vicinity of their dens for the wooded ridge, where they lie in wait for mice and chipmunks. To find one in summer is a matter of chance. Great chance.
There were no records from 1905 through 1947. After 1947, sixty-four snakes were killed in a twenty-year period, ending in 1967. With so few snakes to record, the bounty book began noting the length of each snake and the number of rattles segments: the longest was four-and- a- half feet.
In some regions of the country snake killing is still sanctioned. As recently as 1989, Clairemont, Texas (now a ghost town), held its forty-first and final Peace Officers Rattlesnake Shoot, in which law-enforcement officials and other contestants competed for points by shooting live rattlesnakes. A shooter was awarded ten points for a head shot, five for a body shot; prizes were given for five categories: masters, first place, second place, third place, and guest.
Several years ago, Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum of Art in Hanover, New Hampshire, exhibited the watercolors of George Catlin, a native Pennsylvanian who traveled throughout the nineteenth-century American West painting the lives of Plains Indians. Catlin’s subjects engaged the landscape—hunting bison, praying and dancing, preparing food, pitching tepees in the shadows of great mountains and along the shores of winding rivers.
Not all the watercolors in the exhibit celebrated the West, however. In one painting, Catlin depicted his own home ground, the green woods and rocky ledges above the Susquehanna River in central Pennsylvania. The time is early May. Dozens of timber rattlesnakes lounge on the rocks, basking in the sunshine, while two men attack them with clubs and guns. A boy, perhaps the artist himself, stands in the background, screened by foliage, watching, waiting his turn.
Catlin’s chance eventually came. On another occasion, the artist, known for his sensitivity to vanishing cultures, allegedly destroyed a Pennsylvania den by strapping a powder horn to the tail of a rattlesnake. He lit the fuse and released the snake into the talus, towing the bomb behind it.
More than one hundred fifty years have passed since Catlin painted the snake hunt, yet these timid serpents still evoke the same fear and loathing that motivated the destruction of America’s other predators. We’ve since made our peace with most of these—bald and golden eagles, wolves, and catamounts, the alligators and crocodiles, the silver-tipped grizzlies. Why not with the rattlesnake Decades ago, we stopped slaughtering hawks and owls. We welcomed gray wolves back to Yellowstone, red wolves to South Carolina, and black-footed ferrets to the Northern Plains. Today, we celebrate jaguars in Arizona, ocelots in South Texas, and great white sharks off Cape Cod, and we commiserate with the plight of polar bears swimming to exhaustion in the Beaufort Sea. But when the subject turns to timber rattlesnakes, we are collectively and decidedly pigheaded about their future; trying to sell an ophidiophobe the merits of rattlesnakes is as difficult as trying to convince a member of Red Sox Nation on the merits of the Yankees. Timber rattlesnakes are perceived as bad to the bone. Even those who care can’t agree on the best way to ensure survival of the snakes; worse, it is difficult for the different factions even to hear each other’s concerns.
Forty years after Kauffeld’s death, timber rattlesnakes, which are not inherently aggressive—just unforgiving of being mishandling—are still pursued by both collectors and persecutors, and face a litany of other problems ranging from isolated colonies, depleted gene pools, and inbreeding—a prescription for local extinction—to fatal fungal infections, climate change, automobile traffic, and political paralysis. Timber rattlesnakes, which are as American as apple pie, still live a short drive from Boston, Hartford, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Richmond, Saint Louis, and Minneapolis, which says something about their passive nature, their secretive ways, and the breadth of their evolutionary adaptations, which allows them to count among their immediate neighbors, animals as geographically disparate as peccaries, alligators, and moose.
The story of the timber rattlesnake (America’s snake) is as much a story of human attitudes—good and bad, but rarely indifferent—and of places—pockets of wildness between the Atlantic and the west bank of the Mississippi—as it is the story of a snake.
A former Bronx Zoo zoologist, Ted Levin is the author of Blood Brook: A Naturalist’s Home Ground, Backtracking: The Way of the Naturalist, and Liquid Land: A Journey through the Everglades, which won the Burroughs Medal in 2004. He has written for Sports Illustrated, Audubon, National Wildlife, National Geographic Traveler, and other publications.
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