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Elusive, feared, and nearly extinct

Rattlesnakes get their day in Townshend

TOWNSHEND—Doug Blodgett stood before a group of about 30 people seated in the Townshend Town Hall’s main meeting room on a recent balmy evening to “provide some factual information to tamp down the pervasive myths about rattlesnakes.”

The Windham Regional Woodlands Association hosted Blodgett, a rare-snake researcher and wildlife biologist with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, for his presentation, “Rattlesnakes in Vermont.”

On April 21, attendees, including a handful of children, braved slides and videos of an animal most people consider very scary.

Blodgett told the group some people in past presentations found themselves so vexed by projected pictures of the “much-maligned and misunderstood” reptile, they had to leave the room.

Endangered species

For most New Englanders, rattlesnakes are more legend than daily encounter. Although Vermont has a native rattlesnake population, “we are not in Texas,” Blodgett said, so the chance of seeing a rattler is pretty slim.

There are a number of reasons humans and rattlesnakes so rarely cross paths in Vermont.

It isn’t just because we are at the northern end of their territory — it’s partly because European settlers worked very hard at diminishing the snakes’ numbers.

They succeeded.

According to Blodgett, at the turn of the last century, the new arrivals stalked and killed rattlesnakes and other wildlife en masse. Whereas the native peoples revered the reptiles, the Europeans and their descendants drove rattlesnakes to extinction in Maine and Rhode Island.

In Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont, the rattlesnake’s status is endangered. There are only a few hundred of them in Vermont, living in two dens: one near Lake Champlain and another in western Rutland County.

Today, Blodgett said, our attitudes about the snake aren’t much better.

He displayed a slide of an illustration from a contemporary fourth-grade textbook showing two panels of a boy walking under a tree. In the first, above the boy’s head, a snake is coiled around a branch. In the next panel, the snake’s fangs are sunk deeply into the boy’s neck, with no provocation from the boy.

To more accurately portray reality, Blodgett showed a video he filmed of a Vermont rattlesnake. The snake remained in one place, with no apparent movement, for about 30 seconds.

“This is very boring footage because they don’t do anything,” he said, noting he was filming about eight feet away from the snake.

Rattlesnakes “want to get warm, lie around, and eat a mouse” about once a week, Blodgett said.

“They are not hunting for us,” he asserted. Most of the cold-blooded creature’s time above-ground is spent thermo-regulating: moving into or out of direct sunlight. And this only happens between mid-April and early-November. During the winter, “they den deep because of the cold,” Blodgett said.

When a rattlesnake’s “antennae” — taking the form of hundreds of ribs spanning its entire length, picking up the most minute vibrations — tell it a lumbering human is coming, the snake doesn’t lie in wait, ready to attach itself to a person’s neck. It slithers away to hide.

Rattlesnakes “will do just about anything to avoid contact with us,” Blodgett said.

Blodgett, whose job involves finding and tagging rattlesnakes for research, has often had a hard time finding a snake he knew was within a few feet of him. The electronic reader assured him the tagged snake was nearby, but the reptile so wished to be left alone, and blended in so nicely with its surroundings, that Blodgett had to work extra hard to find the creature.

Not cute like pandas

So, if they want to avoid us, and only attack if truly provoked, why are we so afraid of snakes?

Blodgett provided some possible answers.

When humans evolved out of the Great Rift Valley in East Africa, we were sharing that space with about 120 varieties of venomous snakes.

“We had good reason to be afraid,” Blodgett said.

But the rattlesnake is the only venomous snake native to Vermont. And it rarely uses its venom on humans unless threatened.

“They don’t just dish it out willy-nilly,” Blodgett said. The rattlesnake expends a lot of energy making more venom, and by the time it produces enough, it may miss what it really needs the venom for: getting some dinner.

Thus, Blodgett said, “we develop — in my view — a really irrational fear of snakes."

Perhaps it is because snakes are “weird to us,” he said. They have no hair, arms, or legs. They are not considered cute and fuzzy.

Blodgett gave another possible reason our modern culture maintains snakes are evil: because of the Bible, which portrays snakes as “the embodiment of Satan.”

“When you are the embodiment of Satan, that’s a very low bar,” Blodgett said.

Giving a more recent example, Blodgett mentioned a film from a decade ago.

“ Snakes on a Plane? Of course it’s Snakes on a Plane,” he said. “If it was Pandas on a Plane, nobody would buy those tickets.”

Have you seen one?

Attendee Ted Dunn asked Blodgett how many people at previous presentations claimed they had seen a rattlesnake.

“Usually one person” per event, Blodgett said.

“Well, I’m that guy,” Dunn said.

Dunn, who told the group he has lived in Bennington his whole life, says he saw a rattlesnake when he was a child.

“I saw one in 1963,” he said, when he was out riding bikes with his friends.

Blodgett told him it was certainly possible. There was an active rattlesnake den in the Pownal area until the early 1960s.

Windham County Forester Bill Guenther, who introduced Blodgett at the beginning of his talk, told The Commons his rattlesnake story.

When Guenther was a young man, he was on a hike at Black Mesa, the state park and nature preserve in the Oklahoma panhandle.

“I read the place had prairie rattlesnakes, which have the most dangerous venom” of all rattlesnakes, Guenther said.

“I spoke with the park rangers and told them, ‘I’m not afraid of grizzlies,’” and other predatory animals, Guenther said, “but I’m a little nervous” about rattlesnakes.

He asked the park rangers, “what do you think about me coming out in snake chaps?” which he described as “like chainsaw pants.”

The park rangers’ answer, according to Guenther: “We think you’d look like a scared-shitless Eastern boy!”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #354 (Wednesday, April 27, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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