In the Spring of 1966, I agreed to help a graduate student with a study of the Pacific rattlesnake. The Pacific rattlesnake, a pit viper, inhabits the southern portion of the Willamette Valley of western Oregon, wherever there are rocky, south-facing slopes. Several such sites, along with the snake's winter dens, have long been known. The sad part is that people are so afraid of these snakes, because they're vipers and poisonous, that they kill them indiscriminately. If fact, it's considered a sport for the macho men to go to the dens in Autumn and to kill as many rattlesnakes as possible while the snakes gather prior to hibernation.
The periodic slaughter was justified by the supposition that rattlesnakes traveled widely and thus were a danger to the human populace living in a den's vicinity. Consequently, rattlesnakes were disappearing from the valley, so a study was designed to determine just how far the snakes really travel from their dens during late Spring, Summer, and early Autumn, which we thought was less than about two miles. If this was true, there would be few human-snake encounters, because almost all dens were more than two miles from human habitation. Hence, the slaughter would be unjustifiable.
To accomplish such a study, we had to locate a den unknown to anyone and therefore unmolested, a task that turned out to be easier than we thought might be. By looking at aerial photographs of the Willamette Valley, Ron, a friend of his, and I could locate the south-facing, rocky slopes. After some study, we selected a site near the town of Lebanon on the east side of the valley. We went to visit the site on the 17th of April. As it turned out, the rocky slope was on a farmer's property, so we had to get permission to climb the hill and look for rattlesnakes, which we thought would just be emerging from their winter quarters.
The rocky slope that housed the rattlesnake dens (left). Closer view of the same rocky slope, but in the area of a den (right).
We found the farmer at home, and asked if we can climb the hill, which was about three miles from his house. We told him that we wanted to find the rattlesnakes' den, catch them, and mark them.
"Ya sure you fellas know what yer adoin'?" he asked.
"Yes," Ron relied.
"Well," he said, "I've never seen a rattlesnake on my place in the fifty years I've lived here. But if ya want to hunt fur 'em, ya go right ahead."
Leaving the old farmer shaking his head, we drove as close to the rocky slope as we could and walked the last quarter mile of so to the base of the surprisingly steep hill. It was not what we expected. Unlike other denning sites we had examined, which were relatively open with scant vegetative ground cover other than grasses and some herbs, this hill was covered with big-leafed maples; oaks; a thick layer of poison oak up to our waists; much fallen wood, including some whole trees; and everywhere it seemed were briars and brambles with the worst thorns we could imagine, all covering a jumble of broken sandstone.
Partway up the slope, the ground came alive with rattlesnakes. Those we couldn't see, which was most of them, we could hear as we waded through the almost-impenetrable vegetation. After much careful searching, we found three, distinct dens, each wreathed with buzzing snakes. While we were elated with both the heretofore unknown dens and the number of flicky-tongued residents, we were less than thrilled with the prospect of catching the snakes in such dense vegetation.
A big rattlesnake mostly hidden in front of me (left). A big rattlesnake at my feet (right).
Nevertheless, we could hardly wait to get started and were at the hill bright and early the next day, hoping to get to the dens while it was still cold enough to keep the snakes inside--but no such luck. The snakes, already beginning to spread out, were everywhere, which made the trip no less hazardous than that of the previous day, when we had found a three-foot rattler coiled under the single fallen leaf of a big-leafed maple.
Reaching the first den, we began catching snakes. I got a mite worried about midday, because I was standing on my left foot as I gently pinned down a big snake with my right foot, while holding one behind its head with my right hand, and another in the snake stick in my left hand. My concern was that the snake being held down by my foot was doing its level best to work its fangs through my boot, while the one in my right hand was trying its level best to pierce my fingers by jabbing its fangs outside of and alongside of its mouth, a common tactic.
The first den from a safe distance; five rattlesnakes are sunning themselves at the den's entrance (left). A closer view of two rattlesakes after I had removed some of the vegetation from the den's entrance (right).
I'm not sure how many snakes we caught that first day, but it was a lot of hard work. In fact, it was the most dangerous snake hunting any of us had ever done. We had all the snakes we could handle by four o'clock because we each had to carry a heavy sack of thoroughly agitated rattlesnakes from a separate den down to the car, a difficult task at best.
Since the road we had to take back and forth from the hill went through the farmer's yard, he hailed us as we left for the day. "Did ya find any snakes?" he asked.
"You bet. We found three dens," we answered with obvious excitement as we got out of the car and opened the trunk in which there are three big, writhing, buzzing sacks of snakes.
"Well I'll be go ta hell! What d'ya know. I'da swore there was no rattlers here much as I've walked over this place in the last fifty years. You boys can have all ya want and happy to be rid of 'em. Ya goin' to get more?"
"Tomorrow," said Ron.
"Good! Good! Ya can have all ya want, jist git them sons-o'-bitches outa here!"
We were back the next day, and caught more snakes. We need a minimum of twenty snakes per den. By late afternoon we had caught a total of seventy-three rattlesnakes during the two days, with at least twenty from each den, enough for Ron's study. So we packed the day's catch to the car, loaded them into the trunk, and headed back to Corvallis for the next phase of the work.
We spent the next day marking the snakes, a fairly simple task. We put two tables together in Ron's kitchen, closed and "snake-proofed" all the doors by shoving pieces of clothing under them, climbed onto the tables, and dumped a sack of snakes onto the floor. We then caught them one at a time, cut a numerical code into the large scales of their bellies with fingernail clippers, and sprayed their backs with paint. Each snake thus had its own number, from one to seventy-three, and each snake from a particular den had its own color.
We mark them both ways because the paint would remain visible for immediate identification with respect to which den the snakes came from, until they shed their skins that is, after which they could still be identified by their permanent numbers. The idea was to release the snakes at their own dens and then, after a week, go back and trace their movements by finding those with colored backs. This would be repeated each week for a month, which would give us an indication of how far the snakes traveled from their dens. The snakes, having shed their skins during the Summer, would be recaptured at the dens that Autumn and the next in order to checked them for the numbered code, which would tell Ron if they showed fidelity to a particular den.
So, with the snakes all marked, we drove to the hill the following day and turned them loose at their respective dens. As he'd done on the two days we'd been catching snakes, the farmer waited to see how many we'd caught.
"Well, how many ya get this time?"
"None," answered Ron. "We turned them all loose again."
"Ya what?!!" he roared. "Ya did what?!! Well by God I've never heerd of anything so God damn stupid in ma whole life. Yer ta kill those fuckin' bastards, not turn 'em loose! They'll bite somebody, you fuckin' idjits!"
Although Ron spent the better part of an hour explaining the study to the farmer, I don't think he heard any of it, such was his fear and his anger. Having done all we could, and having extracted a reluctant promise to allow us to continue the study, we left.
We returned a week later to check on the snakes' movements. When we got to the first den, however, we were greeted by a gigantic hole in the ground. Dumbfounded, all we could do was stare.
Ron shook his head, "Dynamite," he said. "The bastard dynamited the dens! I've seen this before, but I didn't think he'd do it."
Sure enough, the farmer had risked being bitten by poisonous snakes he hadn't known for fifty years were even on his farm just so he could dynamite the newly found dens. Some of the snakes were hanging like colored bracelets on display in the trees.
Although I had not expected this, I saw again the ignorance and fear with which many people respond to Nature. The farmer was right, of course--from his point of view, his point of fear. But how long must Nature tolerate our fears? How long can Nature tolerate our fears and still function in a way that provides our social necessities: clean air, clean water, fertile soil, healthy forests, healthy oceans, sufficient oxygen, protection from ultraviolet rays, and so on? How long?
I respectfully dedicate this story to Dr. Robert M. Storm, who not only taught me herpetology, mammalogy, and field methods but also was one to the two or three best teachers I had in college. I am most grateful, however, because Bob talked me into attending graduate school, which, as it turned out, was the beginning of a fabulous life's adventure I'm still enjoying with every breath.
© chris maser 2003. All rights reserved.