Driving along the rural northwestern Florida road I travel nearly every day, I suddenly caught sight of a familiar serpentine form sprawled out along the dirt shoulder. As I brought my foot down upon the brakes to bring the truck to a stop, I steeled myself to pounce on the snake before me. My adrenaline pumped as I slammed the truck into park and noticed the characteristic gold and black patterning of an eastern diamondback rattlesnake.
Almost instantly, I knew something was awry. The snake was motionless. Flustered, I noticed two additional snakes, another diamondback and a huge rat snake, the latter’s long, limp body draped along five feet of the sandy road. That the snakes were dead and mutilated was immediately apparent. Both rattlesnakes were missing their distinctive namesake; the rattles hacked from their body. All three had taken severe blows to their head; the larger rattlesnake’s head was missing altogether. They hadn’t been here for long.
Puzzled, I took in the scene of carnage before me, shaking my head in wonderment. Had these three snakes just been run over and then salvaged for souvenirs? No, coming across a large, live snake was a rare occurrence, finding three large animals in the same spot was not likely at all. As my mind progressed from shock to disgust, I realized these snakes had been killed elsewhere and then brought here to complete some sort of macabre roadside display.
Scratching my head and trying to ascertain some motive behind the bizarre find, I began loading the snakes into the bed of my truck. I figured I would try to salvage what I could from their shortened lives. I knew a researcher from Florida State University was attempting a large-scale genetic study of diamondback rattlesnakes; by comparing their genetic makeup in varying areas, he aims to determine if there are distinctive groups of these animals. The two rattlesnakes before me could represent important data; the species has become increasingly scarce over the years, making it difficult to obtain large sample sizes for research. The rat snake could be useful in my own studies, by examining its stomach contents I hope to better understand what this species eats and the role it plays in the surrounding landscape.
The first snake had barely hit the bed of my truck when a pickup rolled to a stop beside me. From within, a tattooed and shirtless man gazed at me curiously with a smile. I knew immediately that this was the man who had killed the snakes. In a valiant attempt to disguise the distaste I felt, I asked if he knew anything about them.
“A little bit.” He replied with a brief nervous chuckle.
“She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage.” Benjamin Franklin
I assured him that killing these snakes was not illegal, so he wouldn’t be in trouble if he wanted to discuss it with me. Wearing my best poker face, I informed him I was simply interested in these animals and curious where they had come from.
So began a familiar story. The rattlesnakes had apparently been wandering through his backyard and his children were saved in the nick of time by a few well-placed bullets. Nodding solemnly, I related that I could certainly understand the desire to remove rattlesnakes from a yard where pets and children played even as I silently wondered what kind of yard he might have to attract so many reptiles. I had seen only a handful of diamondbacks all year.
“But why the rat snake? They’re harmless, a danger only to mice and rats around the house.”
Although I received no comprehensible answer, I figured my point was made. Returning to the rattlesnakes, I noted I hoped he left animals alone when he came across them in the neighboring forest.
“This sounds simple: do we not already sing our love for and obligation to the land of the free and the home of the brave? Yes, but just what and whom do we love?...Certainly not the animals, of which we have already extirpated many of the largest and most beautiful species. A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these 'resources,' but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state.” Aldo Leopold, in A Sand County Almanac
Tapping against the side of my work truck and squinting under the hot Florida sun, I tried to summon an aura of authority as I stressed how important snakes were to my work and my research. He seemed to respect that. “Sure, I leave them be. I don’t see them too often anyway, I don’t see them much around my place anymore either.”
I strained to sense any note of nostalgia. I often wonder if people will ever appreciate the unique wildlife of the southeastern United States before it’s too late to conserve it in any meaningful way. Rattlesnakes are an important component of southern culture; found primarily in North America, they are part of our identity. Would they be remembered as more than dangerous nuisances if they ever disappeared? Would they be missed around the campfire as men reminisced about the giants they had once killed? I wondered if he was aware of the irony of discussing a decline in rattlesnakes around his house as we sat and spoke above two of their recent corpses.
I tried to lead him on, “Why do you think that might be?”
He thought for a few moments, “Well, one year we sure got a lot of them, I killed seventeen of them, including a nine-footer in my rabbit cage.’
Being familiar with the ubiquitous penchant for exaggerating the size of dead snakes, I ignored the mention of the world’s largest rattlesnake and instead asked, “You killed seventeen rattlesnakes in your yard in one year, and you don’t see many anymore?”
Although he was predictably following my carefully scripted opening, it wasn’t gratifying; it only meant that even here, bordering a vast protected area, adult diamondbacks were becoming increasingly scarce. And so I began, “That makes sense. These animals,” I nodded towards the two dead rattlesnakes, later confirmed as adult females of breeding age, “take years to mature. So, if you kill many of them in an area, it will take the population years to recover, and that’s only if all the killing stops. Once they’re gone, there’s nothing to take up their niche, to eat all those rodents.”
I continued, “I’ll tell you what, I’ll give you my e-mail address and phone number. You can let me know if there’s a snake in your yard and I’ll come and relocate it. I’ll also send you some brochures I made that’ll give you information on how you can keep rattlesnakes away from your house in the first place”
“Got it. If I see a snake I’ll let you know. So, you’re interested in them dead or alive then?”
“No.” I said, shaking my head and smiling incredulously.
“Preferably alive then?”
“Yeah, preferably alive.”
“During an encounter with man the diamondback conducts itself with poise and dignity.” R. Mount, in The Reptiles and Amphibians of Alabama.
The man slowly coasted away and the air was filled with the gritty sound of tires crushing sand. As I leaned against the truck and glanced down at the bodies of the dead snakes, desecrated and dumped unceremoniously by the roadside only moments before, I wondered if we could ever hope to emulate the dignity that Dr. Mount attributed to them in life.
David A. Steen received his Ph.D. from Auburn University, his M.S. from the State University of New York-College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and his B.S. from the University of New Hampshire. He researches the ecology and conservation biology of wildlife and blogs about his work at www.LivingAlongsideWildlife.com. His copyrighted work appears here under a Creative Commons license.