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Perspective | Globe Magazine

Relax, there’s nothing to fear about rattlesnake island

The plan to release poisonous snakes in the Quabbin freaks people out. But snakes are the ones that should be worried.

The state has proposed introducing timber rattlesnakes to an island in the Quabbin Reservoir.Craig F. Walker/Globe staff/file 2016

The plan to introduce timber rattlesnakes to Mount Zion, the largest island in Quabbin Reservoir, is an 11th-hour experiment by the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife to protect one of the state’s most beautiful, most imperiled, and most misunderstood native animals.

Of course, not everyone is attracted to these arresting creatures that come in base colors from black to yellow, marked with blotches, bands, or chevrons. Not everyone thinks they’re even worth protecting. “What’s the plan to prevent some irresponsible moron from trapping a few rattlers and letting them go in neighborhoods, parks, etc?” an online commenter wrote in response to a Globe news story. “This is insane and incomprehensible.” Others suggested that releasing the snakes in the Quabbin too closely resembled the plot of Jurassic Park. “What next,” wrote another skeptic, “velociraptors?”

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But what do we really know about their threat to our well-being? Simply, there isn’t much of a threat at all.

On May 13, 1929, Charles Snyder, the former head keeper of reptiles at the Bronx Zoo, died while trying to collect new specimens in the woods of New York State. He is thought to be the last person in the Northeast to die from the bite of a timber rattlesnake. Since Colonial times, there have been only two confirmed deaths from snakebite in Massachusetts — the last one of these was in the early 1700s.

Here are some facts to keep in mind. First, rattlesnake venom evolved first and foremost as a means to subdue more mobile and potentially dangerous prey, rodents and rabbits mostly, and the cocktail of enzymes is meant to aid in digestion of those animals. Second, venom is only secondarily employed in the line of defense — snakes don’t release it in 25 percent of bites. It’s believed the rattle evolved to scare off animals before the snake would need to use its venom in self-defense.

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In other words, a timber rattlesnake would rather not bite you. A silly friend of mine once inadvertently stood on a Vermont rattlesnake long enough for the snake to bang its head against the side of his leg — twice — as if to say, “Excuse me.”

On average, about five people die of snakebite in the United States in any given year, and most of these victims received little or no first aid, or the treatment was greatly delayed. To put this in proper perspective: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tell us that in a given year you are more likely to die from the sting of a bee, wasp, or hornet (approximately 58 people), a dog mauling (28), spider bite (7), or a recalcitrant cow (20) than from the bite of a rattlesnake. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, jaywalking deer and other animals killed 166 people in 2014.

Here are a few more facts to keep in mind: 98 percent of snakebites occur on the extremities, often hands and arms, according to a study from The New England Journal of Medicine , and are usually the result of deliberate handling or an attempt to harm the snake. The typical victim is a male between the ages of 17 and 27, and a significant portion of them were intoxicated when messing with the snake. Scientists, who presumably enter the profession aware of the risks involved, are also the recipients of many of these bites.

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Other snakebites are characterized by an inadvertent encounter between an unsuspecting victim and a snake — they most often occur on the feet and legs, most often while the victim is off trail, bushwhacking through dense vegetation.

Releasing snakes on Mount Zion may pose far more danger to the snakes themselves than there ever will be to shoreline fishermen or outdoors enthusiasts. Yes, rattlesnakes occasionally swim, but there is no evidence that they ever lived in the hills (now islands) in Quabbin Reservoir’s man-made wilderness. And it isn’t clear that Mount Zion could support a population of overwintering rattlesnakes. Even if the snakes could find a retreat below the frost line, no one knows if there are enough mice and chipmunks on the 1,400-plus-acre island to support them.

The unleashing of rattlesnakes on Mount Zion should be viewed as a scientific experiment, starting with snakes from populations not as threatened as those here (like Pennsylvania). Step one should be: Release a number of adult, nonnative rattlesnakes with radio transmitters. Step two: Track the snakes; discover where they eat, bask, shed, mate, and birth. Then, when October ushers in cold weather, discover if they find sanctuary below the frost line or freeze to death during the winter. If the rattlesnakes survive for a couple of years, augment the population with additional releases of young native snakes. They’ll follow the pheromone trails of the adults back to the den. Once the native rattlesnakes begin to breed and the nonnative snakes have been removed, the experiment will be deemed a success.

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I truly hope it works. This plan may prove to be the last, best chance to keep an iconic serpent in Massachusetts.


Ted Levin is the author of the book “America’s Snake: The Rise and Fall of the Timber Rattlesnake,” to be published in May. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.