NEW SALEM — The state’s plan to revive a native endangered species on a remote island sounds suspiciously like the opening scenes of a horror movie: Breed and raise 150 venomous timber rattlesnakes until they’re good and strong, then turn them loose on protected land in the middle of the Quabbin Reservoir.
What could go wrong?
“Well, they swim,” said Peter Mallett, president of the Millers River Fishermen’s Association, who opposes the plan. The notion of 150 big wet snakes finding their way to shore and setting out for the neighboring hiking trails and homes has him wondering which population ought to qualify as endangered.
The state Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, where the plan was hatched, offered assurances that a small island full of rattlesnakes would pose no threat. Any that escape the island will die during the following winter, unable to make it back to their nest, said Tom French, assistant director of the department. And in reality, rattlesnakes are shy creatures who bite people only when threatened, he said.
But some local residents aren’t so sure, and the debate is now hung up in a tangentially related dispute over whether a local man’s dog was really bitten by a snake last summer. The proposal has also struck a deeper nerve here, where some still mourn the loss 75 years ago of the four towns erased to make room for the reservoir that provides drinking water to Boston.
“There’s a lot of resentment,” said J.R. Greene, a local historian and author, and the chairman of Friends of the Quabbin, a nonprofit group devoted to promoting and preserving the reservoir’s past and present. Some fear the rattlesnake island plan could lead to the closure of the popular recreation area around the reservoir, Greene said — “another example of Boston lording it over this part of the state.”
To be fair, the snakes were here before any of us.
Timber rattlesnakes once slithered through forests and feasted on mice and chipmunks all over Massachusetts. But deforestation over the last two centuries left little habitat that allowed for their deep underground nests in winter. Today, only a few isolated populations remain in the Blue Hills, the Connecticut River valley, and Berkshire County.
They have also faced less passive persecution.
Since the two species’ earliest encounters, terrified humans have been hacking the heads off of snakes. Some still do. French said the whole point of putting them on an island is to protect the snakes from people, not the other way around.
Rattlesnake bites are exceedingly rare in Massachusetts, French said, and haven’t been fatal since Colonial times. Venomous snake bites these days almost always involve someone doing something exceptionally foolish: Attacking or trying to grab a snake, or keeping one as a pet.
It’s illegal in Massachusetts to keep a venomous snake as a pet, but people do it: French recalled getting a phone call from a police officer who was trying to find out how much trouble he’d get into if he kept a pair of rattlesnakes. A year or so later, one bit him, and as the officer was driving to the hospital he crashed into a telephone pole. He survived. Someone on Cape Cod was bitten by his pet cobra. He lived, too.
The only bite French could recall that occurred in the wild was suffered by a researcher who was trying to photograph one rattlesnake and accidentally backed into another.
But Bob Curley begs to differ.
Curley, president of the North Quabbin Trails Association, was out mapping a trail one day last June with his 18-month-old collie, Celtz. He didn’t notice anything unusual until the next morning, when the dog’s nose started to bleed uncontrollably. He brought Celtz to a nearby veterinarian, but the problems persisted.
Finally, Curley brought the dog to Tufts Veterinary Hospital. Doctors shaved Celtz’s swollen hind leg and discovered an apparent bite mark. Antivenom was flown in and given to the dog, Curley said, and the problems that had nearly killed Celtz immediately began to recede.
In light of the soon-to-be snake island nearby, the story made some area residents squirm — and threatened to turn public opinion against the project.
“Science does not carry the day in these kinds of things,” French said. “Emotion does.”
But while the veterinarians who worked on Celtz agreed the dog had been bitten, French was skeptical. The area where Curley had been walking is not known to have any rattlesnake population, he said, and the delayed symptoms were not normal.
He sent records to vets in other states with more snakebite experience, who he said confirmed that Celtz’s problems were not snake inflicted. The final report is expected Monday.
Curley remains convinced his dog was bitten — “I lived it,” he said — but he’s not entirely opposed to the snake island concept. He wants assurances that the recreational options at the reservoir will remain unchanged — French said they absolutely would — and clearer communication about the plan from the state. He invited French to speak at a public meeting at the Trails Association headquarters.
Whatever happens, it will be some time before the snakes take over the island. The snakes will spend their first two years at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, French said, and the slow breeding process has barely begun. Finding snakes from at least three different populations around the state to limit inbreeding isn’t easy, either.
“You never have a lot of rattlesnakes,” French said.
In the horror movie, those would be his famous last words.