Finding Hope in Dark Times

This article was written by Emily Taylor, PhD, a member of the ASP Board of Directors.

2020 has been a rough year. COVID-19, unemployment, natural disasters, and cancelled travel plans have wreaked havoc on our health and psyches. Snakes haven’t been spared, either. With so many people on lockdown or out of work, there were more encounters with snakes in yards and on trails, often with unhappy endings for the snakes.

I got a call from the manager of a local preserve in July asking if I could assess an injured snake. I arrived to find a rattlesnake that had been stabbed at least eight times by a preserve visitor who also cut off the end of her tail to take her rattle, then left her for dead. In a hideous twist, the visitor stabbed her using a stake that held a sign telling visitors to stay away from rattlesnakes. I stitched her up as best I could and gave her antibiotics. She survived the night, giving me hope, but she ended up dying the next afternoon. When I conducted the necropsy, I counted 12 early term fetuses — this rattlesnake would have become a mother one or two months later.

Meanwhile, the incident had been captured on camera by other preserve visitors and was getting a lot of press on social media and the local news, with some arguing that killing a rattlesnake at a preserve was unethical and even criminal, and others wondering why anyone cared about rattlesnakes. While the perpetrator was never found, the publicity got a lot of people talking about rattlesnakes. If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a science communicator, it’s to take advantage of publicity when it presents itself. I joined forces with the preserve to organize a World Snake Day event, where over a hundred people, mostly families with young children, came out to learn about why rattlesnakes are important members of our community. One attendee, a local 12-year-old named Wyatt, asked me how to find rattlesnakes locally, to which I replied that he should go hiking and watch for coiled, camouflaged snakes alongside the trails.

About a month later, Wyatt called to tell me he’d followed my advice and had found a “pile of rattlesnakes” at the preserve. He led me to the first rookery of Southern Pacific Rattlesnakes that I have ever seen, with several pregnant females and adult males “babysitting” brand new pups while their mothers hid in a crevice nearby. The rookery, however, was right next to the trail. I was worried about a hiker or a dog being bitten, or snakes being killed in a repeat of what had happened there earlier in the summer. So, I was thrilled when the preserve managers decided to close the trail to protect the snakes. I was allowed to hike up a few times a week to watch new pups appear as all the females gave birth, then they all eventually shed and dispersed on the safely closed trail. Wyatt often joined me and told me that this was “by far the coolest experience of my life.”

A pregnant Southern Pacific Rattlesnake “babysits” another female’s babies at the preserve, photographed by Spencer Riffle.
A pregnant Southern Pacific Rattlesnake “babysits” another female’s babies at the preserve, photographed by Spencer Riffle.

At the risk of sounding trite by quoting Socrates, “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” Just like the positive change that will inevitably sprout from the mire that is 2020, one rattlesnake’s tragic death helped inspire the education of hundreds of people about rattlesnakes and ensured the protection of a sensitive rookery where dozens of baby rattlesnakes were safely born.

Last but not least, it cemented a local boy’s interest in becoming a herpetologist when he grows up. That’s what I call a happy ending.

Newborn Southern Pacific Rattlesnake pups rest at a rookery where multiple females gave birth together. The pups will soon shed and disperse from the rookery in search of lizards to eat, photographed by Wyatt Stapp.
Newborn Southern Pacific Rattlesnake pups rest at a rookery where multiple females gave birth together. The pups will soon shed and disperse from the rookery in search of lizards to eat, photographed by Wyatt Stapp.