Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Cost of Poise and Dignity

“She never wounds 'till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her.” Benjamin Franklin

    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?”

   He nodded.

    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.”
He nodded.

    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.


LA said...

All the quotes reminded me of one by Baba Dioum:

“In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.”

Kerry N. said...

I think I already told you this story, but earlier this year, I was out looking for diamondbacks and indigos on a WMA in south Georgia. We came across a hunter who was scouting the area, and asked him about snakes. He told us that the Claxton roundup crew had been hitting the area hard in the past few years, and so he didn't see diamondbacks much anymore. He added, "You know, I never thought I'd say it, but I sort of miss seeing them around every once in a while."

So I guess there is some hope.

David Steen said...

Great quote. Thanks for sharing it.

I don't remember hearing that story; I'm glad to hear it now.

Paul said...

Sometimes the most difficult thing to do under these circumstances is put your feelings aside and do the best you can to have a real impact: educate (not patronize, attempt to shame, punish, etc.). It's amazing the number of conservation-minded people out there who are unwilling or otherwise incapable of this kind of friendly and effective conversation.

Great story, and an admirable example of how to handle these sorts of situations. Stuff like this belongs in textbooks!

Charles said...

I too can understand the desire to protect your kids and pets, but I think it's wrong to kill non-venomous snakes. Well okay maybe it wouldn't be so bad if someone had a python biting them or if the snake was a clear hazard to one of my pets.

David Steen said...


Wow...thank you. It sometimes is difficult to stay motivated but blogs like yours and the ones listed on the right are inspiring. By the way, the only reason you're not listed there is because of the southeastern nature theme, but consider this my endorsement.

A reasonable view. There will always be areas where wildlife is incompatible with human habitation. The question is should there also be places where human activity is what's considered incompatible and how compromises can be reached when the reality is somewhere in between.

Jay and Julie said...

Hey Dave -
I check in now and then with your blog and I think this was one of your best posts. Sounds to me like you did an excellent job talking with this man about the snakes "in his backyard". Wow, I have a ton of respect for people like you. I can let my emotions get in the way of making my point (when it involves fisheries especially). It sounds like you were able to at least discuss snakes with him with a clear mind and MAYBE (although possibly doubtful) he really will call you next time. If nothing else, I bet you made him think - and that is certainly better than nothing.

David Steen said...

Thanks Julie (and/or Jay?). It's hard to get angered when it's a prevailing notion around these parts. I do have moments of despair and hopelessness on occasion. However, every once in a while I get surprised; today I was pulled over by a terse local security officer who brightened up immensely after they found out I was interested in snakes. She gives people tickets when she sees them kill snakes, as all wildlife in this area is, on paper, protected here. Now she's going to let me know when she sees stuff.