Big Snake, Small Man

Someone forwarded an e-mail my way with the heading “River Falls Rattler.” The embedded picture showed a monster rattlesnake being held toward the camera on the tip of a stick. The body of the e-mail sounded official and stated that the snake had been found on the local golf course, and to be careful when retrieving balls from the rough.

One glance showed the old bass fisherman’s ploy of holding the creature close to the camera on a long stick, creating an optical illusion.

An e-mail back to the club confirmed the picture was a joke, an unappreciated digital hoax created in Georgia and then doctored to fit this area. Joke or not, the golf course fielded phone calls all day– the speed of the internet and the fear of snakes is much deeper and more powerful than the logic of perspective.

The day before I’d been talking with our dog sitter about rattlesnakes as well. She’d seen one dead up on Highway 11. I told her that was as close to Spartanburg as I’d ever heard of anyone seeing a timber rattlesnake, even though the range maps in all the snake books show them covering the whole Upstate. She was worried about walking the dogs. I assured her rattlers were rare and probably eradicated from our urbanized part of the county.

The next day another friend pointed out a small article in a local weekly paper about a dead pigmy rattler near Lyman. I could see his skin crawling with rattlesnake fear. He wanted to know how I could be so sure they weren’t everywhere.

I told him I lean on science, my own observations, and the observations of my friends to believe such things. I’m one of those people who never passes a dead snake on a road without at least securing a quick ID. If there’s any doubt about what’s dead by the side of the road, I’ll stop and check it out. I’ve seen dead rattlesnakes on Highway 11 and above. I’m not saying they’re not down here. I’m just saying I haven’t seen them, and I’m always looking for them.

So what is the real story with rattlers in Spartanburg County?

South Carolina has its share of rattlers-huge eastern diamondbacks along the coast that can grow to eight feet, the canebrake and timbers that can grow to six feet, and the two-foot pigmy, but because of centuries of farming and development these wilderness-loving creatures are now often few and far between.

Whitfield Gibbons is probably the leading snake man in the region. He’s the co-author of the beautiful field guide SNAKES OF THE SOUTHEAST, full of great photos, range maps, and discussion of snake conservation. Besides being a University of Georgia professor, Whit’s a tireless enthusiast for the wild South and the creatures that survive here. I e-mailed Whit and asked what he thought about the photograph of the rattler at River Falls:

“John, my first question would be–Where did they find such a small man?”

And what about rattlesnakes in the Upstate? Are they here? He confirmed the range maps-even the ones in his book-show them covering the whole state.

“Their presence would not become apparent to most people,” he said. “Except for ones crossing roads, most people (even me) can completely overlook a camouflaged rattlesnake.”

He went on to tell a story from his own experience: “I just got back from Palmetto Bluff where I have a student tracking 17 of them with telemetry. Each of the four we sought out and found was coiled under a bush or log (one was even in the open on leaves) and I did not see a single one from 10 feet away until the student finally pointed it out. And even when we moved within three feet of each one to take a body temperature reading, not a single one rattled.”

Whit concluded that a rattlesnake is a “fascinating animal that can only survive today when people don’t know it’s around.”

So this unexpected week of the rattlers is over. I’m sure they will come up again some time. Rattlers have too deep a hold on the American unconscious to go away completely.

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