RATTLESNAKES GET EVERYONE'S ATTENTION
recent photograph I was sent for identification was an eastern diamondback
rattlesnake. This brought to mind the story of my own most terrifying
experience with the largest species of rattlesnake in the world. The
terror started the moment I saw a spray of yellow venom moving toward
my unbelieving eyes.
On a field
trip to the Everglades, someone noticed the snake, almost seven feet
long, emerging from a palmetto stand. Picking up a dangerously venomous
snake involves risk, even for a herpetologist. Nonetheless, when I saw
this imposing animal stretched out on the sand, I wanted to catch it,
As we approached,
the snake did not rattle but merely looked at us and slowly flicked
its long, black tongue. Perhaps it was more curious than alarmed, wondering
if we were uninformed about its eminence as America's most dangerous
snake and its ability to deliver a lethal bite. Diamondbacks can deliver
10 times as much venom as a copperhead, and it is five times more potent.
purposes I wanted the students to have firsthand experience with our
largest venomous snake. But I reminded them that no one should pick
up a venomous snake without good reason and without proper training.
I knew what I was doing, I wanted the students to get a close-up view
of a live rattlesnake, to see the fangs, touch the rattles. Using a
metal snake hook, I pinned the head firmly against the ground and grasped
the snake around its neck behind the pair of enormous venom glands.
Many U.S. snakebites occur after someone picks up the snake, so I was
very careful when I lifted the giant off the ground, supporting its
thick body on both forearms. Snakes make good teaching props, and no
student had to be told to pay attention.
the students see the yellow eyes with their black, elliptical pupils,
I wanted to show them the enormous fangs. The hollow hypodermic syringes
that deliver the venom were an inch long. When a rattlesnake closes
its mouth, the hinged fangs fold neatly inside. But with mouth open,
in striking position, the fangs extend outward from the front of the
upper jaw. I used the snake stick to open the mouth and reveal the white
fangs. Then I made a mistake. I relaxed my grip.
jerked violently, whipping its entire body back and forth, and abruptly
moved its head down, forcing the fangs onto the snake stick. Although
startled, I managed to hold on to the twisting snake. But I was unprepared
as venom erupted into the air, inches from my face. My eyes closed by
a wetness on my face and eyelids, I nearly panicked. Had I closed my
eyes in time? Lurid thoughts of African spitting cobras that spray blinding
venom toward the eyes of an attacker came to mind. Will rattlesnake
venom cause the same problem? Is it the same as being bitten? I did
not know but assumed the worst.
with eyes closed, I waited for a stinging sensation while the snake
continued to struggle. The now-constant buzz of the upset rattlesnake
I was holding was interrupted by the occasional uneasy question from
an awed audience. Was I all right? Had venom gotten in my eyes? Someone
carefully wiped venom from around my eyes and off my face with a handkerchief.
I blinked, and could still see. No venom had touched my eyes. I set
the snake on the ground and stepped away. It immediately drew itself
into a coil and raised its head proudly, inviting me to try again. Then,
still rattling, it slithered away into the palmetto stand. The yellow
diamonds sparkled against the brown body. My purpose in picking up this
marvelous animal had been to teach the students. As can happen in such
situations, the teacher also learned a lesson, taught by the king of
America's venomous snakes. I no longer pick them up by hand.
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