It’s midnight. The Milky Way sprawls above us, a king’s ransom in diamonds scattered over black velvet. A gust of wind kicks up a cloud of sage-scented dust. We’re standing in the middle of a rural highway, face to face with two rattlesnakes, and we’re not going to make it home anytime soon.
My partner, Adrian, and I curse in unison at a pair of rapidly approaching headlights. “You got this one?” Adrian says, shoving a stray strand of her long blonde hair out of her face.
“Yep,” I say, already heading for the rattlesnake closest to me. She runs for the other one.
“It’s all good, big boy,” I say to the rattlesnake, “I got ya.”
I stick my tactical flashlight in my mouth to free up both hands, slide a hook under his front end, and then take his back end in my left hand. His keeled scales feel a little rough against my palm, and he’s startled enough to anoint me with a spritz of citrusy musk. I feel a bit guilty for frightening him, but faced with oncoming traffic, his life depends on getting him moved quickly. He’ll get over the scare.
The truck is almost on top of us now. I remember an old “Magnum P.I.” episode where Magnum is trying to pick a lock while two guard dogs charge across the lawn at him.
“Work the lock,” he admonishes himself. “Don’t look at the dogs.”
That’s how it is for me. Work with the snake. Don’t look at the truck. It’s generally a good idea to stay focused when you’re holding a rattlesnake by the tail. Fortunately, this one is cooperative. I feel his tail wind around my fingers to hold on as I scramble up a steep road cut with him. For a little while, we’re bound together in an odd sort of partnership, this rattlesnake and I. We have to trust each other. It’s the only way this can work.
We patrol this road in Eastern Washington every night, moving snakes off the pavement. We’ve learned the hard way that a single car getting past us may leave two or three dead snakes in its wake, so we don’t stop. If nature calls we just put her on hold until we spot another snake. Then, one of us takes the opportunity to duck behind a sagebrush, while the other handles the rescue. By the time we head for home, I’ve spent so many hours with my eyes fixed on the pavement that, when I finally lie down to sleep, I don’t see darkness or colors behind my closed eyelids as people usually do; I see endlessly moving pavement.
Behind us, the truck blows through the spot we just left. Way too close. I want to hug the rattlesnake, but I know he wouldn’t appreciate it. “You’re one lucky little rattley,” I mumble around the butt of my flashlight as I set his front end down. He pauses for a moment, with his tail still wrapped around my fingers for security. When he lets go, it’s not all at once, but gradually. I don’t rush him. His tail slides slowly over my cupped hand, and then he’s gone, a ghost slipping away into the dark space between tumbled boulders.
Only then do I look for Adrian, and see the beam of her flashlight moving through the sage. We meet back at Adrian’s tiny Audi, a little breathless and grinning like maniacs.
“Those guys would totally have been toast!” Adrian says.
“Totally!” I concur.
It’s a sort of verbal high-five – all the celebration we have time for on a night when both snake and human traffic are heavy.
It’s not easy working a full-time IT job and then rescuing snakes all night. During the months when the snakes are active, I get four hours of sleep on a good night. But it’s all worth it. I grew up in Massachusetts, where the only indigenous rattlesnake was the critically-endangered timber rattlesnake. I was never fortunate enough to lay eyes on the elusive creature. Perhaps that’s why rattlesnakes still seem a little magical to me. I was a child who dreamed of dragons and I grew up to find that they were real. How could I not love them?
One of my friends calls our work “a fool’s errand,” and reminds me every chance he gets that the six hundred snakes we save every season are meaningless in the big picture. Others would sooner throw a rattlesnake under the wheels of a truck than dodge a truck to save one. In fact, in this ranch-dominated area, it’s common for drivers to swerve toward us and accelerate, hoping to force us back so they can run over the snake we’re trying to rescue. Most will slow down or turn aside at the last moment if we don’t back down, but some don’t, leaving me to wonder what could make a person hate a small animal enough to make it worth killing two women to get to him.
Rattlesnakes rarely bite humans and only half of those bites deliver venom. Fatalities from rattlesnake venom are virtually nonexistent in otherwise healthy individuals. Yet, for the average American, the facts are no match for Hollywood-driven fear. Rattlesnake populations are declining continent-wide as a result of human depredation.
Making matters worse, funding for the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife is generated almost entirely by the sale of hunting licenses. From their perspective, enforcing unpopular regulations literally doesn’t pay. When they told me that they hadn’t the time to waste on enforcing regulations protecting “species no one cares about,” I knew I was on my own.
Then I met Adrian, a herpetology student who’d spent six months rescuing venomous snakes in Bali, and the final piece fell into place. What began as a couple of nights of companionable road cruising in search of nocturnal species quickly turned serious when we saw the carnage left behind by vehicles on what had appeared to be a quiet rural highway.
In addition to aggressive drivers, the sight of a haphazardly-parked vehicle and two women on the side of a dark highway tends to draw good Samaritans wondering if we’re in trouble. Our response is always the same: “We’re fine. Just moving this little rattlesnake off the road. Would you like to see him before we release him?”
One night, I left Adrian to deal with the good Samaritans while I scooped up a neonate rattlesnake. With our preferred “hook and tail” method, picking up a baby rattlesnake is not like picking up an adult. An adult rattlesnake has a hard time lifting his own body weight. It’s difficult, though not impossible, for him to come back and bite once he’s resting properly on a hook. Babies don’t have this problem. They weigh only a few ounces and can easily lift their own weight. Moreover, when you reach for a baby’s tail, those adorably miniature fangs with their hemolytic venom are only inches from your fingers. Not much room there for error. Under the circumstances I think it’s understandable that I completely missed the unequivocal, “No,” from the car when Adrian asked whether they’d like to see the rattlesnake.
So there I was a moment later, standing at the open passenger side window with a rattlesnake in my hands. A tiny, brightly patterned baby rattlesnake, who was stretching his little neck out to peer curiously at the solidly-built young man in the window. The passenger stared back at him.
“That’s a rattlesnake?” he asked, looking a little puzzled.
“Yep. That’s a rattlesnake.”
“But…” He hesitated. “He’s…he’s really kinda cute.”
“Yes,” I said. “Yes he is.”
“And he’s not trying to bite you.”
I’ll never forget the confusion on that man’s face as he struggled to reconcile the calm, curious little animal in my hands with the terrifying monsters that resided in his imagination. So that’s a rattlesnake. And he’s beautiful. Rattlesnakes, I like to tell people, are not monsters. They just play monsters on TV.
When people ask – as they invariably do – “isn’t it dangerous to rescue rattlesnakes?” I tell them about the night the driver of an oddly-shaped white truck targeted Adrian just as she approached a big male rattlesnake. The truck swerved at her so fast that there was no time to stop for the snake, so she did the only thing she could. She reached out and snatched him up by the tail as she threw herself out of the path of the vehicle. The snake flailed in panic, but made no attempt to bite her. The driver came within a foot of running her down at full speed. There’s no denying it’s a dangerous job, but the rattlesnakes aren’t the problem.