Volunteers take humane rattler removal seriously
By Gordon Dritschilo
Herald Staff | July 17,2006
In the movies, you hear a telltale rattle before the camera cuts to the snake, coiled menacingly and prepared to strike.
In reality, volunteers charged by the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife with removing unwanted rattlesnakes from private property say the reptiles are likely to go unnoticed and will not bother anyone who isn't bothering them.
People who feel bothered by them, however, can contact one of these volunteers and have the snake promptly — and humanely — taken away.
"In a nutshell, the program was designed to help people and snakes — rattlesnakes — live more easily together," said volunteer Mary Droege said. "Obviously, people are uneasy around rattlesnakes when they're near their home, barn or garage."
Rattlesnakes in Vermont? Yes, experts say.
Mark Ferguson, zoologist for Fish and Wildlife's Nongame and Natural Heritage Program, said western Rutland County currently is the only area in the state with a rattlesnake habitat.
"There are a few other historical areas, but they have been lost over the years due to habitat loss and persecution."
At one time, the state had a bounty on rattlesnakes. Now they are an endangered species.
Ferguson said the program only receives a handful of calls.
"Generally, rattlesnakes and people don't have to interact much," he said. "It's a very secretive snake. It doesn't want to be seen. Generally, there's not much conflict."
Rattlesnakes primarily prey on rodents, especially deer mice. They are a woodland species and Ferguson said while they sometimes venture into open fields, they prefer more forested areas.
Droege said the snake-removal process is fairly straightforward.
"We basically have a big plastic bucket and a long handle with a hook — not a hook, more like a curve — on the end," she said. "You pick the snake up, put it in the container and bring it away."
The snake is set loose in the woods, as far away from houses or roads as possible.
Droege said she only has been out on a call once.
"It was remarkable that the snake just wanted to get away," she said. "It didn't strike at the tool. Once it was in the container, it didn't strike. It just wanted to get away. These snakes are not aggressive at all."
A list with the volunteers' phone numbers was sent out to 250 landowners in the area. Droege said people can contact the state for the list. In an emergency, she said to call the state police and ask for game warden Robert Sterling.
Droege, who also works as the director of ecological management for the Nature Conservancy's Southern Lake Champlain Valley program, said the program is modeled after a successful 20-year-old program in Lake George, N.Y.
"It's important to ask for (him) and not just say 'I've got a rattlesnake,'" Droege said. "The dispatcher might not know this is a special program."
While people should not panic if they see a rattlesnake, Droege said they probably should not try to deal with the reptile themselves. While they are poisonous, she said a rattlesnake bite will not kill a healthy adult.
"It'll hurt a lot," she said. "It's a genuine concern for dogs and anyone who's not a healthy adult."
However, she said, like most wildlife, rattlesnakes will not bother people who don't bother them.
"This is a very shy, reserved snake," she said. "It doesn't want to bite. It's not aggressive. It wants to be left alone."
One of the theories behind the program, Droege said, is that simply being carried away is an unpleasant enough experience for the snake that it is unlikely to return — a theory she said is borne out by the success of the program in New York.
Droege said she hopes the program will encourage a live and let live attitude toward the snakes.
"They're native Vermonters," she said. "They've been here longer than we have and it's possible to live peaceably side-by-side with them."
"It's a win-win situation for landowners, homeowners and snakes," she said. "This is the third summer it's been in effect. There was training and there's a special list of people who went through the training."
Contact Gordon Dritschilo at firstname.lastname@example.org.