MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Every year from spring to fall, David Fedor-Cunningham stands ready to help his neighbors in western Rutland County clear their property of potentially lethal timber rattlesnakes.
A handful of times each year, he uses special training he’s had to pick up a snake and drop it into an empty garbage can. He then releases it far from people.
“It’s like picking up a piece of spaghetti with chopstick,” he said.
Fedor-Cunningham, 53, of Benson, remembers when Vermonters could take proof of a dead rattlesnake to a town clerk’s office and be given a check for helping clear the landscape of the snakes.
Though they’re no longer common and rarely bother humans, the snakes still evoke fear. So Fedor-Cunningham is working with a group of state biologists and a private organization to ensure Vermont’s rattlesnake population in western Rutland County at the southern end of Lake Champlain are protected from people and people are protected from the rattlesnakes.
That group is in the middle of a two-year study to track the snakes from their winter dens, most of which are on protected land, to learn about where they go in the summer. Last spring some of the snakes, estimated at several hundred in two separate populations, were outfitted with radio transmitters. By fall researchers were surprised to find just how far they went: Some traveled almost two miles from their dens, crossing roads and passing through rural backyards.
Almost since Europeans settled North America have rattlesnakes evoked strong emotions. They are one of this country’s earliest symbols of freedom. It’s a timber rattlesnake that is coiled on the Revolutionary War-era flag that bore the saying, “Don’t tread on me.”
For centuries, the poisonous snakes were feared and every effort was made to destroy them. It wasn’t until 1971 that Vermont stopped paying bounties for rattlesnake rattles. In 1987, rattlesnakes were added to the state’s endangered species list.
Rattlesnakes are extinct in Maine and Rhode Island. New Hampshire has one known area where rattlesnakes settle and Massachusetts and Connecticut have about 10.
“In New England, we’ve killed off most of our dangerous things. It’s a relatively benign place to live,” said Christopher Jenkins, the executive director of the Orianne Society, a Clayton, Ga.,-based nonprofit group dedicated to protecting snakes and other reptiles across the country. It’s the group working on the Vermont project.
Now biologists are torn between competing desires to educate the public about the snakes and a need to keep quiet about their movements to protect them from unscrupulous collectors or others who could kill them out of an irrational fear.
“These rattlesnake lives on the landscape with people and people encounter them. The snakes come onto peoples’ property,” Jenkins said.
Fish and Wildlife Biologist Doug Blodgett has studied the snakes for years. They are venomous, so there is a legitimate need for caution; a man was bitten on the hand in Fair Haven in 2010 and hospitalized, but it was the state’s only recorded rattlesnake bite in the past half-century.
But the cultural fear is so ingrained it crosses into the irrational, Blodgett said.
“The Bible speaks to these venomous serpents and the devil incarnate,” he said. “That’s quite a statement. When an animal is the embodiment of Satan, that’s a pretty low blow.”
Being in Vermont, at the extreme northern edge of their range, makes the snakes here more vulnerable than in other areas. Rattlesnakes, which can live up to 30 years, are unlikely to spend more than six months out of hibernation each year and might only feed once a season. It can take females up to 10 years to reach sexual maturity. Over their lifetimes, they might not reproduce more than two or three times.
So the groups pass out refrigerator magnets to people within the snakes’ range that have the phone numbers to call if they find a rattlesnake. The numbers get four to eight calls a year, Jenkins said.
It’s through those efforts and other outreach that people know to call Fedor-Cunningham or other volunteers.
Because rattlesnakes are listed as endangered by the state it is illegal to harm them or kill them, but Fedor-Cunningham and Blodgett know not everyone calls.
“You hear stories about people taking care of it themselves,” Blodgett said. “When you mess with them and you get their attention, boy, now you’ve got yourself a situation, especially if you don’t know what you are doing and you physically force them to defend themselves. Well, what else are they going to do? They are not good things to test your reflexes on.”