Degenerated Science Part 4

The Limits of Technology: Snake Collecting

How many individual rattlesnakes are in North Carolina?  How many were there in the past versus the modern day?  More simply, how many rattlesnakes do we want to have in North Carolina—what is a biologically acceptable number?

These are questions the "Scientific Council" have not bothered to ask.  Yet one ought to have a clue, at least, to present population numbers of rattlesnakes before determining if, in fact, rattlesnakes are in "decline."  We can ride around in cars and look at damaged wildernesses, and get a fair idea of what represents good habitat throughout the state, but as for actual numbers of snakes this is difficult even in small localities.  In a state of over 52,700 sq mi, it is physically impossible.  But these impossibilities do not daunt the "Scientific Council". 

Finding a rattlesnake (or any snake) in forested areas is not easy.  It can best be accomplished in springtime when the snakes sun themselves on roads (prior to being run over by cars!), or by exhuming them from under pieces of sun-warmed roadside debris.  Snake counting (or collecting) can scarcely by done at all in summer (except for semi-aquatic species), when snakes become so dispersed that finding them at all is a monumental task.  No such study conducted in summer could even begin to say "how many," and even in springtime the window of observation is so narrow that one must assume everything on the basis of a few specimens encountered during a few weeks time.  One never encounters more than a tiny fraction of overall populations, and can draw few good conclusions about numbers from whatever amount one finds.  That is, unless you use pathological science. 

This leads us to an important point: How does one go about collecting rattlesnakes (or any other snakes) in great numbers for sale?  What technologies exist to do what the researcher himself cannot accomplish?  None at all.  Snake hunting is one of the most inefficient of all human endeavors.

In Georgia, Florida, and some other parts of the deep south, the rattlesnake enjoys a commensal relationship with the gopher tortoise, which lives in an underground burrow.  Unscrupulous catchers of rattlesnakes (for "rattler round-ups") will introduce gasoline fumes via a hose into the burrow, in order to flush out the rattlesnakes.  This does not mean every hole contains a rattlesnake—and it is dirty hard work attempting to find and extract rattlesnakes even in this cruel way.  It is also very time consuming (about an hour for each burrow, not including the hours spent looking for the burrows).  In tracts of land that may exceed 200,000 ha, the chance of finding even a small fraction of these burrows is remote at best.  Thus rattlesnake hunting, even in this way, qualifies as an opportunistic harvest and has minimal impact except in certain localized areas (see review of Berish [1998] next section).

But there are no gopher tortoises in North Carolina.  As such, we do not even have this poor option to catch snakes.  Canebrake rattlesnakes (the lowland form of the timber rattlesnakes) must be found in much the same way as other snakes, by turning up debris or riding on roads.  This is true also for diamondbacks and pigmies.  Only the western (mountain) form of C. horridus can be taken in numbers owing to the denning activities of the snakes in winter, where large numbers of the sluggish ectotherms concentrate within rocky hibernacula.  This last fact does not make it any more feasible to exterminate C. horridus from the N.C. mountains than it does from the lowlands.  It is easy to sit in your office and dream about evil snake collectors swarming up hillsides, plundering dens and abolishing a species; but when you actually try to recreate this event in 3-d space, you will soon get a very different idea of the capabilities of your imaginary villains.  The mountains are immense, as big as God Himself.  You have all the active mass of a grain of sand.  And in your grain-of-sand radius, and given the narrow springtime window in which you have to hunt before proliferating ground-cover makes visibility impossible, your chances of finding even one snake aren’t very good, no matter how well you think you know their habits.  

But our NCWRC officials do not get out much from their office chairs, unless it is to ride in their cars, where their daydreaming goes on equally uninterrupted.  And the "Scientific Council", who spend more time writing regulations than doing herpetology, don’t get out much either, hanging to the coat tails of these inert public officials lest they miss an important telephone call from a fellow bandwagoneer.  For the record, I couldn’t persuade Game Chief Cobb to come down here [to southeastern N.C.] and actually look at rattlesnake habitat in order to help him draw some first hand conclusions.  He already knew all the answers, why should he?  He came by them in a phenomenally brief time too.  A newcomer to our state, he moved here only two years ago.

Affecting a vast knowledge of sites they have never visited (the NCWRC office is in the central part of the State, hours away from the rattlesnake populations they claim such knowledge of), and whose remote location would make them inaccessible to these desk chair commandos in any event, they would have us believe that (1) they know where all the rattlesnakes are; (2) the snakes are declining; and (3) they are declining due to persecution.  They are absolute frauds: they have no more idea what is happening to rattlesnakes in this state than they know what is happening to rattlesnakes in Penguins in Patagonia.  They have lied to the press in order to give them a story that would justify their action; and they have lied to North Carolinians.  But they didn't think up the lie, they merely passed it on.  The lie began with their informants at the Museum.

The original liars proceeded from an assumption that we would believe that they had made a survey of the rattlesnake populations of the whole state.  They never said they had, but by implication we assumed so.  The fact that they had not made a survey of rattlesnake populations in any part of the state was almost too audacious to be considered: after all, these are the State Museum people!

A few hours drive through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park will convince anybody of the impossibility of mere human beings going out and "counting rattlesnakes", even psychically, but it is much easier to be fooled by the magicians when you’re sitting far away from the stage.  Those of us sitting close to the stage, where rattlesnakes live, can more easily spot the strings.  We know that a mere man (or a hundred men) entering rattlesnake habitat on foot and counting all the snakes is just not feasible.  Even in a single acre, the odds against finding any snake will always be greater than not.  Imagine how much greater the difficulty if the habitat is large: e.g., the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, which encompasses 512,000 acres.  Not even through remote viewing could such a feat be accomplished.  Granting ones snake finding skills so advanced that one could make an accurate census of as little as 1000 acres in a year (1.3 sq. mi), it would still take 512 years to complete your task within that one park!   Postulating 512 individuals engaged in the task is not a realistic assessment of the financial rewards of herpetology: it would require the budget of a major Hollywood film.  And then there would still be the rest of the state to deal with when you were done.

The limitations that apply to our surveyors apply to our hypothesized "exploiters" as well because what cannot be counted cannot be collected.  Even through the simplest of methods available to the collector—the supposed "den raiding" method which men like Bill Brown have made a career demonizing—the "raiders" would have to be stationed at thousands of den sites simultaneously during the three-week period of spring emergence in order to catch (or count) the snakes.

Given an area of 800 sq. miles, thousands of people (at least one to every den) would have to be employed continually for the entirely of the same three week period in order to coordinate their efforts with the exodus of the snakes: all would have to know before hand exactly where all the dens were located; and they would have to walk continually back and forth the great lengths of the dens (sometimes thousands of feet horizontally), with a vertical observation path along the mountain slope of hundreds of feet breadth in order to have a maximum encounter.  Just as the snake collector must content himself with whatever pot luck he can find, so the state-paid snake surveyor, to fulfill the terms of his university grant, must fabricate his answers, lying his way from study to study in the hopes of striking a new grant jack-pot. 

When Brown (1993) and associates inform me that overall rattlesnake populations are shrinking in the northern states (which has its own mountain habitat) simply because the populations of the den sites they have observed are shrinking, I wonder their audacity and gall.  Why do they think they know where all the dens are?  Why do they think the exploiters know where all the dens are?  Why do they think the rattlesnakes are wintering only in communal dens, or in only the dens they have found?  How have they managed to divide themselves so many thousands of times in a single spring period in order to count the emergence of the snakes from all the thousands of den sites in several states simultaneously?  More cogently:  Why have they lied to us about doing things that are clearly impossible?  For Brown, Stechert, and Martin each claim to have estimated the numbers of snakes in hundreds of different dens!  New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, West Virginia . . .  They know where the dens are and they have been to all of them; they tell us they have counted the snakes and they uniformly conclude: "decline!" 

In this con game you can get away with anything so long as there are enough liars in the same profession to back you up.  And so they have each other.  But why lie?  Because they are the authorities and authorities are supposed to know.  Admit you don’t know too much, too often, and some other authority who does know (or claims he does) will soon replace you.  Once the government petitions your knowledge, it becomes a liar’s competition.

Bear in mind that no study such as was conducted by Berish (1998) in Florida (see further sections), has yet been applied to North Carolina.  We have no idea of the numbers of snakes collected from dens or from anywhere else.  Indeed, in light of the Berish evidence, it would be illogical to think that such activities are impacting North Carolina populations any more than they are affecting populations in Florida: the economic incentive is too low to make even den collection worthwhile.  At any rate, what little localized damage den hunting could do would seem easy enough to control simply by applying some seasonal controls (as is done for deer and other game) and by charging the collector a healthy fee (proportionate to its wholesale value) for each snake he wishes to catch.  All this would discourage any perceived "wanton collection".  But this is not done.  It is not done because NCWRC wants the option to accuse any persons possessing the snakes as a potential "mass collector."

This is not because you "mass collect," or that "mass collectors" of snakes even exist in North Carolina; it is merely to satisfy the NCWRC that they do exist and are a threat (very important for their bureaucratic well being).  Most of all, it satisfies their "ease of enforcement" practices.  If it means taking away your right to the pursuit of happiness, then so be it (they never approved of that kind of happiness anyway).  Pet hobbyists, herpetoculturists, etc., are looked down upon by the North Carolina State Museum herpetologists (i.e., taxonomists) who resent public interaction with what they view as their property (after all, they have unlimited permits to take them, you do not; see further sections).  However, if you want to donate your catch to the State Museum, they will be certain to arrange a permit for you (as I shall later show).

The available technology for finding snakes in North Carolina is so extremely limited that it can't really be considered a valid "technology" at all.  Accidental encounter is not "technology."  And the rate of encounter of finding a snake the size of a pigmy rattlesnake among the dense wire grass, ferns and leaf litter of a large pine forest is practically zero.  Only when populations of snakes become biologically abundant is it possible to find any snakes.  Indeed, to this extent snake hunting is self-controlling.  Once the snake population falls to a certain level, the rate of encounter falls with it, and it simply becomes impossible to find them, no matter what amount of time you are willing to devote.  Short of destroying habitat, snakes simply cannot be eradicated in a piecemeal way.

A few hectares of woodlands may support 50 individual snakes of a dozen species, but the snake catcher, walking through all this wilderness of snakes, may search for days, or even weeks without seeing one.  Raymond Ditmars recorded this phenomenon in his book Confessions of a Scientist (1937), as did Carl Kauffeld in Snakes and Snake Hunting (1957).  In "Confessions of a Gaboon Viper Lover" (1992), I describe a snake hunt in Ghana, West Africa, where I was taken to within 10 feet of a large Gaboon viper (Bitis gabonica), and even though the snake was pointed out to me by natives, it was not until I had advanced to within one meter of it that I was able to discern its cryptic outlines from among the matching colors of the forest floor.  Like Ditmars, I have walked sometimes for many days and even weeks in the primary forests of South and Central America without seeing a common Bothrops species.  Was I to conclude from this that these animals had been exterminated by man, or were in decline?

Seduced by the apparent ease with which television personalities like Steve Irwin, the "Crocodile Hunter," plucks dozens of snakes of all species out of thin air before the camera, naive members of the public (and some armchair herp people) have come to expect that snakes are lying all about everywhere in the forest, sitting ducks for snake exploiting humans.  They do not realize that, because of the extreme costs that would be incurred by the production teams on these shows while waiting for a wild snake to appear (expenses for cameramen, sound crew, directors and script people), that the "reptile stars" are almost always planted on the scene for the human stars to "find" (or pretend to).  The actor knows exactly which stone to lift, or in which tree to look.  Note how Steve Irwin just happens to find himself in a cane field in the middle of the night with a director, a camera man, an enormous 35 mm cine-camera, a key grip, a sound man, heavy sound recording equipment, huge arc lights on tripods (all this regalia is hidden, of course) and a large adult taipan snake.  All have miraculously arrived together at the same time and place.   The snake isn't coiled up asleep.  Somebody didn't just happen on a sleeping snake and sneak away and summon Steve and the film crew (granted it would have taken them about an hour to set up their stuff).   No, they have all mysteriously gathered there to find the snake crawling along at the edge of the field.  Now the taipan is normally one of the fastest moving and most nervous of all snakes, but this one, as though hypnotized by Steve's magic presence, scarcely moves when it is approached and even allows the actor to pick it up by its midbody!   Can it be that it is a captive born snake that has had a little holiday in the ice chest with the cold beer before being transported outside to "nature"?   We don't expect the magicians to give away their secrets.  And here is Dean Ripa trying to look very surprised as he walks into the frame where a large bushmaster snake is lying, indicating that the camera has seen the snake well before he has!  This is Hollywood, folks, and the snake hunting is made to order, with the heroic "captures" as cleverly organized as in any Hollywood production.   Indeed, my own performances on Discovery Television are no exception; they are simply that, performances.  Had Partridge Films, Ltd., had to wait on me to find a black-headed bushmaster they might have had to hang about at my elbows for about six months before we encountered an actual field example—at a cost of perhaps half a million dollars to get three minutes of film footage.  In a show about the Atlantic Forest bushmaster (Lachesis muta rhombeata) of Brazil, one glorified snake-wrangler from England must resort to finding the wrong subspecies instead, the less rare Amazonian bushmaster (L. muta muta) evidently brought in from another part of the continent and released on the scene so that he could literally "capture" it on film!  Always pays to have your star first before beginning production, lest he decide to cancel his contract.

When it comes to snakes, most "documentary" television is as staged as any cowboy western.  And what answers for "natural behavior" is filmed mostly in naturalistically designed cages (large mammals require bigger play-pens, with such films shot between and around fences or other large external enclosures).  This is no secret to anybody involved in so-called "documentary" film making, which is no more documentary than the Blare Witch Project, only designed to look, as was that film, spontaneous (indeed, it often looks far less spontaneous).  And because mass audiences are composed of few scientists and a vastly greater public who want to be fooled, it all makes for good fun and nobody is offended.  And yet it might come as some disturbing news to PETA and USFWS members and other believers in the Peaceable Kingdom, that the television fantasy of animal life on which they model their moralistic attack on the zoo and hobbyist trade is filmed in the very captivity they condemn.

If you do not believe hunting snakes is a difficult thing, then release even a large harmless snake in your yard and try to locate it an hour later.  You will probably never see it again.  For a good long uneventful search, turn the snake loose in your house, or even inside your car (I warn you, you may have to ride around with it for some weeks until it turns up)!  This is a rule every amateur collector of snakes knows well, but one which seems to have escaped our "Scientific Council," CITES and friends, who perhaps did not have the benefit of a formal education in childhood snake catching.

As a result, snake collectors must resort to "gambler's luck" in order to acquire their catch.  Riding up and down country roads in the hopes of spotting a snake crossing the road before it is struck by the car behind them, or rummaging through rubbish piles around abandoned buildings in the hopes that rodent populations have attracted a snake.  The snake hunter is mostly a helpless fellow with little more than luck going for him.  And he has only a very narrow springtime window in which to look, before hot weather reduces the worth of even these limited technologies.

The "Scientific Council" warns us of the lucrative potential for collecting snakes in North Carolina—and postulates a technology so advanced that such an industry can literally "clean out" snake populations from wilderness areas.  This is logically impossible.  If it were possible, mankind, which has historically gone out of its way to kill any snake whenever encountered, would have long since exterminated every species.  As would hawks and owls, far more efficient predators than man since the dawn of time.

The Council warns us that an example of timber rattlesnake can sell for up to $35, and then suggests this is adequate incentive for a person to go out and hunt snakes for a living. Only someone who never tried to catch snakes for a living could ever think this could be true.  If the "Scientific Council" believes it is possible to go out and "catch rattlesnakes for a living in North Carolina," let us remind them what every herp hobbyist knows: it is by far cheaper to purchase a captive born snake from a dealer than to spend weeks in time and money in the fruitless endeavor of hunting for one in the field.  The cost of gasoline alone expended in cruising up and down roads over a period of time in prime habitat would exceed by many times the purchase price for a captive born one.  People hunt snakes for fun, not profit.  Moreover, a captive born snake of any species is worth several times what a wild caught one is valued at on the collectors market.  When we contacted several Florida reptile dealers asking them "how much they would pay us for a wild caught canebrake rattlesnake" the best price we could negotiate was a figure of between eight and 15 dollars.  However, few were willing to buy more than four or five, and many would not buy them at all.  "That's about all we can sell for now," most responded; or "we already have four of five on hand and haven't moved those yet.  Maybe next month.  Let me take your number. . . ."  Most advised us that in the future we ought to look for captive born ones if we want to get into the reptile dealing business!

Over the years I have calculated that the amount of gasoline required to find a wild canebrake rattlesnake averaged between $20 and $100 (depending on my "luck") not including food, accommodations, and from 8 to 60 working hours of my time.  As such, even though I live at the edge of prime habitat, figuring in expenditures and my own time at minimum wage, finding a $10 rattlesnake would cost me well over $100 before I was finished;  if my luck was bad, as much as three times this amount.  These figures have not changed much since 1970.  In western North Carolina, one has a better chance of finding a rattler if one is willing to climb mountains and look for dens in springtime.  But let's face it, looking for rattlesnake dens amounts to plain ol' mountain climbing!  This is unbelievably hard work for a $15 snake that can also bite and kill you.  Even an adventurous 17-year-old boy will find it far more far more lucrative to keep his part time job at Burger King: a fact that most young snake enthusiasts soon find out, to their dismay.

Someone with greater ambition, attempting to actually make money at this sort of work by sending his captures to out-of-state dealers, will soon discover that the market price on quantity of specimens becomes correspondingly reduced as supply meets demand.  In fact, so fragile is this relationship that the seller's own supply, if large enough, can crash the market price for the whole country in one shipment.  Moreover, with all other expenses, it can cost more money than it is worth to transport the animals to the out-of-state dealers (e.g., by air freight), most of which are in south Florida, 800 miles away.  To send larger numbers of the animals will to some extent offset the price of freight, but the price you can command for the snakes also goes down, the more you have to sell.  If you are lucky you can get the dealer to pay the freight, but this money will of course come out of the total price you negotiate.

Timber rattlesnakes are hardly animal rarities, and anyone who wants one has either got one, or can get a captive born specimen from a friend.  Glades Herp, the world's largest dealer of venomous snakes, reports selling a total of 200 C. horridus last year, but only about 50 of these were true "timber rattlesnakes" (the other approximately 150 were the southern "canebrake" form).  None of the timber rattlers came from North Carolina, but were from Kentucky and Oklahoma.  Three-quarters of all the C. horridus they sold were captive born.  This amounts to less than 25 wild caught timber rattlesnakes!

Nor is the diamondback rattlesnake a rarity, either.  Today as 20 years ago, these big rattlers, if adult and wild caught, still command a very low price.  So low, in fact, that the rattlesnake round-up people in Georgia can get more money for the meat ($16 per coil) and the skin than for the live animal!  (Defeating the oft-printed remark that "the diamondback population has been affected by the pet trade".)  The "Scientific Council" imagines that the demand for such animals is infinite.   In fact, there are only so many people in the world willing to own a snake that can easily kill them.  In total, probably less than 400 eastern diamondback rattlesnakes were sold last year in the entire live animal trade in the U.S. (pers. communication with reptile dealers and long familiarity with the business myself).   About half of these were sold by the largest dealer, Glades Herp.  Of these 200, about 150 (75%) were captive born.

By the most parsimonious estimate, the total wild population of eastern diamondback rattlesnakes in the U.S. cannot number less than 100,000 individuals (two snakes/sq mi of appropriate habitat) and may perhaps exceed a million.  With only about 400 examples sold to pet keepers, and most of these captive born, how can we say that the diamondback and the even more common timber rattlesnakes are being depleted by the pet trade?

We can because Randal Wilson says so.  We can because the "Scientific Council" are august individuals with institutional connections, and even though they do not sell snakes and do not approve of others doing so, the knowledge of the "Scientific Council" about a trade they have never dealt in or investigated cannot be gainsaid.  Nor should the fact that they have done no scientific studies on the numbers of populations on these snakes deter us from following them blindly over the edge of a cliff.

Mass Collector = Mass Populations

What is a mass collector?  What is his defining characteristic?  How many snakes must one catch before the honorary title (the coveted "Komarek award") is bestowed upon you?   What fortuitous conjunction of man and nature permits mass collecting to take place?

If mass collectors of rattlesnakes are unknown in North Carolina, in the northern states there have been catchers who took vast numbers.  A government bounty paid on dead rattlesnakes  throughout most of 20th Century (it was abolished circa 1970) had no other purpose than the complete eradication of timber rattlesnakes in three large counties in New York State.  During a 30 year long period, one bounty hunter, Art Moore, took over 18,000 timber rattlesnakes from  three counties (Essex, Warren, and Washington counties; pers. communication, A. Moore).  Another catcher, the "infamous" Rudy Komarek took several thousand more over the same 30 year period (pers. communication, R. Komarek).  Averaged over 30 years, the annual take comes to some 600 snakes; but in reality the harvest was uneven: some years over 1700 were brought in; while during other years (due to the changing motivations of the catchers) only a hundred or so were taken.  Most of these snakes came from the vicinity of a single mountain, Tongue Mountain, on Lake George in the southern Adirondacks.

If this seems like a lot of rattlesnakes—it should be realized that there were a lot of rattlesnakes to catch.  There were so many that they were coming into the towns, and the town wanted something done about it.   According to Art Moore, his catch was not even the biggest.  His predecessor and "snake hunting teacher", Frank Wilburt (of the Department of Environmental Conservation, Insect and Disease Control) made enough money from the bounty to buy himself a new car every year.  The woods must have been literally teaming with rattlesnakes—and a very unsafe place for clumsy humans.  The response was the bounty.

Dense snake populations of this sort are a globally unusual, if not unheard of phenomenon.  The tiny island, Ilha Queimada Grande, off the coast of Brazil, is only one square mile in size, but within this area are perhaps 10,000 examples of a peculiar pitviper, Bothrops insularis.   In the cypress swamps of the Carolinas, populations of cottonmouth moccasin (Agkistrodon piscivorus) can be immense.  In North Carolina's Green Swamp during the 1960-80s, literally thousands of moccasins were captured by resident hunters during every summer period.  Thousands more were murdered by the local populace who used them for target practice with 22. cal. arms, firing on them from creek bridges and boats.  Tens of thousands more were run over on the roads.  After a quarter of a century of this activity, we are finally seeing less moccasins in the Green Swamp.  Yet this would seem to be due more to the reduction in the fish populations on which the snakes feed than on the collection of the snakes, from the toxic run-off from nearby agriculture and pine farms (for which 75 percent of the swamp was drained in the 1970s).  The run-off and the fish kills have aroused regional concern.

Despite all this mayhem, there are still plenty of cottonmouths in what remains of the  Green Swamp.  Even today it is normal to see at least 10 examples per every hour's walk.  On a three hour walk there last week, I counted 31 examples—and this was only within my own narrow field of vision.

Canebrake rattler populations have upon occasion reached unusual density in N.C.'s Coastal Plains.  On certain tiny "spoil islands" of the Intercoastal Waterway as many as 200 canebrake rattlesnakes were taken during 1967-1968 (pers. communication, C. Jones and G. Tregembo).  Reason:  Soybean crops on the islands had attracted thousands upon thousands of rodents.  Hurricane debris supplied good cover.  The snake's gravitated to the islands.  When people stopped planting soy the snakes went away.

The surveyor attaching demographic relevance to such outsized populations will be rudely disappointed when he begins applying such numbers to more typical areas as a baseline of comparison.  It's a little like expecting the world human population to conform to the numbers of people he has just witnessed in a crowded airport or popular restaurant.  For such scientists, "declines" will appear to be everywhere—literally everywhere they do not find snakes.

Just as it would be wrong to expect all snake populations to conform to expectations based on mass aggregations, it would be a mistake to put the mass collector of snakes outside the context of the mass snake population.  The mass collector of snakes is a phenomenon of the mass aggregation of snakes: the two cannot be separated.  Mass collection is not possible without the demographically anomalous condition where, within specific ecological pockets, snakes occasionally gather in enormous numbers—often, indeed, to their own detriment.  On Ilha Queimade Grande the populations of Bothrops insularis have become so genetically insular as to have developed an intersex, and a high degree of sterility.  During the mass concentrations of cottonmouth in the Green Swamp, cottonmouth ceased eating fish and began preying on their own kind routinely: there were simply more cottonmouth than fish for cottonmouth to eat.  As on Eastern Island, where the human population degenerated into cannibalism before dying out, so the cottonmouth population was large, but also clearly unhealthy.  As far as human beings were concerned, it was out of hand.  And since the human being is also a part of biodiversity (although a part that can, and clearly has gotten out of hand too), human intervention was the method by which nature "controlled" the populations of cottonmouth in the Green Swamp.  No other animal could have done it.  Mankind is, whether the preservationists like it or not, a functioning part of the world he lives in.

The timber rattlesnakes in the mountains of New York State were showing their own signs of ill-health during the period when Moore and Komarek hunted.  Where rattlesnake populations had been dense for generations, a high degree of albinism had developed in some dens, indicative of long interbreeding (pers. communication, R. Komarek).

And today, thirty years after mass collecting by Moore and Komarek, have rattlesnakes been exterminated in New York State?  Might as well let Moore tell us himself.

During the 1940s through 1970 I caught rattlesnakes for the three county governments of Essex, Warren, and Washington.  According to the Wall Street Journal (taken from the records on file with State of New York), I took over 18,000 timber rattlesnakes during a 30 year period.  The counties paid me a bounty of 5 dollars per snake.  Today, I still work for these county governments, however in a different capacity.  I am the Wild Animal Control Officer for the town of Dresden, and the town of Whitehall.

When a rattler or other dangerous animal turns up in somebody's yard, I answer the call and remove the animal.  I go on about 2 rattlesnake calls each week.  You would think all the masses of snakes that I, Wilburt, Komarek, and others removed from these three counties over the years, would have destroyed, or at least drastically reduced the populations of timber rattlers in these areas.  Far from it.  I could, if I wanted to, go out hunting them again and collect numbers comparable to those I took in the 1960s.  The stories of the timber rattlesnake's decline, at least in this area of New York, are absolutely ridiculous.  And the Adirondacks State Park is simply full of them.

Bill Brown, when he was writing his book, could scarcely have found a rattlesnake den without me.  To learn about their habits, he spent hours with me, tape recording what I told him. Whenever he lost a snake during his radiotracking, which was damn near every time he set one free, it was me he came to, to help him find it.  And more times than not I led him straight to it.  He was always amazed.  There was no trick to it.  After doing something every day for half a lifetime, you get good at it.

Brown visited a few dens.  But there is not a single den in these counties that I didn't find for him.  Komarek showed Stechert others in the rest of the state.  Brown and Stechert have written a lot of crazy things about timber rattlers—how they are in decline, how they have gotten rare . . .  What's amazing to me is how many people in the government believe them.  People find rattlesnakes everyday in this area—and they don't even have to go into the woods to see them.  They find them in their own backyards.

What do I think about protection of rattlesnakes?  I think it is a scheme of conservationists to make money for themselves.  Do I think it helps rattlesnakes?  Emphatically not.  People still kill every one they see, and even the wildlife officers do it, or turn their heads and let residents do it.  It is absolutely insane to leave a live rattlesnake in your yard where it can bite you, or a family member, or friends coming over visiting, or your dogs or other pets.  I do not believe in the wanton destruction of rattlesnakes, or any wild creature.  But I have been around long enough, and have done this work long enough, to know what I am talking about.

And who could doubt it.  Art Moore has seen more rattlesnakes in the field than anybody living!  

Thus failed the most concerted snake eradication effort in the history of the United States: the rattlers are still there, and in healthy numbers!  A 50 year plan to exterminate rattlesnakes succeeded only in getting them protected.  One of the collectors (Komarek) even publishes a topographical map to the den sites from which the twenty-some thousand snakes were taken.  You needn't wait on a "scientific bounty hunter" (for grant money) to bugger you with duplicitous declines and dubious depletions: anybody can go and look for himself: the rattlesnakes are still there to be seen each year, exactly where Moore and Komarek say they are. 

How is it possible that after so many thousands of rattlers have been caught and killed over the years, that they still thrive?  Among animal species, snakes are the ultimate survivors.  Whereas hundreds of mammals and birds have become extinct within human memory, virtually no species of snake has (even the always rare Xenoboa of Brazil seems to have disappeared from its own mysterious causes).  Some, like Boiga, have beggared rides on airplane landing gear and established new distributions for themselves on islands removed by thousands of nautical miles.  The saga of the passenger pigeon will  probably never be repeated in most snakes.  

A unique combination of adaptational traits and physiological advantages insures that snakes are going to be with us (or we with them!) for a long time to come.  Their low biological requirements, cryptic habits, ease of concealment and resilience to climatic changes make snakes the most durable of creatures.  And of these, the timber rattlesnake is one of the most durable of all snakes.   If there is one snake in North America that is not going to become extinct, it is this one.  Found in nearly every eastern state, most of the Midwestern ones, and even reaching into Canada, the timber rattler has solved more ecological problems than perhaps any other New World serpent, transcending extreme heat and cold, surviving rigorous persecution, and coming out on top in spite of it all.  Contradicting Brown, Stechert, Martin and any other conservation hoaxers who would follow them, cold climate seems rather to favor these snakes than otherwise: timber rattlesnakes are found in greater numbers in the mountainous north than in the south!  

How is cold weather good for timber rattlesnakes?  It lowers their food needs to a level proportionate to their needs for inactivity.  Once finding a subterranean access beneath the frost line, they make good use of their long winters to sleep: to hide from predators, to grow, to develop their ova and young (mating in the fall just prior to the wintering period).  Hibernation makes their biological needs static, and while out of circulation, they need not fear becoming another animal's food.  And hibernation is not so different from a pitviper's normal life anyway, which is primarily an existence of eat and hide and sleep; a sort of episodic hibernation which has worked so well against predation that there is not a single place in the world where human beings have been able to eradicate these or any other snake species, provided sufficient habitat remained.

Brown (1993) warns that slow sexual maturity of females in the north (9 to 10 years) makes timber rattlesnakes vulnerable to human exploitation.  As in the cicada, it is meaningless to a sleeping ectotherm how many human years it takes to reach sexual maturity: when an animal is hibernating, time is in suspension.  In fact, when one totals up the timber rattlesnake's yearly active life in the north (4.6 mo) and compares it to the timber rattlesnake's yearly active life in the deep south (about 10 mo), sexual maturity is reached by females of both regions at roughly the same time:  at about 3.6 years of the snake's active life. 

When food and cover are abundant (as in the mountains of New York State) snakes reproduce rapidly, not slowly.  They reproduce rapidly, not because they reach an early reproductive age (in human years), but because when food is abundant, and cover is good, mortality of the young is not high.  And the major competition for food being other timber rattlesnakes, reducing adult populations only enhances the survival potential of the offspring.  As such, the snake populations bounce right back, as they have done on Lake George and on Tongue Mountain in New York State, undoubtedly the most heavily hunted rattlesnake area in North America.

The Braswellites, depending on Brown (for he is all they have) point to these northern harvests as evidence of what could happen in North Carolina if the snakes are not protected.  This is ridiculous.  That such harvests happened at all and did not succeed is the greatest testimony to its impossibility in N.C.  If a state paid bounty lasting half a century cannot succeed in getting rid of rattlesnakes in an inclement northern state, how can this happen in North Carolina where there is neither a bounty nor a significant commercial market for the snakes?

The Braswellites would have done better to cite a southern study like Berish (1998) for a more accurate representation of harvest potential in North Carolina.  For what little temporary success the bounty system did have in the north could never be repeated in the south:  there are practical differences.

Snake hunting, north vs. south

Snake hunters visiting the tropics for the first time are usually shocked at how few snakes they find, and how few techniques they have to find them.  Looking under debris is practically worthless, and one can walk days in the most untouched jungle and never see more than a few frogs and lizards.  Given the time spent looking, you could have ten times the success in an overdeveloped state like New Jersey than in the remotest part of the Amazon.

An abiding rule is that it is fundamentally easier to collect snakes in the north than in the south.  In the north, the collector has the option of looking for basking sites throughout what is generally a colder year, even during the snakes' active, non-wintering period.  Once reaching the south, however, all this changes.  What worth is a basking site when there is warmth everywhere?  There are no restrictions on where snakes will go, or where they will hide.  Warm weather occurs early in the southern U.S., and it remains consistently warm for longer periods.  Once warm weather arrives, the snakes disperse and go where they might, hiding out the hot days beneath dense vegetation.  For this reason (and the fact that they do not rely on communal dens), there is no record of timber rattlesnake harvests in the south comparable in size to those collected for the northern bounty by Art Moore or Rudy Komarek.  There is no better evidence for this than by tracing Komarek's own sales market for rattlers, which is very interesting.  

Komarek was selling the majority of his northern catch to the south.  His buyers were Captain Herschel Flowers at Ft. Knox, Kentucky, and Soco Gardens Zoo in Maggie Valley, North Carolina.  Both of these buyers lived in prime timber rattlesnake country.  The southern buyers simply did not have the wherewithal to collect large numbers of the snakes, even though they lived in prime habitat.  Even today, at the Georgia and Alabama rattlesnake round-ups, timber (canebrake) rattlesnakes are by far in the minority—it is the rarer, but more easily targeted eastern diamondback rattlers that predominate.

The Braswellites, in their sloppy attempt to graft some northern incidents onto the south,  fail both by logic and evidence.  The south simply cannot be compared to the north.  As one moves further south, the difficulty of finding snakes increases with the degree of their dispersal, until at last, in the neotropics, snake hunting becomes so extremely difficult that it is possible to walk for weeks in primary forest without ever seeing a snake.  This is well documented.   And yet no one would consider saying that snakes are less numerous in the tropics than in the temperate zone.

If mass collection of rattlesnakes appears to have been possible by a few individuals in the north, Paul Moler, wildlife biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, considered rattlesnake harvests insignificant in the deep south.  The talents of Moore or Komarek would have been wasted down here.  Moler told me: 

We investigated all this in Florida and south Georgia, and found that most snakes are gathered opportunistically, not from people deliberately looking for them. Whether as live animals or for the skin trade, this is a dispersed harvest based mostly on nuisance animals.... The snakes are found around people's houses or on roads. Very few come from remote areas or in deep woods. The rattlesnake is an invisible predator that is simply very hard to find. Even the three (now two) Georgia rattlesnake round-ups do not produce more than a combined total of about 500 examples annually. This is not an impressive harvest when one considers how many rattlesnakes must be out there, judging from road kills and the much greater size of opportunistic harvest [see Berish, 1998, next section].  Present harvest amounts in Florida do not seem to be affecting populations of these animals because the amount seems to remain constant from year to year.  We concluded that, given the overall impacts, deliberate human taking of snakes wasn't all that significant, and perhaps not worth the expense of regulating.

As a means of furthering my study, Moler advised me to look at an important paper written by Joan Berish.

The Berish Factor

Probably the most convincing evidence so far that the "mass collector" of southern snakes is a fiction, and confirming the futility of trying to control what is really only an opportunistic persecution and not an intentional one, is in the illuminating study by Joan Diemer Berish (1998), published in the Journal of Herpetology.  I quote from her abstract:

Information regarding the harvest of eastern diamondback (Crotalus adamanteus) and timber (C. horridus) rattlesnakes [for the live animal and skin trade] was gathered from commercial dealer reports, phone interviews with dealers and collectors, and examinations of 714 harvested rattlesnakes. Many individuals killed and sold rattlesnakes in north Florida, but relatively few sold snakes repeatedly, and most brought in one snake per visit to a dealer. Collection occurred primarily during the spring, summer and fall.  Most of the 98 interviewed collectors opportunistically killed rattlesnakes on roads, in yards, and less commonly, in woods; only five indicated that they actively hunted for rattlesnakes.  Many interviewees indicated that they would kill rattlesnakes that they encountered, especially near human habitations, regardless of potential monetary gain.

The "mass collector" of these snakes was evidently a popular myth.  Mass collection was the result of opportunism among masses of people who would have killed the snakes anyway if they had not collected them. Hence, harvesting rattlesnakes was a by-product of expanding human settlement, resulting in increased snake encounter.  The fact that very few people collected the snakes in winter suggests that they were not taking them from their winter refuges (e.g., tortoise burrows, stump-holes), but were simply finding them by chance during their active period.

"These findings [in north Florida] point to an opportunistic harvest rather than intentional hunting of rattlesnakes," Berish writes. And she notes further that while intentional hunting occurred (usually when the snakes were predictably at their winter retreats, e.g., gopher tortoise burrows), it was confined to a few individuals and its impact minimal to overall populations, although it could affect populations in some localized areas.

Most unexpected of all, several early popular accounts suggested that "harvest pressure on Florida's rattlesnake populations was considerably more intense during the mid-1900s" than today.  An age well before a hobbyist trade had developed in venomous snakes.  She remarks: "Snyder (1949) recounted the evolution of the rattlesnake trade in Florida and estimated that 120 professional snake hunters captured rattlesnakes full time during the late 1940s.   He noted that the market in 1948 absorbed more than 20,000 rattlesnakes, 40% of which were bought by Ross Allen's Reptile Institute in Silver Springs.  In 1953, Ross Allen estimated that he had received about 50,000 rattlesnakes over nearly 28 years (Klauber, 1972)."  Compared to these harvests, Greene's (1997) remark of 4000 timber rattlesnakes (133/year) sold in three northern states over a 30-year period is a just a drop in the bucket.

Significantly, none of this activity seemed to have resulted in a decline in rattlesnake numbers.  The snakes were still being found in about same amount, year to year.

The work of Kevin Enge

If the "Scientific Council" has conveniently ignored Joan Berish, they have taken no note whatever of biologist Kevin Enge's 102-page treatise, Herptile Trade and Use in Florida, prepared for the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission.  Enge summarizes:

Commercial collection of most herptile species probably has negligible impact on populations when compared to such threats as habitat destruction, alteration of hydrologic regimes, and highway mortality.

He goes on to note that about 7 km of new roads per day have been constructed during the last 50 years, leading to an increased highway mortality of wildlife, and remarks a 50% loss in forest cover.

In south Florida, the principal threats to native herpetofauna identified by Wilson and Porras (1983) in order of importance were: (1) destruction of natural cover; (2) manipulation of the hydrologic cycle; (3) destruction of man-made cover; (4) naturalization and spread of injurious exotic plants; (5) vehicular traffic; (6) biocides and other forms of pollution; and (7) man-generated fires.

Ranked last in order of importance were outright killing, followed by collecting and competition with exotic herpetofauna.  It would seem that when a scientific approach is used, the effects of collecting always appears negligible.  But when science is not used, the effect of collecting is always construed to be high.  Pathology thrives on emotionalism.

Most revealing of all was that both the Berish and Enge studies dealt with Florida-- the state most likely to be affected by commercial trade, because it has by far the largest number of herp dealers in the nation!

Export: where the real money is?

If the domestic market does not hold much hope for men with hooks and snakebite-proof boots, what of the "lucrative export market," which USFWS warns us has even higher dollar per pound value than cocaine?  Surely selling rattlesnakes abroad is where the real money is.

I rang up Robert Onda, Supervisory Wildlife Inspector of the USFWS at Kennedy Airport. With Kennedy the world's largest gateway to the European frontier, and sitting square in the middle of the timber rattlesnake populations of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania (where it is still legal to collect them), surely he would have some insight.  Here is Mr. Onda's "damning evidence" against the pet trade:

"Rattlesnakes...exported? Negligible. So few in fact, I can't remember the last shipment. We don't see them much any more these days."

"WHAT?"

"Hardly ever see them."

"Well, now, do you mean timber rattlesnakes, or diamondback rattlesnakes?"

"Any rattlesnakes," he said. "I can't remember the last time I saw a docket."

And so the world's largest port of entry can't even remember the last shipment, so few rattlesnakes went out last year.  I got back on the phone with Glades' Herp. As the world's largest dealer in venomous snakes, they would certainly have sent a few timber rattlesnakes overseas lately.

"Export?  Uh...maybe 100...in the last five years."

"But that's only about 25 per year," I said.

"Yeah, that's all.  Mostly captive born, though.  They're breeding them in Germany, of course.  We've got European competition."

These facts will be sure to disappoint the USFWS propaganda team, who never bothered even to check their computer records before informing us that rattlesnake exploitation—among them exportation—was driving them into extinction.

Consider these figures from USFWS.  The United States accounts for 80 percent of the world's international wildlife trade.  The major portion of the wildlife trade is not in birds and mammals, but in reptiles and amphibians.  In 1998 a total of 1,921,272 reptiles and amphibians were imported into the United States.  The majority of these were iguanas and various small common lizards and frogs, and 26 percent were turtles (including tortoises).  Their value was approximately $6.4 million: or about $3.30 each.  Since there is no snake in the world exported  at a price of three and a half dollars, not even from the tropics (from which most imports originate), we must conclude that very few of these numbers are snakes.  And because no tortoise in the world sells for three and a half dollars, very few could have been tortoises either.  The vast majority are simply small frogs, lizards, and baby turtles, many probably re-exported to the Asia market. 

The U.S. export market is much the same.  The total export of all reptiles from the U.S. in 1998 was about 9,000,000 examples.  85% of these were baby red-eared slider turtles born in captive ponds; the majority of the remainder were other kinds of baby turtles.  Red-ear sliders sell for 35 cents each.  Since 85% of 9,000,000 reptiles = 7,650,000, then at 35 cents each, the total value of 85% of the U.S. export market in live reptiles is not more than about 2.6 million dollars.  In sum, the total dollars value on all live reptile exports from the U.S. is less than three million dollars.   The total of all import and export combined is nine million dollars.

Now controlling all this activity is the USFWS.  It has a budget of 575 million dollars!  A budget 61 times higher than the total dollars value of all the reptile imports and exports they are charged with controlling!   The USFWS bill for chasing and arresting a single offender (6 million dollars for Tom Crutchfield) was higher than the total cash value of all the reptile imports for the entire country for that same year!

There is no doubt about it:  protecting wildlife has a greater dollars value than cocaine!   Which business would you rather be in:  selling wildlife, or protecting it?

It becomes clear that we are being made sport of by our own government.  In comparative terms, if you ran a circus and had to pay 5 percent of your profits to the show people, loading crew, lot rental, and all other expenses, and 95 percent of your profits to the two old ladies selling tickets at the front gate, you'd catch on pretty soon that the two old ladies were robbing you.  You'd get rid of them—even if you had to go and sell the tickets yourself. 

Not content to spend more money controlling a trade than the value of the trade itself, now our Protection Racketeers want millions more of your American dollars to chase Mom and Pop snake collectors (and school age kids), for pet snakes whose total gross value is less than the salary of one high ranking USFWS official.   Indeed, USFWS must spend more money on envelopes than American sells live snakes to fanciers.  And far more money on propaganda to implant the absolute lies they dream up for the rest of us to read about in our newspapers.

And the "Scientific Council" are part of this lie.  Fabricating their pathologically insane "science," not bothering with facts and figures, and content to invent an enemy they cannot find, they are like any propaganda organization relying on panic to motivate the masses: to fill their own pockets with the dollars to be made controlling the "problem". Condemning the hobbyist trade in order to keep themselves in the green, why should they look farther than their own prejudices, if only to disappoint themselves with the truth?  Perhaps too great an intimacy with this knowledge might make them suspect of untoward affiliations among their colleagues.  In some professions, especially moral crusades, it isn't kosher to know too much about The Enemy.  The "Scientific Council" must affect the look of scientists, even if they do not use science.  They are not supposed to have inside knowledge about a trade they are meant unanimously to condemn.

We ask the "Scientific Council" to show their own facts and figures on this point, since I have no doubt they will dispute mine.  I would also like to ask them (as I have been asking them for years) how a person could go about making a living collecting North Carolina snakes?  (I would like to get into this business myself!)  As a means of supporting my contention, I challenge any member of the "Scientific Council" to back up their statements and show us even one single individual who is currently making a living collecting native snakes of any kind in North Carolina!

The "Scientific Council" ought to spend more time asking questions before fabricating answers.  They should determine:

(1) What constitutes a snake population.
(2) How many snakes are saleable in a commercial trade market.
(3) How will increased supply reduce demand and unit cost of the item, so as  to no longer justify the expenses for the collecting activity.

Knowing these things, they could then determine, quite simply

           (4) What is a sustainable population usable as a resource by North 
                Carolinians.

They could then determine what the quota for a collecting permit should be, and how much to charge the collector for it in order to regulate this miserably insignificant trade that is their pathological obsession to control.  But none of this has been done.  They are paddling in a boat in the dark—and towing state government along with them.

The "Scientific Council" postulates a lucrative trade in wild snakes going on beneath the noses of all investigators but themselves.  We have questioned not only the existence of this "lucrative industry" in North Carolina, but the very possibility of its existence on the basis of:

      (1) Poor technologies for collecting snakes; and 

      (2) low financial incentives.

Judging from the number of applicants for North Carolina collecting permits last year (about 200 persons; source Alicia Armstrong, Nongame Management of North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission), and the vast majority of these only collecting as a hobby a few days out of each spring year (very few of these collect rattlesnakes per se), and these 200 persons spread out over a state 52,712 sq mi in area, the overall effect of these "Sunday snake catchers" is assuredly nil.  To illustrate this, let's assign 1 sq mi to each of these 200 collectors and put them to work collecting snakes of all species.  Let's give them 8 hours or so on a Saturday to fumble around in the woods and report back at 5 o'clock with their catch.  Will we have gained even 200 snakes at the end of this period?  Perhaps.  But after assigning each of them a square mile in which to hunt, we now have 200 square miles of woods in which they are collecting, and if 200 snakes can be regarded as impact in an area of 200 square miles (128,000 acres), then our definition of impact is exceedingly bizarre, given that the total numbers of snakes of all species wilderness of this size must be in the millions.

Now let's imagine these 200 collectors spread out over an area of 52,700 sq mi (the area of N.C.).  Each collector will be assigned an area of 263.5 sq mi .... I will stop here, because it is getting ridiculous.  The impact of one person on an acreage of this size, competing with the thousands of hawks and owls and snake-eating snakes, roadways and development, is so low that there are not enough zeros to put before the decimal in the percentage rate column.

To state that the comparatively tiny and innocuous trade of these few hobbyists has stressed overall snake populations in North Carolina is both illogical and unscientific.  And yet it is just here, by attacking this barely detectable intensity (and the rights and privileges of these very few people) that the "Scientific Council" plans to begin "solving" our problems with "declining herptiles."

If rattlesnakes or any other species of snake ever become extinct in North Carolina, it will not be because of pet hobbyists, as this report will show emphatically.  But what about other uses of rattlesnakes?  If pet hobbyists aren’t ravaging the land, then who is?  Surely we can find at least one scapegoat for our cause, some useful witch to burn that will to advance our bandwagon, justify our crusade?  What about the skin and meat trade?  Isn’t the timber rattlesnake at least in some danger of being turned into belts or boots?

The last witch: the skin trade dud

Nothing in the world is more disheartening to a dedicated crusader than to learn that his elected enemy isn’t what he thought him to be.  It’s bad to learn it late in the race, but worse to let your followers in on the news, for it destroys their moral.  And the heat of their moral— and morality— based on ignorance, steeped in hate, and fueled by a burning self-righteousness, can’t long survive the cooling influence of icy truth. Consequently, the Preacher keeps his flock in the dark as much as possible, gearing his sermons toward the listener’s emotions, and cleverly avoiding "poisoning their minds" with too much news of what goes on outside the congregation.

Thus, thumping a bible designed for the north—Bill Brown’s dubious, Biology, Status, and Management of the Timber Rattlesnake: A Guide for Conservation—the "Scientific Council" preached to a southern choir willing to listen, without ever asking if the sermon might not be inapplicable to rebel rattlers below Mason and Dixon.  As Karl Marx wrote about the communism he invented, that it "would only work in an industrialized state and that any attempt to adapt it to an agrarian state like Russia would end in failure" (and yet it was in Russia, of all places, that communism found its first eager audience, and then bandwagoned its way into an agrarian Third World equally unable to profit from it) so Brown’s secular writings found believers in the southern states for which it was uniquely unsuited.  (See Degenerated Science 2: The Great Northeast Hoax).

If Berish (1998)—a southern study—revealed that the use of rattlesnakes was an opportunistic harvest based on road kills and "nuisance" snakes that threatened human life, and Enge (1993) determined that harvests of nearly all snake species in Florida was insignificant overall—in spite of Florida having the largest number of reptile dealers in the nation—then Fitzgerald and Painter (2000) have enlarged our view with a look at commercialization of rattlesnakes in all of the United States.

Probably the best overall look at rattlesnake commercialization to date, this new work deserves the full attention of every conservationist.  And it should be made mandatory reading for state government officials who fancy themselves well informed enough to begin blindly passing laws in knee-jerk response to the biases of pseudo-scientific pressure groups.

Fulfilling nearly all the predictions of this article, while disconcerting the moral axe-grinders in our state capitols, Fitzgerald and Painter (2000) report few long term trends from commercial trade affecting the greater populations of rattlesnakes of all species in North America.  There would seem to have been no discernable decline directly attributable to any human use of snakes.  And here for once somebody is even able to give us some numbers and species of rattlesnakes harvested!  The writers make a case for less than 125,000 rattlesnakes of all species in all states entering the commercial skin and meat trade each year.  A number far lower than the publicists of the USFWS would have you believe.  When harvests of deer run into the tens of millions nationwide, the United States can barely manage to extract more than one rattlesnake per year from each 24 sq. miles (15,360 acres) of its greater than 3,000,000 sq. mi. rattlesnake distribution range.  I quote:

Because estimates remain imprecise, it is difficult to conclude that during the 1990s the total yearly trade in all species of rattlesnakes combined could be >125,000/year.  Probably > 85% of the total take of all species is composed of western diamondbacks from Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico and >75% from Texas.

The wording is curious, and indicative of our age.  We have so come to accept the idea of millions of snakes ending up in the commercial trade market that the writers are endeavoring to convince us not of the vastness of the number (as would have been done in former times), but how small it actually is.  The writers are aware that they are tampering with a modern myth, and one of mass media origin. This has made their jobs all the more difficult; reading the work we are aware of their struggle to swim upstream against the fashionable current, trying to make a truthful appraisal of a situation to an audience less interested in truth than in hearing the echoes of old views confirmed.  The writers themselves seem to want to believe in some hidden effect of commercial harvests, but with the data at their disposal, have trouble doing so.  Note that North Carolina is not mentioned, nor any other eastern state.  Indeed, the only southern or eastern states involved in commercial trade would appear to be Florida and Georgia, and part of Alabama.  Yet even here the scientists determine that the trade appears to be causing no ill-effect. 

So we have, in the east, a commercial trade confined mostly to three southern states in the Deep South.  Fitzgerald and Painter (2000) show this trade to be composed almost entirely of eastern diamondbacks: about 10,000/year, taken for the skin trade in 1993, mostly from nuisance animals encountered as Berish (1998) described: opportunistically, not from snake hunting.  Significantly, the "rattlesnake round-ups" produce only a fraction of this total number: about 1000 - 1,600 examples from all the round-ups.  Fitzgerald and Painter (2000) are forced to conclude that the rattler round-ups really aren't as bad as they're painted. 

Paul Moler (pers. communication) considers their round-up estimates too high for the present day by two to three times, concluding that all three Georgia round-ups take less than 500 as a combined total.  Perhaps the take was higher in 1993 than today, for skin traders report a bigger demand throughout the 1980s.  However, Moler reports that rattlesnake round-up figures are often exaggerated by the organizers, to encourage attendance. And Moler’s view is logical in that even 500 adult rattlesnakes in a single location would weigh almost two tons, whereas the organizers and participants of each round-up have no trouble toting by hand all the snakes combined in only a few containers.  Moler is to my knowledge one of the few herpetologists who has actually "counted noses" of snakes at these festivals.  The other is Ken Darnell, who attends the festivals yearly in order to extract the rattler venom for research.  For the year 2000, Darnell (pers. communication) reports only 50 eastern diamondbacks taken at the Fitzgerald round-up; 125 taken at Claxton; and 225 at Whiggins, Georgia: a figure comparable to Moler's. 

Opponents of round-ups correlate this decrease to decreasing populations of the snakes.  They say the round-ups are declining because the snake populations are declining.  Darnell reports a different reason: the old time snake hunters have one by one died out through the years, and the younger people coming up are not willing to work for days on end hunting snakes to make less money than they could at some minimum wage job. For what is consistent is the low dollar value paid for the whole rattlesnake at round-ups:  Six dollars per foot for diamondbacks, 3 dollars a foot for canebrakes. . . Considering that most hunters can’t manage to find more than 2 or 3 examples per hunting season, they expect to lose money for their expenses and time.  A sense of civic duty, and a desire to participate in the "sport of the thing" motivates them.  The organizers of round-ups themselves expect to lose money on the purchase of the snakes: they make their money from the admission’s attendance, and rental of concessions booths.  The rattlesnakes are simply a "hook" to get people to attend the festivals.

Fitzgerald and Painter’s (2000) overall estimate of 10,000/year for eastern diamondbacks from all states would seem to be factual for some years, but not for others.  Randy Campbell, owner of Southeast Skins (the largest dealer of eastern diamondback rattlesnake skins in the nation), considers the number too high for the present day.  He reported to me:

The days of the film, Urban Cowboy, are behind us.  In those days, when cowboy boots were in big demand, our business was too.  Nowadays, we can’t justify the price, and this is reflected all the way down the line, from the tanners to the individual suppliers. We can’t pay them as much as we used to, so we get less skins.  It works out, because we have less buyers.

As in Berish (1998), the skin suppliers aren’t professional or even amateur snake hunters, but a network of residents throughout north Florida and south Georgia who pick up the dead snakes from roads, or get them from people who have already killed them as nuisance animals.  The carcasses are then delivered to a local holder who keeps the animals frozen for a period of time until their number justifies collection by the skin buyer.  Thus skin buyers do not rely on roundups, but endeavor to circumvent them so as to buy the snakes more cheaply from the original sources. Campbell added that 90% of all skins are taken in this way, from animals killed well in advance before the skin trader arrives.

What is intriguing is that whether we use the large figure or the small, the harvest of eastern diamondbacks has not seemed to affect subsequent harvests in these states.  It is "market demand with its fluctuations", rather than supply, that seems to affect take.  Ross Allen was purchasing about 1800 live diamondbacks per year during the 1930s-1950s from Florida and south Georgia where he operated, while the modern take is in pre-killed examples whose appearance on the skin trade is as an opportunistic effect of the same persecution that would have gone on in Ross Allen’s day as well. Therefore, disproportionate to the human population, the demand for snake products would seem to have gone down since the days of Ross Allen. The availability of western diamondbacks determines in a great measure the demand for the more difficult to collect (and thus more costly unit price) of the eastern diamondbacks.  In other words, conservation of the eastern snakes is in a great measure determined by satisfying demand with a more common and widespread product, the western rattlesnakes. Ken Darnell reports an increase in number of eastern diamondbacks in the Georgia skin trade when California made it illegal to take western diamondbacks.

Because of the vastly greater difficulty of collecting the eastern snakes, which live in forest habitat where visibility is minimal and confined to a narrow springtime window, and the lesser difficulty of collecting the western snakes in desert habitat where visibility is higher year round, the eastern diamondback remains more difficult— and less profitable— to exploit even in its much smaller range.  It is not— it will never be— possible to collect large numbers of the canebrake rattlesnake for trade use, at least not disproportionately to the numbers of other species. These lowland snakes are too cryptic and dispersed, and unlike the mountain forms, seldom den communally in any considerable numbers.  Whereas diamondbacks rely largely on tortoise burrows and large stump holes, the lowland canebrake rattler winters in mammal burrows and tree root systems in the south (as every canebrake catcher in the country except Brown [1993] is well aware:  Brown, with his delusional horror of snake exploiters would have hunters searching for rock ledges in areas there are no rock ledges, this being 75 percent of their range).   As a result, southern timbers are highly dispersed and difficult to target. 

Fitzgerald and Painter (2000), following the misguided Brown (1993) are aware that the southern populations of the timber rattlesnake do not exhibit a life-history as extreme as those in the north. On this basis they suggest that the southern populations are less susceptible to exploitation. However, they seem to want to believe that they could be, and concede the possibility on the basis of Gibbons (1972) who offers only a prediction of such, and moreover one that in 30 years has never been fulfilled (note Gibbons always appears in the context of extinction predictions: it's evidently his specialty). The pathological approach: Because some northern dens could be exploited, all are in danger.

And this brings us to an unfortunate flaw in Fitzgerald and Painter (2000): because it is basically a compendium of previous literature, it is also echo of previous pathologies.  Rather than an erection of new data, or a reexamining of old data, it takes old material that may or may not have been accurate at the time and attempts to draw conclusions from it. This forces them into dealing with the irrational Brown (1993) whose overblown accounts of human exploitation in New York State amount nearly to an obsession.  In this northern "Bible" of rattlesnake conservation, Brown devotes more than 11 pages to the threat of human collection while less than two pages to habitat destruction, and leaves nothing whatever said about roadway mortality, the later of which exceeds human harvests of snakes in the modern day by at least one thousand times (see next section).  Yet even when he does speak of habitat destruction, the destruction he refers to is the destruction caused to rattlesnake dens by snake hunters! 

In no instance does Brown (1993) show us any significant commercial use of the timber rattlesnakes he contends are endangered by it in the modern day.  His timber rattlesnakes, once taken alive by man, simply float numberlessly onto a Florida dealer’s price list, the better to threaten us by implication of a vast secret industry.  It wouldn't have been too hard to phone up the dealer (whose telephone number was on the list) to ask how many examples the dealer sold annually.  And yet Brown didn't.  Why?  He was afraid.  He might have found out he was wrong—and then what would he say to fellow mob members who had put their trust in him?

Brown (1993) and Brown et al., (1994) would have us believe that northern populations of timber rattlesnakes are more susceptible to exploitation than southern ones (due to reproductive constraints) and through being more easily targeted at the den site after winter emergence.  While this is easily disproved (see Deg. Sci. 2) we will, for the purposes of this paper, accept their hypothesis as if it were correct, and ask instead a question of logical and fundamental importance to their theory: are timber rattlesnakes being commercially exploited today in the north or anywhere?   If so, in what numbers and for what purposes?

Read nearly any book on this subject and you will hear this single echo: the depletion of the rattlesnake dens in the northeastern U.S. is the result of commercialization.  Mimicking Brown (1993); and Greene, (1997), Fitzgerald and Painter (2000) warn us that:

The fact that the western diamondback, prairie, and eastern diamondback rattlesnake has thus far avoided the same fate as northern populations of timber rattlesnakes is due solely to the lucky combination of their life histories, geographical ranges, and fickle fashion trends.

But this is untrue.  The timber rattlesnake has never been a more popular fashion item than the western snakes.  Indeed, from the standpoint of producing saleable meat and leather, it is so inferior a product that skin dealers will not buy timber rattlesnakes at all.  Randy Campbell, of Southeast Skins Inc., reports (pers. communication):

The timber rattlesnake skin is worthless to the leather dealer on account of its small size.  It is useless to make boots, too narrow and short to make a good belt, and can at best be used as a sort of inferior hat band.  There is not enough flesh on these small snakes to make the meat saleable.  I discourage people collecting them for me, since I can’t use them.  I will occasionally buy a large canebrake rattler at the Georgia round-ups to give incentive to the collectors who come by these accidentally while looking for diamondbacks.  However, I pay them only half what a diamondback is worth, because I can get less for the skin itself.  Occasionally there will be a special order I can fill, if the snake is large enough—but only from the canebrake, and then only if the snake has reached large size.  The other problem with C. horridus is the pattern: people recognize rattlesnake skin by the diamond markings.  The canebrake pattern is attractive, but it is just not what people expect from a rattlesnake skin, and they don’t buy them.  The total number of canebrake skins on the annual skin market is probably less than 300.  But the true timber rattlers are emphatically never large enough to be used.  Consequently, I don’t buy them, and never have.

Southeast Skins is located in Alpine, Tennessee, in the heart of "true" timber rattlesnake country, so its owner is well enabled to say. Campbell remarked to me how curious it is that, in consideration of his position as the nation’s largest dealer of eastern skins, that no conservationist or public official had ever called on him to ask for data or his views.  I replied that it wasn’t strange at all.  Pathological science thrives on ignorance, and self-delusion.

Ken Darnell records in his book, "The Venom Gypsy" (2000) an extraordinary amount of first hand information about rattlesnakes and their commercialization.  He has visited hundreds of round-ups over the years (where he collects the snakes’ venom) and is well informed about the methods snake catchers use to find and catch snakes.  Darnell supplied me the following communication:

One of the great myths about the timber rattlesnake is that it is always found in large numbers in communal dens, and that these dens are easily exploited.  In truth, during den emergence, there is no mass exodus of snakes: they crawl out a few at a time over days and days from narrow crevices that one can't see to the bottom of.  One finds a few individuals basking on rock-ledges,  and extracting the remainder (provided one can determine there to be a remainder) is next to impossible unless one is willing to wait for days or weeks on end.  Yet just mention the word "snake den" and the public pictures a cavernous expanse straight out of Indiana Jones, where mighty masses of snakes teem and writhe.  In fact, one might not even be aware that one is at a "snake den", for other than the presence of large numbers of rocks, there is no clue to its existence except the presence of the occasional snake or shed snake skin.

This myth has a very real origin: Raymond Ditmars and early 20th Century photography.  The old literature showed us pictures of masses of snakes heaped among rock craters.  But these were simply photographic simulations.  Snap-shot photography had not been invented and photography was about "re-creating" an idea, not capturing an event.  Ditmars and peers simply piled up large numbers of snakes among the rocks and, with the painstaking lighting processes by which all photography took place in those days, recorded his simulation.  The impression on American psychology has lasted for generations.  Vast numbers of snakes lying in torpid heaps like so many sluggish sausages, vulnerable to anybody's taking:  just say the words "snake den" and Ditmar's creation comes to mind.  In fact, snakes lying bunched together in this way could little benefit from the basking that was their intent; even during actual wintering, the snakes must usually retreat singly between the narrow rock slabs in order to survive the yearly cold.  

Darnell continues:

All sort of tricks are supposed to exist for getting the snakes to come out from between the rock cracks so that you can catch them.  But look at the logistics of it: dynamiting the site will kill the product, and gassing the den in order to flush out the snakes is useless and expensive.  Rock slabs are not gopher tortoise burrows, which have a single channel down which one can run a hose or pipe and introduce gasoline.  The crevices run every which way, and often occupy the whole southern face of a mountain.  If one introduces gas, it is quickly dispersed among the cracks and does nothing.  To have any effect at all, one would have to know exactly which crevices held snakes, and even so, use many, many gallons of expensive gasoline—perhaps more even than the cash worth of the snakes themselves.  Hauling 50 or a 100 pounds of gasoline up to the top of a mountain is not for any man in his right mind to try to do.  Even if he succeeds, he will be catching a snake that he can at best sell for a couple of dollars to an Indian craftsman (to make a curio), for the skin trade isn’t interested.  The timber rattlesnake is too small to make good leather.  And the meat trade isn't interested either.  Any sale of meat purported to be timber rattlesnake is most definitely bogus; it is western diamondback meat or eastern diamondback meat—and there is damn little edible meat even on those big snakes, as the buyer soon finds!

Note the discrepancy in Greene (1997) about the sale of timber rattlesnake meat:

By 1979 . . . rattlesnakes were still not popular.  That year, the secretary of the interior fired C. Kenneth Dodd, Jr., then employed by the Office of Endangered Species and now a leading conservation biologist, for protesting the sale of Timber Rattlesnake meat in a fancy restaurant in Washington, D.C.

And justly so, if this conservation biologist couldn't be bothered with the proper identification of the food in his mouth!   Here is Dodd again (1987) grinding his ignorant axe, ready, willing and able to parrot any idea that is handed to him so long at serves his Crusader’s cause:

The major threats to the timber rattlesnake are as follows: (1) collection for use as pets, and (2) malicious killing.

Nowadays, Dodd wouldn’t have lost his job in Washington: he could have hired on with the propaganda board that prints their misinformation!  With no more than about 400 wild timber rattlesnakes on the pet trade for the whole United States, in a total wild population of not less than a million examples (and perhaps more than 10 million), the chances for a single timber rattlesnake ending up in some pet keeper's cage is only 1 in 2500 (or if 10 million, 1 in 25,000).   That doesn't sound like much of a threat to me.

Darnell continues, addressing the myth that the timber rattlesnake is so "easy" to exploit:

This smaller size of the timber rattlesnake makes it difficult to catch unless it is lying fully exposed— it can hide practically anywhere, beneath the tightest stone or log, and almost any narrow crack or crevice affords it a good escape route.  Even a large example needs only about an inch and half breadth to squeeze under, and yearlings can squeeze into half that space.  The allegations of some herpetologists that the timber rattlesnake is dying out due to over-collection is pure dreamy non-sense.  Timber rattlesnakes can be collected in numbers at times, but if they are declining independently of habitat destruction - and I am not sure they are - there must be another reason, for there is almost no market for the animals, and the days of bounty hunting are long over.  If these snakes had any value on the pet trade, then the rattlesnake round-up people would be selling them to live animal dealers instead of to the skin trade that pays almost nothing for them.  The skin buyers only accept the occasional canebrake rattler as a bonus to the catchers, to keep them happy so they'll keep bringing in diamondbacks.

Thus the dollars value per unit for the timber rattlesnake will always be greater for the live product (i.e., the pet trade) than the dead, whereas for the western diamondbacks, supply so far outstrips demand for the live animal that it is more profitable to collect it for meat and skin.  However, the demand for timber rattlesnakes on the pet trade will always be confined to the hundreds, not thousands, of individuals (see previous sections), and this means very low impact for timber rattlesnakes.  Granted, curios made from timber rattlesnake parts will always appear, but these are statistically irrelevant, since, as Berish (1998) reports, these are predominately gathered opportunistically and not hunted.  There would seem to be no impending danger to timber rattlesnakes from wide scale commercial exploitation in any state by any cognizant member of the skin and meat industry, and the tiny pet trade in venomous snakes is easily satisfied, as has been shown.

Darnell continues:

It would be possible for a newcomer, somebody just getting into the business and having no idea how it operated, to make a foolish investment by hiring out collection of this sort of worthless merchandise.  Their bad business venture would soon be revealed to them.  Equally, it would be possible for naive herpetologists and government officials, having no insight into these matters, to make broad assumptions about a business they know nothing of, and using their influence, to convince others of their naive views, provided the listeners were equally naive and gullible, and had no practical experience with the situation in real life.

Which brings us back to Brown (1993), and Brown et al., (1994).  Despite vehement objection to the use of timber rattlesnakes in commercial trade (giving the impression of a vast, and in their words "insidious" industry), they cannot show any real numbers of these snakes taken for trade use in the modern day.  A close reading of their own tracts, once one wades through the deceptive verbiage, reveals that, even in the old days, the vast majority of timber rattler harvests were not taken for commercial use at all, but to fill a state funded bounty in the northern states extant for more than 50 years!   And in their case for "single human impact" (the 4000 timber rattlesnakes taken over 30 years in three states by the "infamous" Rudy Komarek), although called "commercial trade," the majority of this meager harvest was in reality taken for the U.S. government at Ft. Knox (pers. communication, R. Komarek).   This catch went not to the "insidious pet trade", as they assert, but to research the venom—and the federal government footed the bill.  Moreover, a great proportion of the catch was purchased by Komarek himself from local residents when these "nuisance" snakes turned up in people's yards, and from another collector (Art Moore) who would otherwise have sold them to the government bounty.  When given the opportunity to withhold information in order to advance his cause, Brown never hesitates.  Indeed, he does not even mention Art Moore by name in his so-called conservation manual, even though it was Moore who supplied him with the majority of  his data for New York State; and showed him the majority of the dens he describes.

It is no fault of Fitzgerald and Painter (2000) or of Greene (1997) for not reading more closely the works of the Brown consortium who do their best to mislead their readers at every turn.  Indeed, the Brown papers provide such tenuous and questionable data, and are so mired within their own obsessions with a single rattlesnake hunter, Rudy Komarek, and are overall so unrealistically assessed, as to enter into the realm of the fantastic.  I recommend them to anyone interested in studying the psychology of the degenerated conservationist in action.  A separate review of these works is provided in Degenerated Science 2: the Great Northeast Hoax; in press.)

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