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Levin: Rattler Rescue

11/02/11 5:55PM By Ted Levin
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(Host) Commentator and naturalist Ted Levin has been working on a new book about the intersection between timber rattlesnakes and their human neighbors - leading to some interesting encounters.

(Levin) As a kid in the late fifties, I saw a rattlesnake in the Staten Island Zoo crawl out of its old skin and I was hooked. Although there used to be timber rattlesnake colonies from Brooklyn to Sag Harbor by the end of World War II the only rattlesnakes around my home in Long Island were hanging as trophies in old farmhouses or submerged in jars of formalin at the American Museum of Natural History. The last Long Island Rattlesnake was killed near Islip in 1952, a little before my fourth birthday.

My interest in timber rattlesnakes flickered for decades but recently, it's re ignited. For the past eighteen months, I've been on the trail of rattlesnakes again, and last spring, I was invited to join the Bashers, a quirky subculture of timber rattlesnake biologists.

The Bashers have convened in New York State every fall for the past five years, with an agenda full of informal lectures and field trips. Two years ago, they counted rattlesnakes here in West Haven. Their first gathering, called The Big Book Bash , was in celebration of Jon Furman's Timber Rattlesnakes in Vermont and New York . They had so much fun they decided do it annually.

Bill Brown is their driving force. He's a retired Skidmore College biologist, who's researched rattlesnakes in the Adirondack foothills for more than thirty years . An iconic scientist, Brown has achieved near rock-star status in the world of herpetology. Much of what's known about the timber rattlesnake begins with his work. In fact, I haven't read a journal article on timber rattlesnakes that didn't cite Brown at least five or six times.

Bashers come from Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Kansas, Minnesota, West Virginia, and Ontario - more or less outlining the historic northern range of the timber rattlesnake. Some of them have collaborated with Brown for nearly forty years, and to them, he's a beer-drinking bud, the focus of good-natured ribbing. At the gathering I attended, almost anything he said evoked a wisecrack.

And he runs an entertaining ship. After pizza Friday night, a jar of homemade grape jelly was given to the person who had seen the first amphibian of the day: it was a leopard frog. Then, other jars were awarded for the first snake sighting - it was a garter snake - and for the first rattlesnake.

Saturday morning, breakfast conversation touched on arcane points of milk snake taxonomy; the best dates to implant a radio transmitter in a timber rattlesnake; and how an esteemed, elderly Kansas herpetologist used a hamburger spatula to catch copperheads. His wife forbade him from studying the larger timber rattlesnake because his spatula handle was too short.

And although six of the sixteen Bashers have been bitten by a timber rattlesnake sometime during their careers - a few more than once - I found it profoundly reassuring to realize that the fate of this rare and reclusive reptile - rests largely in the Bashers' capable hands.
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