n an early spring evening in March 2017, a
large crowd packed a public meeting in
Ware, Massachusetts, to discuss a controversial proposal to establish a rattlesnake
colony at the nearby Quabbin Reservoir.
Ever since word of the project first came
to light in early 2016, rattlesnakes had
become the subject of passionate debate in Massachusetts, and
this meeting was no exception. Nearly 30 attendees provided
comments (one in the form of a song), which were roughly
split for and against the project. Opponents cited a variety of
concerns, mostly centered on public safety. Supporters argued
the importance of protecting an endangered, relatively harmless
native species and maintaining the state’s biodiversity.
Such are the conflicting emotions evoked by the timber
rattlesnake, whose Latin name alone, Crotalus horridus, suggests
trouble. Public attitudes have complicated efforts to protect one
of the most feared, misunderstood, and endangered creatures
of the eastern forests. At the root of the opposition are fears
and misconceptions that have long been associated with snakes
in general, especially venomous species. Fear of snakes, or
ophidiophobia, is one of the most commonly reported human
phobias, sometimes even outranking death. A recent study by
researchers at a national park in Nepal indicated that nearly
90 percent of respondents feared snakes, and half supported
the extermination of all venomous species. Ecologists and
psychologists, including esteemed Harvard biologist E.O.
Wilson, have suggested this trait is an innate human survival
instinct that evolved long before antipathies to more dangerous
modern threats such as guns or knives.
In spite of this, rattlesnakes also have their share of advocates.
In the mid-eighteenth century, rattlesnakes were portrayed by
figures such as Benjamin Franklin and John Paul Jones as a
symbol of resistance and unity during the American Revolution.
Today, naturalists and ecologists appreciate them as members of
a species that represent, in the words of Berkshire Community
College professor and snake expert Tom Tyning, “an emblem of
the last vestiges of wilderness left in the twenty-first century.”
As most supporters are quick to point out, fears about rattlesnakes are disproportionate to the actual threat they pose to
humans. Unlike the aggressive venomous snakes found in other
regions of the world, timber rattlers are docile and passive by
nature. They avoid humans whenever possible, and their trademark tail-shake is a warning to deter potential threats and avoid
confrontations that might result in the loss of precious venom
A 2016 legislative hearing held in Athol, Massachusetts, to debate the state’s plan to
place endangered timber rattlesnakes on Mt. Zion Island drew a full house.