The endangered species, a native to the state, has been on the decline across New England for years, and the conservation effort is an attempt to save them from dying out altogether.
Young snakes will first be raised in a Providence, R.I., zoo. Once they have reached the size of 4- or 5-year-old wild snakes — up to five feet in length — they will be set free on Mount Zion.
According to the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, the plan is for everyone’s own good, be it rattlesnake or human. But try telling that to alarmed residents, whose heads have since filled with nightmare visions of meeting a sharp-toothed end.
The project’s director, Tom French, has been flooded with calls about the possibility of an island exodus, in which the snakes swim across the reservoir to torment civilization.
He summed up the prevailing sentiment to the Associated Press: “People are afraid that we’re going to put snakes in a place of public use and that they are going to breed like rabbits and spread over the countryside and kill everybody.”
This worry is misplaced, the state said in a statement on its website. Rattlesnakes are “perfectly good swimmers,” but they can survive only in deep hibernation sites, such as a boulder field or deep fissure, conditions rarely found amid human habitats.
Were a snake to make its way off Mount Zion, then, the winter would probably kill it.
What’s more, French told the AP, there have been no documented rattlesnake bite deaths in Massachusetts since Colonial times, even though they have long resided in public lands.
Rattlesnake populations, on the other hand, have suffered from human contact, with many of them being killed, disturbed or inadvertently crushed by cars. The last 30 years have seen the most severe decline in the Massachusetts rattlesnake’s existence.
In this struggle of the fittest, humans have been the real menace.
“Throughout human history, snakes of all types have been feared, maligned, and persecuted,” the wildlife division’s statement lamented.
The statement continued: “As a venomous snake, the Timber Rattlesnake certainly has the potential to be dangerous, but the reality is that there has been no harm inflicted on the public by these reptiles. Timber Rattlesnakes are generally mild in disposition and often rattle their tails to alert animals and people of their presence.”
French hopes that Mount Zion will become a haven for the reptiles, a safe distance away from people.
A healthy rattlesnake population may be as high as 150, though French said fewer are expected to live on Mount Zion. Despite these assurances, the plan still makes many Massachusetts residents uneasy.
Bob Curley, president of the North Quabbin Trails Association, says he thinks his 18-month-old collie, Celtz, was bitten by a rattlesnake in June.
After a hike, the dog’s nose started bleeding uncontrollably, he told the Boston Globe, and veterinarians found an apparent bite mark on Celtz’s swollen hind leg. Once the dog was given antivenom, it immediately started to recover.
Though Curley isn’t entirely opposed to the idea of an isolated rattlesnake colony, he worried that having one so close by would ruin the Quabbin Reservoir’s recreational functions.
“When the inevitable happens and there is an interplay between a hiker and a rattler, what’s the repercussion?” Curley told AP. “Are the trails around the Quabbin going to be shut down?”
Others, such as local fisherman Peter Mallet, have come around.
“People are just petrified of snakes,” Mallet told AP. For now, at least, he’s willing to give peace with rattlesnakes a chance.
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