Massachusetts state officials looking to protect a dwindling timber rattlesnake population have set their sights on an unorthodox solution: Give up an entire island to the snakes. The result would be sort of like that fox village in Japan but, you know, not a tourist destination and also an isle of rare serpents. Some Massachusetts locals aren’t pleased, but their fears of being bit — understandable, perhaps, but misguided — obscure bigger concerns that are more ecological than anything.
“It’s reasonable for the public to have questions regarding this conservation effort,” Auburn University wildlife ecologist and snake expert David Steen tells Inverse. “It is less reasonable to conclude that this is a human health hazard.”
The timber rattlesnake colony would be located on an island, called Mount Zion, in the middle of a reservoir. It’s a restricted area for humans — not unusual for a wildlife refuge — but that hasn’t stopped locals from protesting that it’s “inevitable that someone is going to get bit,” as a citizen told the Boston Herald.
The human fear of snakes is so pervasive it can be traced to neurons. But that doesn’t mean calling timber bites “inevitable” is accurate — the species is notoriously shy. Snake bites, moreover, are incredibly rare. (In fact, venomous snakes bite only about 8,000 people annually, and of these only five encounters will be fatal.) A better question is not if the snakes pose a threat to humans — it’s if the snakes pose a threat to the island, or vice versa.
To Steen’s knowledge, this is the first attempt to reintroduce rattlesnakes to an island. (He would know — he’s no stranger to serpentine reintroduction, in the process of returning indigo snakes to the Alabama forests.) It’s unclear if this is a reintroduction — if the snakes once lived here and then were killed — or a translocation to a new habitat. Either way, it’s on the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife to make sure the island is suitable for colonization before it releases the snakes.
“If it were up to me, we would find ways to coexist with populations of animals in all of our landscapes, not just remote islands,” Steen says. “But barring widespread acceptance of potentially dangerous reptiles, this is a good compromise between achieving wildlife conservation and public concerns and attitudes.”
The undeniable benefit of a hard-to-reach island is that the snakes have a good chance of escaping human persecution. “For many venomous snakes,” he says, “that is the most important consideration regarding a population’s chance of viability.” If the Mount Zion experiment pans out, perhaps the future of snake conservation looks a little more castaway.