By GLENN GARNETT
It was Indiana Jones who said it best in Raiders of the Lost Ark: "Snakes - whyíd it have to be snakes!"
Snakes donít have a whole lot of friends at the top of the food chain. Fact is, of all phobias related to animals, the fear of snakes - ophidiphobia - is the hands-down run away winner.
Itís this fear, in concert with land development and the degradation of natural habitat, which has driven the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake - the only venomous snake in eastern Canada - to the brink of extinction here. Once found throughout southern Ontario, the rattlers today are primarily situated in pockets near the western and eastern shores of Georgian Bay.
The snake is also found in parts of 10 eastern U.S. states and is protected by law in eight of them. As recently as 1975, however, it was considered a nuisance in the state of Wisconsin and a $5 bounty was paid for the tail of a dead rattler. It no longer has a price on its head anywhere.
In Ontario, the Massasauga Rattler, and a number of other snakes mistaken for them, were protected under a regulation of the Game and Fish Act in 1990. A year later, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada listed the Massasauga rattlesnake as threatened.
But studies and declarations have not done the Massasauga a fat lot of good as their population continues to dwindle. It could well suffer the fate of the timber rattlesnake, which was last seen in the Niagara Gorge region during the Second World War.
Although the snakeís venom can be deadly, its heartís desire is to be as far away from you as possible. It hangs out in swamps and coniferous forests and tends to avoid open areas. Ordinarily sluggish and passive, it will rattle a warning if it feels youíre getting too close. The best thing to do in a situation like this is to stop, figure out where the sound is coming from, and then calmly and slowly retreat in the opposite direction. Fast movements can be misinterpreted as a threat, so keep your cool.
Be advised that contrary to what your Uncle Nick told you, rattlers donít pursue people in flight. They donít travel in groups to cut you off at the pass, they wonít grab their tails and roll after you like a tire and they certainly canít jump. They have a pretty short striking distance, about half their body length.
My only sighting of the critter is typical of most - watching it disappear in a real hurry into the brush. It had been basking on a warm rock, something snakes have to do to regulate body temperature because theyíre cold blooded. It scooted off and I caught a look at its blunt-ended rattle tail, which differs from the pointed ends of your garden variety snake in Ontario.
For an up-close and personal look at a Massasauga, I visited the Bruce Peninsula National Park office in Tobermory last summer and got a peek at dearly departed one under glass. It was there that I met Marcelle Paulin of Parks Canada, who fields questions from interested visitors about animal species indigenous to the Bruce.
"A lot of people are surprised that we have rattlesnakes in Ontario," she says. " But you hardly ever hear of a rattler bite. Over my two summers at the park, we had one individual who was bitten, and that happened because he picked the snake up."
The adult Massasauga can get to be 75 cm (30 inches) long which makes it a runt in the rattlesnake community, but it is the largest of the genus Sistrus or pygmy rattlesnakes. Like its bigger and better known cousins, it shakes its booty when alarmed. Itís distinguished by its grey/tan colour and dark brown and black blotches, along with the heat-sensitive pits on its side of its head. Adult Massasaugas use those heat sensors to home in on its prey such as mice, chipmunks and frogs, while young Ďuns feast primarily on other snakes.
To protect yourself in areas where snakes could be lurking, wear boots, thick socks and long pants or gaiters. Walking barefoot and looking for firewood at night are two of the most common activities which result in snake bites.
While incidents of attacks are rare, itís the young ones more likely to inflict serious damage, Paulin explains.
"The lethal bites tend to come from young rattlers," she points out. "A mature rattlesnake when it bites will scrape the skin and release a part of its venom. The young will bite deep and release it all."
If the worst does happen, help is usually at hand. "Snake bites can be fatal if not treated," Paulin says. "But youíve got a few hours to get the anti-venin which you can find at clinics and hospitals."
If someone is bitten, Parks Canada recommends keeping the victim calm and cleanse the wound. The affected area should be wrapped with a firm bandage and medical attention should be sought at once. Forget that business about cutting the victims skin with your handy knife and sucking out the venom like the Lone Ranger did in those movie serials. Unless you know what youíre doing, head for the clinic.
This is the time of year that Massasauga Rattlesnakes emerge from their hibernation, usually spent in holes where treeroots penetrate bedrock or in rodent burrows. Theyíre out and about from late April until early November. The rattlers get to the important business of making new snakes during the month of August. If successful, between eight to 20 live young arrive a little over a year later.
Efforts to protect the Massasauga in Ontario persist, with organizations such as The Sistrurus Information Network attempting to rescue the snake through a program of public education. Their goal is to create an outreach program to raise public awareness of the snakeís plight, establish community support for recovery goals and, toughest of all, "cultivate a positive attitude toward snakes."
With snakes being the original literary villain and suffering thousands of years of persecution, thatís a pretty tall order for a group with a current membership of 89. But if that sort of challenge appeals to you, check out their website at www.terra-plex.com/sin/.