UGA Students Get Friendly with a Rattlesnake

Derek Dykstra, a research intern for the Rattlesnake Conservancy is seen holding a rattlesnake in a clear plastic tub so that students in the Herpetological Society can safely touch the animal after sanitizing their hands on Feb. 25, 2020. He is demonstrating proper rattlesnake handling techniques. Photo by Carrie Jordan.

The harsh rattling sound of an eastern diamondback rattlesnake filled a classroom in the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources building crowded with students and members of the University of Georgia’s Herpetological Society Tuesday night.  

The UGA Herpetological Society hosted The Rattlesnake Conservancy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the public on rattlesnakes and promoting conservation of rattlesnake species and their habitats. 

Around 40 students listened intently as Tiffany Bright, the southeastern regional director of the Rattlesnake Conservancy, discussed the goals of the organization and why a group focused on rattlesnakes is incredibly important to preserving delicate ecosystems across the United States. 

Species like the eastern diamondback and the eastern massasauga rattlesnake are just a few examples of snakes that are declining in population to the point they are becoming endangered according to the Animal Wellfare Institute’s list of endangered species. These snakes face a number of threats, but potentially the most harmful is human persecution.

Every year, towns like Whigam, Georgia, and Sweetwater, Texas, host rattlesnake roundups where hunters are called upon to catch as many snakes as they can. The snakes are subsequently slaughtered and sold as skin and meat. Originally, the roundups were a form of population control, but now, as populations decline, that is no longer a viable reason for having these events. 

“People, of course, are going to fear what they don’t know,” Bright said.

That is where the Rattlesnake Conservancy comes in. 

“We’re using safe methods to let people, especially children, see the rattlesnakes and touch the tail,” she said.

The Conservancy wants the first experience children have with these snakes to be positive, so that in the future they will be more inclined to coexist with the animals. Changing the public’s perception of the animals is fundamentally important to ending the culture surrounding rattlesnake roundups.

“Me and everyone at the Conservancy handle our animals a certain way. You are not going to see us on YouTube or social media holding baby snakes in our hands in front of a camera, showboating, or doing things like that,” said Derek Dykstra, a research intern with the Conservancy.

Dykstra then brought out a 4 foot long eastern diamondback rattlesnake, the largest rattlesnake species. The crowded room erupted into chatter as students stood and walked to the front of the room to get a better look. Once the snake was contained in a clear plastic tub, students were allowed to gently touch the snake’s tail. 

Derek Dykstra, a research intern for the Rattlesnake Conservancy is demonstrating proper handling techniques to the Herpetological Society on Feb. 25, 2020. Video by Carrie Jordan.

One student who took the opportunity to touch a rattlesnake was Dana Bubka, a pre-vet student. She commented that this experience had changed her perception of the snakes in a positive way. 

“I have actually never come across a rattlesnake in my life before. This was the first time I’ve ever seen one in person,” She said.

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