One day recently, Curt Brennan used a stick to part some laurel branches in the mountains of northern Pennsylvania. He knew just what he was looking for. Instantly, a harsh insect-like buzzing filled the air, and what looked like a pile of leaves began to move. More than two dozen timber rattlesnakes were basking in the hazy sunshine, heaped in an area the size of a card table. Twenty years ago, Brennan would have been wading into the melee, snatching snakes with his hook and stuffing them into collecting bags, flushed with the danger and excitement of rattler hunting.
But Brennan has undergone a change of heart. Finding that snakes are easily injured by the rough handling they receive in capture and seeing that timber rattlers are disappearing from their former haunts, Brennan has become an eloquent spokesman for the snakes, even writing a book, Rattler Tales from Northcentral Pennsylvania, about his conversion from hunter to advocate.
Timber rattlesnakes used to be common in a range extending from Oklahoma and Nebraska up the Appalachians to southern New England, and along the Mississippi to Wisconsin and Minnesota. They are now endangered in so many places that experts are seeking protection for them under the federal Endangered Species Act. Snake hunting and snake festivals threaten the reptiles, but habitat loss is much more of a problem.
Most of what has been learned about timber rattler ecology dates from the past 20 years, thanks to advances in electronic monitoring. Biologists implant snakes with radio transmitters and study their movements. Rattlers are not as dangerous as most people think. Of the nearly 8,000 venomous snakebites each year in the United States, only a dozen or so result in death. Bites often occur when people try to catch or kill snakes. A rattlesnake, notes Brennan, "isn't out to get you it's "out to get away from you."