I should have known they’d be OK.
Ages ago, when we lived near Cheboygan beside the mouth of the Pigeon River, we entertained our visiting nieces by catching leopard frogs in the back yard. Not only were these little girls not squeamish about catching frogs, they recognized that the snake fleeing the cover of the porch was an even better trophy.
That’s when uncle Michael’s heart stopped beating for three seconds.
When it restarted, I suggested letting the snake go. When that didn’t work, I resorted to yelling, “Leave the snake a lone” until everyone turned and looked at me like I was a crazy person.
The snake escaped to safety.
My nieces probably were a bigger threat to the snake than vice versa. These were the girls who, a year or two later, treed a black bear.
The snake was about a foot long, spotted gray-brown, and one of Michigan’s rarest creatures.
Of particular interest to parents on their summer vacation, though, it was also Michigan’s only poisonous snake, the eastern massasauga rattlesnake, Sistrurus catenatus. “Massasauga” is the Chippewa word for big river mouth, which pretty much described where we were standing when the girls chased one across the yard.
Although they’re technically venomous, nobody is aware of any human every dying from a massasauga bite. They’re North America’s smallest rattlesnake, rarely stretching more than a couple of feet long, and are best equipped for dispatching mice and voles.
They’re also exceedingly shy. While other rattlesnakes will stand and fight, massasaugas usually prefer to run away. Just about all human bites happen when a barefoot picnicker steps on one — or a curious child says, “Look at what I caught.”
For those of you with snake phobias, know that just about all snakes will bite if you force them to defend themselves. It’s just that some bites are more exciting than others. If any snake bites you — especially if it’s the comparatively harmless but nonetheless venomous massasauga — you need medical attention as soon as possible.
I bring up poisonous snakes because I have a weird soft spot for snakes and predators. I never root for the cute, fuzzy critters. I like it when the coyotes and massasaugas win a few.
The chances of Sistrurus catenatus winning a few more may be improving.
Michigan has the most viable populations of massasaugas, but they are also found in scattered pockets in our neighboring states. In Michigan, they’re listed as a species of special concern because they are rare and becoming rarer. In other states, only small, isolated populations remain.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has proposed listing them as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. “Threatened” means it’s a species that could become endangered, and then gone, if nothing is done to protect them.
Threats to massasaugas range from phobics who believe all snakes are bad snakes, to widespread habitat destruction. Massasaugas depend on wetlands. Draining wetlands means there are no “big river mouths” for their namesake snakes.
Why do we need rattlesnakes? They are part of the wild world’s food chain. They warn us that wetland destruction isn’t a good idea.
And little girls think they’re cute.
Contact Michael Eckert at [email protected], (810) 989-6264, on Facebook @michaeleckert or on Twitter @michaeleckert.