Rattling lecture recounts CT’s relationship with snakes

Hank Gruner shared the history of rattlesnakes in Connecticut to guests at Scoville Memorial Library Saturday, May 11.

Patrick L. Sullivan

Rattling lecture recounts CT’s relationship with snakes

SALISBURY — When the first English settlers arrived in New England, they were confronted with many unfamiliar things.

Like venomous snakes.

Hank Gruner spoke about the history of the timber rattlesnake in Connecticut at the Scoville Memorial Library Saturday, May 11. The talk was sponsored by the Salisbury Association Land Trust.

Gruner quoted one William Wood, writing in the 1634 book “New England’s Prospect” about the strange and amazing aspects of life in the New World, including the rattlesnake.

After giving a pretty accurate description of the rattlesnake, Wood got down to brass tacks:

“When any man is bitten by any of these creatures, the poison spreads suddenly through the veins and runs to the heart, that in one hour it causeth death, unless he hath the Antidote to expel the poison, which is a root called snakeweed.” (modern spelling substituted).

Gruner noted wryly that snakeweed has no beneficial medical use and surmised that those who survived did so not because of the treatment, but because the bite wasn’t sufficiently severe.

Wood also reported that rattlesnakes could fly and kill with their breath, which, of course, they can’t.

So as people got used to having rattlesnakes around, their thoughts turned to eradication and exploitation.

Kent had a Rattlesnake Club that was active between roughly 1905 to 1927, with sportsmen from Bridgeport teaming up with members of the Schaghticoke tribe to hunt the snakes. Gruner said that reading between the lines of contemporary accounts of the club’s activities, the snake enthusiasts did a lot of drinking.

Asked about the derogatory term “snake oil salesman,” Gruner said Connecticut had many entrepreneurs who hunted rattlesnakes and made use of them, for snake oil tonics and salves of dubious utility, and for their skins and rattles.

“So there is some truth to that.”

The timber rattlesnake today is concentrated in a few areas of the state, including the Northwest Corner.

Gruner said the snakes, while “designed to live a long time,” are susceptible to degradation of their habitat, especially by human development.

He offered a timeline of the timber rattlesnake in Connecticut, from historical records and projections.

From the first settlers to 1850, there was a 10% decline in the timber rattlesnake population. By 1900, 22% were gone, and by 1950, 55%.

In 2000, some 81% of the state’s timber rattlesnakes no longer existed, and the projection for 2050 is 88%.

Gruner attributed this to a list of causes, including mining, the bounties Connecticut towns placed on rattlesnakes, road kills, and overall reduction in quality habitat.

Gruner said the timber rattler population needs a lot of space, 2,000 to 5,000 acres, including rocky areas with a southern exposure for riding out the winter.

“There aren’t too many areas in Connecticut that have that and that aren’t crisscrossed by roads.”

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