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Prairie rattlers deserve a little respect

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There exists a certain curious fear when we think about dangerous animals. Like most fears it stems mostly from ignorance. We eagerly watch, however, in a sort of morbid fascination, while others face the risk. Remember Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom? Jim Fowler would amaze viewers by deftly handling all sorts of lethal critters from faraway places. More recently, Steve Irwin starred in one of the more popular shows ever on Animal Planet: The Crocodile Hunter. He daringly faced off with a variety of savage species in a bold and confrontational way that held viewers spellbound. That was before he succumbed to a barb thrust into his chest by a ray.

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Animals that pose a direct threat to us as living, breathing people represent a heart-stopping anxiety for most. This unease dwells, I suppose, in the oldest, darkest regions of our DNA. From that primordial realm came our ability to survive millennia of risky encounters; our built-in fight-or-flee response. Embedded in all of us is a deep-seated desire not to be killed or eaten by an animal.

We, in this area, have very little to worry about from the critters around us. I'm excluding insects here and only talking about the stuff of bad dreams (mosquitoes kill way more people on earth than all other animals combined). Many parts of the world harbor a smorgasbord of beasts with the potential to take a life; big things with claws, fangs, or teeth, and a variety of ways to kill. You know the list: killer whales, grizzly bears, lions, king cobras, etc. Some would call us lucky I suppose.

In the western part of North Dakota, however, a person starts to enter the range of the only venomous snake in the state, the prairie rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis). Once you cross the Missouri River (or even a little to the east), the potential exists for encountering one.

Snakes, of all the animals, seem to evoke a sort of revulsion all their own. Most people respond quite negatively when faced with a snake. It must be the stealthy, crawly, slithery way these animals move about that reaches the innermost depths of phobia. Add to this the fact that some possess poisonous venom and you get sweaty, cold, shaky dread.

But, for the most part, this reptile meekly goes about its business of just trying to stay alive and reproduce. Erik Schmidt, a North Dakota district game warden and zoology degree holder from NDSU, said, "Rattlesnakes tend to shy away from people." It's only when surprised or threatened does the animal shows its more unsavory side.

The prairie rattlesnake is typically not very large, rarely reaching five feet in length. Its color ranges from a light tan to a greenish gray with light-bordered dark blotches along its back. The belly is yellowish.

Its venom, delivered by a pair of half-inch fangs, is mainly a hemotoxin. This poison contains enzymes and proteins designed to kill its victims and aid in digestion. Not what most folks like to hear. Rarely are bites fatal, however. The best remedy for rattlesnake bites, it is said, is a set of car keys. Get the victim to medical help as soon as possible. The Western movie version of first-aid is not recommended. Cutting or sucking the wound ends up, in most cases, causing more damage than if left alone.

The animal is famous for the rattle at the end of its tail. No, it doesn't have pebbles or sand inside them. And no, you can't age a rattler by counting the rattles. Growth, in all snakes, occurs by shedding older skin. A rattle is added with every molt. The more a snake eats, the more it sheds, regardless of age.

With cooling temperatures, these cold-blooded creatures are making their way to hibernaculums; underground dens where they will spend the winter below the frostline. It won't be until early next fall that females will give birth to live young, unlike 70% of snakes who lay eggs.

Snakes play an important role in nature, keeping pest populations under control. Rattlers and bull snakes take the brunt of our na?ve "control" efforts. "Bull snakes are mistaken for and killed because they look like rattlesnakes," said Schmidt. This, I think, is unfortunate.

I've encountered prairie rattlesnakes a few times in the Badlands but never felt threatened. It's exciting to see such critters in the wild. They deserve our respect not our ignorance. There is a definite thrill knowing that animals such as rattlers are out there. Without them and other chancy creatures, the wilderness wouldn't be complete. Call me strange, but I fully appreciate the unrestrained feel of a wild outdoors.

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