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Snakes On An Island: Massachusetts Plans Colony To Save Endangered Species


An island filled with venomous rattlesnakes - no, this is not the opening to a horror film. In fact, in Massachusetts, officials hope it's the answer to a conservation problem. Timber rattlesnakes have been part of Massachusetts' history since before the American Revolution. You might've seen it featured on a flag above the phrase, don't tread on me. Today, there are very few timber rattlesnakes left, so the state wants to start a colony on an abandoned island in the middle of Quabbin Reservoir about 60 miles west of Boston. Tom French is the assistant director for this state's Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. He's spearheading this plan. Welcome to the program, Tom French.

TOM FRENCH: Thank you.

CORNISH: So if this was a horror movie (laughter), this would be about the time where a conservationist or well-meaning scientist would come in and say there's nothing to fear here.

FRENCH: Right.

CORNISH: And then, like, you know, there'd be an escape and people would be, like, attacked.


CORNISH: How worried have people been about this scenario?

FRENCH: It's not uncommon to have people pretty upset by it. You know, a lot of people don't particularly care for snakes, and so when we were focused on restoring bald eagles at Quabbin, everybody was very supportive. But rattlesnakes don't seem to have the same level of public support (inaudible).

CORNISH: No, I would say it's hard to have the same level of public support in America as...

FRENCH: No, no.

CORNISH: ...the bald eagle, Tom French, OK? (Laughter) That's an unfair comparison.

FRENCH: No, well, you know - but it's interesting. You know, the people will tell us, well, this is just part of our patriotic history to support eagles. But it's frankly - in Massachusetts, the timber rattlesnake plays a bigger role in our patriotic history than the eagle does. We haven't had a human fatality outside of colonial times in this state with six and a half million people in the state. It just doesn't happen. And nobody in my entire career of over 32 years has been even bitten accidentally. I've been involved in six bites, I think, in my career, but they were people illegally keeping a rattlesnake as a pet, illegally capturing it or trying to get a better photograph, and they really should've used a longer stick...


FRENCH: ...But never by accident.

CORNISH: So tell us, how does a snake colony work? I mean, how...

FRENCH: Well...

CORNISH: Do you just like hope a couple of mice wander on there? Like, what happens?

FRENCH: No, no, no. The island is just like the mainland. I mean, you wouldn't even know you're on an island. There's over 1,300 acres and plenty of food. All the snake really needs - even a big rattlesnake only needs about the equivalent of four chipmunks in a summer. And there's lots of chipmunks and white-footed mice. And what we have to do - the hardest part is to get them attached to this unique hibernation site. They have to go into a place really deep, and once they're attached to that, they will be attached to that site for the rest of their life.

CORNISH: One concern people have had is that once this becomes a kind of conservation area, that there might be area trails and things like that that would become off-limits to people - right? - because it would be about...

FRENCH: No need.

CORNISH: Is that a concern that is valid?

FRENCH: No, no. The whole point is we're not worried about protecting the public because we're already dealing with the public interacting with snakes at close range in high numbers. We need a safety net here where we can have one place where the snakes aren't impacted by people.

CORNISH: Well, Tom French, good luck with your island of snakes.

FRENCH: (Laughter) Thank you.

CORNISH: Tom French is the assistant director for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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