If you happen to catch a state park naturalist’s presentation on West Virginia’s two venomous snake species this summer and notice that the specimens being shown appear exceptionally relaxed, it could mean one of several things.
Perhaps the timber rattlesnakes and eastern copperheads on display have bonded well with the naturalist and feel calm and relaxed in his or her presence.
Maybe they are in the process of digesting a meal and are feeling peaceful and serene, if not downright sleepy — it’s hard to tell since their eyes never close.
Or maybe their knowledge of being capable of making humans retreat in terror any time they feel like making a sudden move in the nosy bipeds’ direction gives the down-home vipers an artificial sense of security.
But this summer, there could be a fourth reason: As outdoor writer John McCoy points out elsewhere in Sunday’s edition of the Gazette-Mail, the state park system recently made available to their naturalists 32 very special timber rattlers and copperheads. Very special in that they are made in North Carolina from plastic molds of dead snakes and hand-painted in West Virginia to give them a more authentic look.
The idea is to give state park visitors a memorable look at the two potentially deadly snake species without harming the naturalists, the guests, or the snakes themselves, who, let’s face it — probably are not all that interested in lifelong careers in off-off-off-off Broadway show business.
I have encountered countless real copperheads and a lesser number of rattlers in the wild over the years, which usually produced a short burst of alarm followed by a slightly stronger sense of fascination.
While I know what a number of real, live local snakes look like, I admit to having been fooled by a crude rubber replica of a dark snake with a red ring around its neck that one of my kids had placed on a small, little-used outdoor deck. I spent more than an hour excitedly trying to identify the serpent in guidebooks, so I could report this rare reptile outlier to the appropriate DNR biologist.
Since the snake in question was holding its position, I thought it would be a good idea to place a ruler a short distance away to demonstrate its length, as well as coloration, in a cell phone photo. I was about to gently set the ruler down when I spotted a fragment of a glued-on price tag on the belly of the specimen I had been leaning toward identifying as a northern ring-necked snake, which it slightly resembled.
I was so glad I waited a scholarly moment or two extra before sending the photo on its way.
Personally, I would support the state park system replacing as many real-live yellow jackets as possible with Made in North Carolina specimens. The multi-sting dispensing insects have caused me and my family members more pain during state park visits than any combination of snakes could produce.
The artificial rattlers and copperheads could prove to be best-sellers at state park gift shops, as well. They would be perfect gifts for any snake admirers in the family, as well as any agnostic relatives you may have who attend serpent-handling churches.