West Virginia has found a kinder, gentler way to show visitors what venomous snakes look like.
In the past, some parks have kept live snakes on display. Now, thanks to one of the park system’s naturalists, they’re displaying realistically painted models.
Nick Korolev, the naturalist at Lost River State Park in Hardy County, was the driving force behind what turned out to be a winter-long project.
“Nick made a display for our nature center to show visitors how well snakes can blend into the environment,” said Mike Foster, the park’s superintendent. “He made a model of a rattlesnake, and put it in a glass cage filled with leaves and twigs. “I told Nick that since we had a rattlesnake, we needed a copperhead to go along with it so we can show visitors both of the venomous snake species we have here in West Virginia.”
Foster sent pictures of the snakes to Sissie Summers, head of programming for the state park system.
“Sissie suggested we have Nick paint snakes for several other nature centers,” Foster said. “It took off and snowballed from there.”
Parks officials found a supplier, Morgan Reptile Replicas in Liberty, North Carolina, that makes castings directly from the bodies of dead animals. The company supplies the castings painted or unpainted. Korolev, who has a fine arts degree, opted to paint his own.
In November, he began work on 32 snakes — 16 timber rattlers and 16 copperheads.
The project became rather time-consuming. Korolev estimates that each casting took 2 to 3½ hours to finish.
“The rattlesnake models were a little more involved because they come with the tail detached,” he said. “I had to bore a hole in the end of the rattler’s body and glue the tail on with epoxy. Then I had to paint a base coat, paint on the light markings, paint on the dark markings, and then paint all the little details. The final step was to use a dry-brush technique to give the scales a three-dimensional effect.”
The copperheads didn’t require any drilling or gluing, but Korolev said they were more difficult to paint because of the species’ distinctive hourglass-shaped markings and subtle color gradations.
“In addition to an undercoat and the dark markings, they required me to mix a lighter copper color for spots that go inside the hourglass markings. The tops of the heads got a solid coppery color, and I had to paint the stripes that go from behind the eyes to the corners of their jaws.”
Korolev had to shoehorn the project into what was already a busy schedule.
“I’m a substitute teacher, and a full-time artist and writer,” he said. “I tried to work on the snakes every day, but it still took quite a bit of time to do.”
He finished the work in mid-February. Parks officials unveiled Korolev’s work at a naturalists’ workshop in late May.
Summers said the goal is to transition away from live-snake displays, especially those that feature venomous species.
“We want people to be able to see snakes up close, with no chance of a customer or a naturalist being bitten,” she explained. “It’s an interpretive tool we’ve wanted for a long time.”
Korolev said it also will be easier on live snakes.
“Instead of being in a display, they’ll be where they can do the most good — out in the environment, where they can help control rodents,” he explained.
The fake snakes will help people learn to properly identify snakes they might encounter in the wild, and possibly keep them from misidentifying lookalike species such as corn snakes, eastern hognose snakes and northern water snakes.
“Being able to examine [the models] up close might help people not to be so fearful,” Korolev said. “They’ll be able to see the two species in 3-D without actually having to handle one.”
Toward the end of his replica-painting project, Korolev had all 32 of the models arranged on a table, drying.
“A friend took one look at them and said, ‘Now, this is just creepy,’” Korolev said.
Korolev’s work might help people learn to identify West Virginia’s venomous snakes, but it might also generate an occasional case of the heebie-jeebies. He’s fine with that, as long as the people are safe and real snakes are left to roam free.