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arm's length apart, searching for rattlers, then gasped when a golden eagle swooped so
close overhead that binoculars were irrelevant. Now, in the interest of lightening things
up, I'd throw out an anecdote. My friend Ben Dial had an overhead transparency, I told
them, peppered with hundreds of random black dots and boldly titled “The Universe.”
He'd flash that sheet up to his biology class, point to an off-center speck labeled “You
are here,” then pause for effect and announce with a big grin, “That's us!”
I would close the lecture by emphasizing that nature is disappearing fast and needs
clean air and water, as well as protection from excessive impact—just those ecologic-
al circumstances that Grinnell devoted his life to studying and that we had hammered
away at all semester. I'd note that for the final exam students should remember how
snakes crawl and why woodpeckers have long tongues; they should understand fertiliz-
ation in amphibians and lactation in mammals. But more than that, I hoped that years
later they'd recall that those thousands of species of frogs are different in ways that
matter, and that they'd still pick apart owl pellets and identify food items. I would sign
off urging them to share these pleasures with their friends and children, and to keep
nature in mind when they vote. Since moving to Cornell I've concluded introductory
biology and herpetology classes with versions of that talk, and its underlying message
informs all my teaching.
If ever a group of organisms exemplified Baba Dioum's dictum linking research, educa-
tion, and conservation, it's dangerous snakes. They encapsulate problems of living with
animals that might kill us, as well as our general reluctance to care about slithering
creatures—after all, empathy is a stretch when it comes to animals without fur or feath-
ers, the more so when they lack limbs and eyelids. The good news, however, is that
turkey vultures and mountain lions are easy if people can appreciate rattlesnakes, so
I'm optimistic. Although rattlers have declined in many areas and some are threatened
with extinction, we've learned a lot about their ecology and behavior, and that know-
ledge plays an ever larger role in our coexistence. Early on in the natural history course,
I'd noticed that facts help students appreciate deadly serpents, but I wanted more: I
wanted people to care about snakes as they care about birds. And I had an idea.
In 1991, Pulitzer Prize-winner Natalie Angier visited my Berkeley lab for a NewYork
Times piece on pitvipers. First I explained how radio transmitters revolutionized snake
biology, permitting herpetologists to study the predatory and social behavior of these
secretive animals. As we looked over my captive rattlesnakes, maintained for teaching,
I pointed out that many of us have abandoned the old macho way of handling them,
that manually restraining a snake's head resembles a predatory attack and causes it to
struggle violently, risking injury to both animal and researcher. Instead, we use a shep-
herd's crook-like “snake hook” to gently prod the serpent into a plastic tube, such that
it can be carefully grasped at midbody, with the front end safely inside the cylinder. One
of the payoffs of humanely observing rattlers is that they are revealed as fascinating an-
imals, exemplifying far more than just their namesake defensive adaptation.
While Natalie gingerly touched a tubed Great Basin rattlesnake's buzzing tail and
marveled at the velvety feel of its gray and charcoal-brown skin, I told her my pipe
dream: that ecotourists would visit timber rattlesnake dens. Natalie was open to the
beauty of snakes and keen on public education—“Pit viper's life: bizarre, gallant, and
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