A Bit of a Cuddle

A Brief Moment of Magic with an Unpopular Species

Wishbone after release, showing the distinctive marking that gave him his name.

Have you ever felt the tiny hand of a newborn baby clinging to your thumb? That’s what it feels like when a rattlesnake grips your fingers with his tail. Rattlesnakes do that a lot. You should probably just take my word for that. Rattlesnake rescue isn’t for the faint of heart. There are cars out there where we’re working, and those things are deadly.

It was late, and most of the human traffic was done for the night when my friend and I came across a Northern Pacific rattlesnake we’d removed from the road several times before. Patrolling the same desert roads, night after night, moving over a thousand animals off the road in a season, it’s not uncommon to encounter the same snake more than once. This one was a big male we called Wishbone, for the distinctive white marking on his neck. Like most big males, he’s generally calm and cooperative, an easy move. That night, though, he wasn’t having it. When my friend reached for him, he backed away and slid behind my foot to hide from her.

It wasn’t a bad plan, in principle, but Wishbone’s a big boy, and my size six ladies’ boot just didn’t cut it. Hiding behind it left most of his body still in the open. After a moment to think about it, he solved the problem by slowly piling himself up vertically against my leg until he was nicely concealed, except for his tail. Finally, he pulled his tail in and tucked it under his body. That made me smile, because a frightened rattlesnake doesn’t sit on his tail. He keeps it free for rattling.

Rattlesnakes have an amazing sense of smell. They can also “see” heat with special heat-sensing organs on their faces. I was big and warm and moving, and reeked of human. Wishbone wasn’t mistaking me for a rock. He knew what I was. Maybe he figured I wouldn’t notice him. Maybe he remembered that I’d handled him before without harming him. I’ll never know what he was thinking, but I can’t help wondering.

For the next five minutes, while my friend and I laughed at how adorable it was to see a rattlesnake cuddled up to me like a nervous puppy, Wishbone explored my leg. Eventually he spotted the opening where the cuff of my jeans met the top of my ankle boot, and was immediately intrigued. He began shoving at the fabric with his nose, trying to open the cuff up enough to climb in.

I hated to end the interaction, but if he climbed up into my pant leg, he wouldn’t have room to turn around. Removing him at that point would just be… awkward. So we scooped him up, gave him a drink of water and released him into a deep rocky crevice, safely clear of the road.

Wishbone gets a drink. Misting allows him to sip droplets from his scales, as he would after a rain.

People who learn that I rescue snakes are often puzzled. Why would I rescue animals that so many people dislike? I have a simpler question. Why wouldn’t I rescue them? What does popularity have to do with conservation? I’m a little odd, as humans go, and I’ve never been popular. Still, I like to think that if my life were in danger, the first responders wouldn’t say, “Leave that one. She’s not very popular.” I rescue snakes like Wishbone for the simple reason that they’re living, sentient beings with lives that, while very different from ours, are worth saving. And because… Seriously. Look at that face. How cute is that little nose? You’d rescue Wishbone if you saw him on the road. Wouldn’t you?

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