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HAHN: The myth of the silent rattlesnake

July 12, 2011

Urban legends have long been a favorite study of mine. Before the advent of the computer, there were fewer such stories circulating, but they were much more likely to be accepted for truth. Now most people know about the Snopes website and so they are less likely to believe such stories.
You would think that as a student of folklore and someone who knows a great deal about urban legends, I would recognized them for what they are, but I don’t. Why? Because they seem believable and they are always passed on in good faith. People want to warn others of some danger, be it large or small.
And so I was interested when I received an email warning me that rattlesnakes seem to be changing their habits. Most seem no longer “warning” their victims by rattling before they strike. The email was accompanied by a color photo of a man displaying a huge dead rattlesnake toward the camera.
The letter started out like this: “We have killed 57 rattlesnakes on two separate ranches this year. Twenty-four at South Bend and thirty three at Murray since mid May. Not a one has buzzed. We provoked one fair sized boy with a stick and he coiled and struck at the stick a couple of times before he buzzed up and rattled.”
I was impressed. I think I would have noticed a snake like the one pictured if I saw it in my back yard and I wouldn’t have stayed around long enough to know if it rattled or not. According to the caption with the photograph, the man holding the snake was 6’ 2” tall and the snake appeared to be longer than that. I was impressed by the email and vowed to be extra vigilant outside this summer.
Then a few days later, I received another email, identical in wording and showing what appeared to be the same snake being held by another man in the same pose. The only difference was in the location where the snake was killed. In the first email, the event occurred in Georgia; in the second in Texas. Specific locations were mentioned in both states.
Curses! I had been bitten again! Not by a snake, fortunately, but by another urban legend. A quick check of the Snopes website confirmed my suspicions.
The letters go on to tell about the reasons for the snakes’ behavior change. It seems wild hogs take great pleasure in attacking and eating rattlesnakes. The snakes apparently figured out that that was how the hogs located them, so they have quit rattling.
The email goes on to tell how a farmer’s wife was bitten twice by the same snake because it had not warned her of its presence by rattling. (How did she know it was the same snake?) According to the email, it took 22 vials of anti-venom and five days in ICU to treat her and she “still might lose her foot or worse yet, her lower leg.”
The snake is probably the oldest folk symbol of all. It dates to the beginning of time. It appears in all cultures’ belief systems. It was in the Garden of Eden when God made Adam and Eve. It tops the caduceus of Mercury which was adopted to represent the healing powers of the medical profession. In psychology, the snake represents hidden fears.
So why have rattlesnakes suddenly become silent? They haven’t. They still rattle as much as they always have. Most rattlers rely on their camouflaged skin for protection, so they lie very still at first, hoping the danger leaves without seeing them. The rattling is the second line of defense, and snakes don’t always use it. Some biologists suggest the snakes don’t rattle simply because rattling doesn’t work.
The silent rattlesnake is only one of many urban legends about snakes. Have you heard about the woman who got a new computer that made a “funny noise” when she turned it on? It made a sort of hissing sound.
Fortunately, she had bought a maintenance agreement, so she took it back to the store. When the technician took the back off, a green snake stuck is head out from among the insides of the computer.
Another snake story circulated about the time American industries began importing so many goods from outside the United States. It seems a woman went into a prestigious company that was importing coats from Mexico. She tried on several, finally selecting one.
The following Sunday she wore it to church and received many compliments. When she got home however, she noticed that one of her arms had some strange red places. They occurred in pairs. Every time she wore the coat, the same thing happened.
She returned it to the store. The clerk examined the coat carefully. When she turned the coat inside out, the cause became apparent. A small snake, native to Mexico, had been sewn into the lining of the coat.

Alma Joyce Hahn taught in the Benton schools for more than 30 years. Her column appears each Monday.

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