In the concrete block cellar of the building that houses the moon bears and snow leopards at Roger Williams Park Zoo is a brightly lit room where unrecognized visitors are welcomed with a mesmerizing clatter produced by some of the 16 Eastern timber rattlesnakes that reside there. Heated to 82 degrees, the room is lined with large, clear plastic cages along two walls, each containing an adult rattlesnake about four feet in length, two of which are believed to be pregnant. A vertical rack containing 12 plastic tubs stands against a third wall, each home to a juvenile rattler less than half the length of the adults.
The snakes are unexpectedly attractive and strikingly patterned, some colored in yellows and browns while others are dressed in smoky gray and white. One adult male displayed a yellow triangular head with chocolate brown chevrons along the length of his golden back,
blended into a velvety black tail that didn’t stop rattling during the entire
|Lou Perrotti and New England cottontail. (Photo by James Jones)|
Lou Perrotti, 53, director of conservation at the zoo and an expert snake handler since his junior high school days, says the rattlesnakes are usually silent when their regular zookeepers attend them. “But new faces get the full treatment,” he adds.
The subterranean room is a captive rearing center for New England’s only native rattlesnake, an endangered species that disappeared from Rhode Island in the 1960s and whose few remaining colonies in the Northeast are declining precipitously due to habitat loss and poaching. A newly-discovered fungal disease that causes skin lesions and blisters on their faces is contributing to the high mortality rate.
When Perrotti heard about the disease, he recruited the veterinarians at the zoo to study how prevalent it was in New England. They found it everywhere they surveyed. So he partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to launch a captive breeding effort. By taking rattlesnakes from healthy populations and breeding them at the zoo so their offspring can be released into the wild, Perrotti and his colleagues are augmenting snake populations that are barely sustaining themselves.
“And then we decided that creating a new population would be awesome,” he says. Biologists identified a small island in the Quabbin Reservoir in central Massachusetts as the ideal location. “We thought the site was brilliant. It has plenty of habitat, plenty of food, it’s off limits to humans. It just made sense to create a secure population there.”
It didn’t turn out that way. When the public got wind of the plan, their vocal objections – which Perrotti says were based on little more than fear and speculation – quickly scuttled the project.
“We were doing what we thought was the best thing to keep this endangered animal on the planet,” Perrotti says. “We can’t only protect the cute and cuddly animals. They all deserve to be protected. This project was....
Continue reading this article in the January issue of Rhode Island Monthly magazine.