Rattlesnake rumors ‘ridiculous,’ state officials say

Published 11:40 am Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Don’t worry, Southampton County. It’s safe to send your children out into their yards. The snakes won’t get them.

Well, that’s mostly because there aren’t any snakes. At least not rattlesnakes.

Despite persistent rumors that hundreds of rattlesnakes have been dumped in the area, state officials say it didn’t happen, and there’s nothing to worry about.

With cell-phone photos to bolster their case, some Statesville-area residents reported recently that they had actually seen a rattlesnake—reports differed on what kind—in someone’s yard.

Before long, a backstory had been created, with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries in the sinister role of the government agency trying to save a protected species by taking reckless actions that would endanger actual people in the community.

Helicopters with boxes full of rattlers had been seen flying over the area, and the reptiles had been “reintroduced” to Southampton County by game wardens dumping them into swampy, low-lying areas in southern Virginia or, possibly, as far south as North Carolina.

It was a compelling story, complete with the dramatic element of local parents unwilling to allow children to play outside for fear of nasty snake encounters.

Problem is, none of it is true, at least according to game department officials.

“That story is ridiculous,” state wildlife biologist J.D. Kleopfer said during a phone interview. “It will never happen.”

Kleopfer began the interview with a frustrated I-can’t-believe-I’m-hearing-this tone, which soon turned to laughter as he warmed up to the subject of the cold-blooded creatures and their purported invasion of Southampton County.

It’s “very unlikely” that anybody has seen a live rattlesnake in the wild in Statesville, he said, because Southampton County is well to the west of their normal habitat, which usually stretches only as far as Suffolk. Most Virginia rattlesnakes are found in Chesapeake and Virginia Beach, he said. It’s unlikely that they’d be seen west of the Dismal Swamp.

“Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, snakes are misidentified,” he said. “It seems like every snake that crawls on the ground is a rattlesnake or a copperhead.” Most of the time when people think they’ve seen a rattler, he said, it turns out to be some other, non-poisonous snake.

The story about the dumped snakes was so well known to Kleopfer, in fact, that he finished it for a reporter who was sharing the rumor with him.

“That’s story’s been going around in every state,” he said, describing conventions where game department officials from across the nation get together and laugh about hearing the same rumors in Iowa as in Virginia.

Kleopfer said the Virginia game department does manage rattlesnake habitats in portions of eastern Hampton Roads, but it does not intend to do any captive breeding or release programs.

Finally, offered advice to folks in the unlikely event they do encounter a rattler, whether in Southampton or in their native habitats.

First, remember that it is against the law to kill a rattlesnake, as they are a federally protected species.

“But if it’s a human safety issue, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” Kleopfer said.