Snaking Away

Researchers from around the world are paid virtually nothing to work long hours week after week in primitive mountain isolation. Their quest? The mysterious rattlesnake called ridgenose.

Most of the volunteers who come to Animas Mountains become enamored with the place.

"Some people come up here and they are unleashed," Holycross explains. "You can see it in their eyes."

The thrill can be--well--visceral. One volunteer became so enthralled with the mountains that, according to his journal, he ascended one of its highest peaks and "threw his seed to the wind."

A thunderstorm that earlier kicked up a giant dust storm in the valley drifts over the campsite as the sun sets. The rain starts, stops, begins again, tapers off and finally unleashes a steady torrent. The main pole holding up the 150-pound army tent, reinforced with duct tape, sways slightly in the gusty winds. A small transistor radio hangs by a strap from the tent's ceiling, eking out a surprising, eclectic set of tunes from Silver City, New Mexico's "only radio station."

A Coleman lantern casts a two-mantle light across the dirt floor.
The mood is quiet, almost subdued.
Lawrence Smith leans back on a blue nylon cot and thumbs a book about the Animas Mountains. The 35-year-old has an undergraduate degree from Oxford University and a doctorate in ecological entomology from Britain's Reading University.

Before long, the lure of the rattlesnake sneaked into his consciousness. He quit a corporate job developing pesticide-resistant plants, packed his worldly possessions into two knapsacks and moved from London to the Animas Mountains to study the ridgenose.

For his first couple weeks at the site, Smith slept in a nearby cave--a cave that was home last winter to a black bear.

Smith says his sudden shift from office to bear cave wasn't as unsettling as it might seem. His life's choices are motivated by his desire to learn. Beyond that, he says, there are few restraints.

"Money," explains Smith, whose appearance is steadily becoming similar to the bear whose cave he borrowed, "is not a concern of mine."

Across the tent, Fedorko appears lost in thought. His dark-haired head hangs between drooped shoulders. His goatee appears elongated by the frown across his face. He's disengaged from the evening banter about snakes, sports, music and women. Not even Holycross' needling can break Fedorko of his funk.

It's uncertain why he's got the blues. But earlier in the day, Holycross lashed out at the field assistant for not following precise instructions for one of the 20 measurements that must be taken each time he locates a snake with the radio transmitter.

On top of that, one of the snakes Fedorko had captured died following a mix-up. Luckily, it wasn't one of the threatened ridgenose. But here, the death of any animal is not taken lightly.

The rain continues throughout the night.

Dawn brings great hope. The rainfall should stir up the ridgenose snakes, increasing the odds of a capture. The glumness of the evening before is replaced with anticipation.

Sifert and Smith take advantage of the puddles of rain captured on the deeply pitted surface of nearby rocks and rinse the grime from their bodies.

"There's only so much those Baby Wipes can get off," Smith says, splashing water across his face. "This is lovely after having been up here for 20 days."

Kolvek and Bill Richardson decide to hike to the top of the peaks, searching for ridgenose rattlesnakes along the way. Richardson, a 22-year-old graduate of Stetson University in Deland, Florida, strikes an air of formality as he begins the search. His insistence on wearing snake chaps irritates others in the crew, who see the garb as an unnecessary precaution, an indication that Richardson is not at ease with ridgenose rattlers. Nevertheless, Richardson has been responsible for seven of the 17 ridgenose captured so far this summer and seems to have an instinct of where to find them.

As the men approach the 8,500-foot summit, Richardson discovers yet another ridgenose rattlesnake, this one moving across open ground beneath a stand of ponderosa.

"That makes up for five days of searching," he says with a clipped inflection. Richardson carefully picks up the snake with his giant tweezers and transfers it to the canvas snake bag.

Back at the base camp, Richardson's latest capture livens up lunchtime.
Sifert is mixing tuna fish and noodles on the stove. A few feet away, Fedorko is coaxing the ridgenose into a clear, three-foot-long plastic tube, where measurements and observations can be safely taken.

The snake obliges, pushing its head inside the tube. The snake then squirms, pulling its body into the tube as well. Why the snakes fall for this trick, no one can say. But they do, every time.

Fedorko gently pulls the snake's tail out of the tube and begins counting its scales, checking its sex and measuring its rattle. He gives the snake a squeeze, forcing a stream of feces to emerge. The donation will be analyzed to determine what the snake has eaten. Blood is removed for later DNA testing, and the tiny identification tag--called a passive integrated transponder--is injected.

Holycross takes a turn examining the snake, while dancing to the radio belting out Wilson Pickett's "Who's Making Love to Your Old Lady." Holycross repeats the refrain, directing the question at Fedorko, who has a girlfriend back home in Ohio.

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