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Levin: Snake Surgery

I imagine that seeing an anesthetized timber rattlesnake on veterinarian Scott MacLachlan’s operating table in Poultney must be a little like seeing Pavarotti in his pajamas.

In the field, a startled rattlesnake is prone to bluster: coalescing into coils and puffing up its single lung with air to exaggerate its size. They may begin their hallmark rattling at any point in the display… or not at all. Sometimes the rattling starts before the snake is seen, which triggers a primal response in the observer.

An anesthetized rattlesnake simply deflates; its heart relaxed to a barely perceptible tick every three or four seconds.

During the spring of 2011, the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife in collaboration with the Orianne Society and The Nature Conservancy began a two-year study of the summer range of the timber rattlesnake in western Rutland County.

To that end, transmitters were implanted in the body cavity of twenty-two adult snakes. From late spring through early autumn, the snakes were radio tracked across rough terrain west of Otter Creek. Now that that phase of the project has ended, and Dr. MacLachlan, who had inserted the transmitters, is removing them, as well as taking skin and blood samples from each rattlesnake to check for pathogens.

The day I observed the procedure, the operating room was well lit , with a sink in one corner flanked on both sides by a pink linoleum countertop. The floor was a soft white and textured like the back of a snake. There were cupboards, tanks, computers, glass-fronted cabinets filled with a diversity of surgical instruments, and an aluminum operating table situated beneath a hose descending from the ceiling. The hose, called a gas scavenger, delivers both anesthesia to put the snake to sleep and oxygen to bring it back. There’s a heating pad covered by a blue terry-cloth towel on the operating table to keep the snakes warm.

The first rattlesnake to arrive in the room is a big brown-banded, mustard-colored male. For our protection, its head and upper torso are enclosed inside a Plexiglas tube. Its lower, tubeless body thrashes like a fish in a boat. Scott attaches the gas scavenger to the front of the tube, administers anesthesia, and the snake slowly relaxes, its movements becoming less purposeful.

The transmitter is inside the ceolomic cavity close to the intestines. Scott disinfects the incision site, selects a scalpel, and then opens an inch-long cut. With forceps, he fishes the transmission wire out from under the skin and then gently reels in the red transmitter, the length and width of the first two joints of my pinkie. Three blue sutures seal the incision.

Oxygen replaces anesthesia.

As the snake slowly recovers I ’m permitted to lay my fingers across its heart, which pulses a third of the way down the body, and I’m fascinated by its ventral motif: a repetition of three or four cream-white scales followed by four or five black, heavily-speckled scales.

Rattlesnakes in rough terrain are wondrous, capable of morphing my sense of passing time from hours into minutes. Seeing them unzipped on the operating table, however, I am no less amazed. And I have to agree with MacLachlan when he calls himself privileged.

(Click here to view a video of the transmitter removal procedure.)

Ted Levin is a nature writer and photographer. His latest book is America's Snake: The Rise and Fall of the Timber Rattlesnake, University of Chicago Press, May, 2016.
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