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Archive for Thursday, June 3, 2004

Rattlesnakes put in park on purpose, experts fear

Non-native species rears its head at Kanopolis

June 3, 2004

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— Western diamondback rattlesnakes aren't native to Kansas. But visitors to Kanopolis State Park had better keep an eye -- and an ear -- out for the big poisonous snakes.

Snake experts believe they have an explanation for the snakes' presence: one or more two-legged culprits.

"This is not herd migration stuff," said herpetologist Joseph Collins, who works with the Kansas Biological Survey at Kansas University. "It's possible someone is systematically turning them loose year after year."

No visitors have yet been bitten by the western diamondbacks at the park, which is about 30 miles southwest of Salina in central Kansas and draws about 280,000 people each year. But a worker at KU lost a finger to one about five years ago.

The snake, more than 4 feet long, was captured by two Kansas State University students and donated to KU's Natural History Museum.

Eric Rundquist, an animal science technician, was preparing the snake to be euthanized when his snake hook gave way and he was bitten on the left hand.

Despite being taken to a hospital immediately, Rundquist spent three days in intensive care and lost his little finger.

"Without proper treatment, I would have died," said Rundquist, who also lost the use of his ring finger on the bitten hand. "There is no doubt in my mind."

Since a dead diamondback was found at the park in 1993, the first recorded sighting there, four live snakes have been captured there. There have been another 10 sightings of live snakes.

Several years ago, park manager Rick Martin said, a man caught a diamondback at the park and was waving it in the faces of other visitors -- some of them children.

"It wasn't a very bright thing to do," said Martin, who took the snake away from the man and had it euthanized. "There's a few who want to show their manhood or just how brave they are."

Diamondbacks, native to the Southwest, average between 4 and 5 feet in length -- far bigger than native prairie rattlers, which average 3 feet. Diamondbacks also pack a bigger venom punch.

"It is a dangerous situation," Rundquist said.

Western diamondbacks are popular at rattlesnake roundups in Oklahoma and Texas, another expert said, because of the behavior they display when cornered.

"They are not fast-moving, so they tend to stand their ground and coil and strike," said Travis Taggart, associate curator of herpetology at Fort Hays State University's Sternberg Museum of Natural History.

Martin, the park manager, said it was possible someone brought diamondbacks into Kansas, intending to keep them as pets, but released them when they became too troublesome to keep.

The animals' eating habits -- they swallow small prey whole and eliminate the waste all at once -- create a smell problem. That, in turn, creates the challenge of handling a snake while cleaning its cage.

"They find themselves saying, 'Holy cow, what am I going to do with this thing?'" Martin said.

State law prohibits the release of any exotic animal into the wild, and the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks is considering a ban on bringing western diamondbacks into the state.

"We would love to find out who is doing this," Rundquist said.

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