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A New State Animal?
Jul 31, 2014
Every few years, someone suggests changing the South Dakota state animal. Of course, the only reason we've designated a state animal (coyote) is because the other 49 states all have one. This isn't the sort of thing down-to-earth prairie dwellers would dream up without outside pressure.
That's not to say South Dakotans are adverse to arguing the merits of various animal representatives. Lately the debate's focused on coyotes versus bison, fine native mammals both, yet both rather predictable symbols.
So I suggest a compromise candidate: the rattlesnake.
I've long believed rattlers embody characteristics I've noted in South Dakotans — quiet until riled, plentiful enough but far from prolific, hardy, and somewhat misunderstood. And yes — down-to-earth.
Sometimes I hike with the express purpose of encountering these snakes, in likely places I know up and down the plains, from pastures in northwestern South Dakota to Palo Duro Canyon, Texas. Truth is, I once hoped to do wildlife photography, but the only animals I found cooperative were rattlers. They don't turn tail and flee. No, they pose: eyes looking straight at you, body coiled, head and rattles up. They're a good deal easier to photograph than people, that's for sure. Photographing coiled rattlers isn't all that dangerous if you eyeball their body length and don't move in closer than that. A rattler can't strike beyond its length any more than a 5-foot kid can slam-dunk a basketball. Still, beginning rattlesnake portraitists should know either the vibes from the camera's click, or the sudden shutter movement, can trigger a strike. It’s startling if you're not expecting it, even when the rattler flops a foot short (assuming you've eyeballed accurately).
Strikes bring to mind other attributes I admire. Rattlers shoot straight. They don't fake a strike in one direction and then come at you from another. Nor do they sneak up without warning from behind.
Anyway, I've now got a small collection of rattlesnake photos, but until recently I've rarely shared them with friends. I mean, you don't keep pictures of coiled rattlers in those plastic wallet holders. There are always people leery of anyone attuned to rattlesnakes. I recall serving jury duty in Rapid City awhile back, when a lawyer questioned a prospective juror during selection.
Lawyer: I see on the pre-trial questionnaire you completed that you list rattlesnake milking as a hobby.
Juror: Yes, sir.
Lawyer: I assume milking means extracting venom from the fangs?
Lawyer: Any uses for this venom?
Juror: No, sir. I just like catching rattlesnakes and milking them.
He glanced at his client and the snake milker was home before the rest of us had our coats off.
Still, in recent years, I've sensed a growing affinity between South Dakotans and rattlesnakes. They're getting together more and more as Black Hills area subdivisions spring up on lands once deemed fit only for snakes. One thing's for sure: when someone builds a $200,000 home only to find rattlers sunning themselves on the patio or claiming the car for shade, there's plenty of local sympathy expressed for the reptiles. ("Who was there first?")
When South Dakota Magazine published a feature on A.M. Jackley, the legendary rattlesnake exterminator who attacked dens across South Dakota with Genghis Khan-like furor, some readers branded him a villain. Yet 70 years ago South Dakotans considered Jackley's services essential to civilized life. Times and reputations change, even for snakes and exterminators.
But before we do anything official about the state animal, we may want to test the rattlesnake’s general appeal. Maybe put a rattler on the state travel guide cover. Like I said, I've got a few photos.
Editor’s Note: This column is revised from the Jan/Feb 1998 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call (800) 456-5117.