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A Second for the Rattlesnake

Aug 14, 2014

My colleague, Paul Higbee, made a case a few days ago for replacing the coyote with the rattlesnake as South Dakota’s state animal. Though tongue in cheek as I guess, his delightful column left me half persuaded — or almost that much. 

Rattlesnakes are cool in every sense of the word. With venomous fangs at one end and a burglar alarm at the other, with a long digestive system perfect for small rodents, covered with diamond studded upholstery that would look good on deck furniture, what’s not to love? It is also cold blooded, which means that it has to move into the sun from time to time to warm itself. Sometimes that means curling up on a hiking trail. 

I confess some personal reasons for affection. In my late teens I stepped on a rattlesnake. I was hiking in the Ozark National Forest between Gunner Pool and Blanchard’s Springs Caverns (no relation). At some point I stopped to glance back at my companions. Something below my knee caught my eye. It was an enormous rattler under my left foot, coiled and blessedly sleepy, but eyeing me with its lustreless protrusive eyes (hat tip to T.S. Elliot). What did I do? Being of sound mind and body, I stepped off the rattlesnake. I doubt that serpentine faces really have expressions, but this one seemed to be giving me the “do you know what I am supposed to do to you?” look. I bowed solemnly and selected an alternative route. 

Many years later I was backpacking in Wind Cave National Park with my daughter. This manageably small, oblong chunk of wilderness, tucked just under Custer State Park, is a great place to introduce one’s progeny to the pleasures of overnight hiking. We had made camp on a nice plateau suitable for sitting out a thunderstorm, which we sat out. After the storm passed, we headed down to explore some prairie dog fields. In our path was a small rattler, come out to enjoy the return of the sun. It was smaller than the aforementioned snake, not much bigger than a tea saucer. Perhaps for that reason it was more aggressive and began rattling immediately. I let Courtney have a good look at it, and then we found our way around. After all, it was the snake’s trail, not ours. 

I believe it is true that Benjamin Franklin wanted the wild turkey to be the national bird. There are days when I think that he was spot on. Likewise with the rattlesnake. We who live in the Rushmore state aren’t really going to bite any foot that steps over the state lines, but let’s be honest: don’t we sometimes really want to?

I still think that the coyote is our dog. It’s smaller than the wolf, larger than the fox, about the size of a good house pet but wild and wily, irritating to those who would want everything to be manageable, and able to survive no matter what they try to trap you with. They say that if you have seen one coyote, seven of them have seen you.

If that is not what South Dakota is, then it is what it has always rather wanted to be. Let it continue to aspire. When they look for us to join the party line, let us be as invisible as the coyote.

The first time I heard coyotes howl was in the North Dakota Badlands. The sound was haunting and seemed to inspire a resistance to the changes in the world. I heard it again last summer in Arkansas. The coyote are carrying our message across the lands. 

Editor's Note: Ken Blanchard is our political columnist from the right. For a left-wing perspective on politics, please look for columns by Cory Heidelberger every other Wednesday on this site.

Dr. Ken Blanchard is a professor of Political Science at Northern State University and writes for the Aberdeen American News and the blog South Dakota Politics.


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