By Joel Thurtell
I grew up in the boondocks of western Michigan, which lies within the habitat area of the Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake. As a kid, I was fascinated knowing that there lives in my state a venomous snake. Albeit not as big or plentiful as its relatives the timber rattlesnake or Eastern and Western Diamondbacks, or even the wily Sidewinder, somehow the presence of a rattler in our state added to our status. We had a wildlife danger, too, right here in Michigan. Maybe not as awesome a threat as those faced by the tough cowboys out west, but nonetheless a true rattlesnake.
Except that in all my years playing and swimming in and around the Flat River at Lowell, prime Massasauga habitat (you would think), I never once saw a rattler. What a disappointment!
As a reporter for the South Bend Tribune covering Michigan, I would occasionally find a police report of someone who had encountered a Massasauga. By telephone, I once interviewed a woman from her Dowagiac hospital bed, where she was being treated for snakebite after trying to lift a Massasauga away from her lawnmower. For the Detroit Free Press, I wrote about unsavvy visitors to Kensington Metro Park who tried to play with a Massasauga. I learned that people had been bitten at the University of Michigan’s Matthei Botanical Gardens.
I also heard of people who scoffed at the danger. There was a director of Matthei who likened a Massasauga bite to that of a mosquito. Vernie Hiler and the other victims I had met would beg to differ. Vernie nearly died of a Massasauga bite because doctors wouldn’t believe there are venomous snakes in Michigan. I had always wanted to write a story about Vernie Hiler’s Massasauga adventure, but never saw the opportunity. Thanks to a killer named Leonard Tyburski, I got my chance.
After learning that she was having an affair with the boyfriend of their teenage daughter, Leonard Tyburski beat his wife to death and stuffed her corpse into the family’s Sears Coldspot freezer in the basement of their Canton Township, Michigan, house. There, atop custom cuts of meat, Dorothy Tyburski’s body remained for three and a half years until one of her daughters figured out where her mother had disappeared to. “I found mom!” was the title of the Detroit Free Press Magazine story I wrote about the murder and the daughter’s macabre discovery in early 1989.
My editor for the freezer murder story was ace Free Press writer Susan Ager. One day, for some reason I don’t recall, I started talking rattlesnakes to Susan. Susan did not know there are venomous snakes in Michigan. Oh boy! We were off and running. With her encouragement, I started reporting the story that ran in the Free Press magazine on July 23, 1989.
It bugs me that people fail to respect the Massasauga. Likening its bite to a mosquito was disrespectful, all the more so when you consider that drop for drop, the Massausaga’s venom is more potent than that of the Western Diamondback. People who play chicken with Massasaugas, who try to handle them as if they were pets, also are showing disrespect to the snake. Worst of all, though, is the fact that Massasaugas are threatened in terms of habitat. All those highways and buildings have destroyed the places where Massasaugas live and breed.
At least, people should know that Massasaugas do present a danger to humans. I was able to document for my story the deaths of four people attributed to Massasauga bites. After the story ran, I heard of additional Massasauga-related fatalities. If nothing else, the story presents a caution to hikers and others who venture into the woods — if you see a mottled brown snake, leave it alone!
After the story ran on July 23, 1989 also, I received a letter from a woman who said that her daughter had been bitten by a Massasauga. Remembering my story, she ran into the house and grabbed the magazine off a stack of newspapers and was able to learn what steps to take to get first aid for a snakebite victim.
I never have seen a Massasauga in the wild. A herpetologist once told me, “They are rare, except where they are abundant.” I never found a place where Massasaugas are rare or abundant. For the magazine story, I had to view Massasaugas in captivity.
Massasauga rattlesnakes are amazing creatures, once you learn how they live, and where, and on what they prey. We have made it harder for them to do all of these things, which makes it even more important that we try to understand them.
For these reasons, I’m reprinting the story below, with permission of the Detroit Free Press:
DETROIT FREE PRESS
Copyright (c) 1989, Detroit Free Press
DATE: Sunday, July 23, 1989 TAG: 8901300139
SECTION: MAG EDITION: METRO FINAL
PAGE: 12 ; LENGTH: 392 lines
ILLUSTRATION: Photo Color MANNY CRISOSTOMO; Map
SOURCE: JOEL THURTELL *
VERNIE HILER’S SIZE 15 TENNIS shoes swished through the tall grass as the
6-foot-4, 220-pound farmer approached the edge of his fish pond. He could see
whopper smallmouth bass jumping for bugs. Dark rings raced across the pond.
Vernie was ready to reel a few in.
At 62, Vernie had lived all his life on this apple, peach and cherry
farm near Watervliet in southwestern Michigan. Balancing his rod in one hand
and a can of red worms in the other, he walked briskly toward the spot where
those bass were splashing the black surface of the pond.
He never saw what bit him, hammering his right ankle twice in a split
It felt like somebody jabbed him hard with two prongs of a pitchfork.
A hot pain raged up his right leg.
“I looked down and thought, ‘My gosh, a dog bit me.’ ”
But there was no dog. Nothing.
He limped home, sat down in the kitchen of his big farmhouse and,
pulling his sock down, showed his wife his swollen right foot.
It was Jane who spotted the two red welts, half an inch apart.
To Vernie, they looked like a pair of hornet stings, but Jane knew
better. “Vernie tried to tell me it was a wasp or a toad or a frog,” Jane
recalls about that hot July day. “But I said, ‘Come off it — those are fang
Vernie was baffled, though: “I didn’t see any snake or hear any *
A few weeks later, friends would kill a big massasauga rattlesnake
near the spot where Vernie was bitten.
But on that July 3, 1980 morning, when a well- camouflaged rattlesnake
attacked his foot, Vernie never even saw a snake, much less killed one to *
keep as proof of what got him.
That lack of evidence nearly cost Vernie Hiler his life.
In the emergency room of Memorial Hospital in St. Joseph, doctors who
examined Vernie chuckled at the big farmer’s notion that he had been chomped
by a rattler. It might make a good yarn for Vernie to take back to the Knights
of Columbus bar, but the doctors knew better.
Go home, they told Vernie. Keep your foot elevated and put ice on it.
But by late afternoon, the pain was much worse. His right calf was
swollen to his knee, so grossly puffed up that he could barely pull his pant
leg over it.
The Hilers returned to the emergency room, where another doctor
repeated the earlier advice, and prescribed a medication for bee sting.
Recalls Vernie Hiler: “They said there was no such thing as a poisonous
snake in Michigan.” *
THE OJIBWAY INDIANS HAD A WORD for the stubby, sluggish snakes they *
found on prairies and river marshes throughout the Midwest.
Zhiishiigwe — one that shakes its tail.
Unlike Vernie Hiler’s doctors, the Ojibways knew there were poisonous
snakes in Michigan. They knew zhiishiigwe, whose gray skin was mottled with a *
chain of brown and black blotches, was a creature to be reckoned with.
Although it generally grows no longer than 2 1/2 feet, and no fatter than two
inches, the zhiishiigwe could cause serious injury, even death, to humans. It
came close to killing Vernie Hiler, who would later sue the doctors who didn’t
believe his story.
Eighteenth-Century British colonists reported that the Ojibway
considered the massasauga sacred. They blew tobacco smoke over it, asking it
to protect them from harm. Today, we pay it scant attention — unless it nails
July is the peak month for snakebite in the U.S. It is on hot summer
days that humans and snakes are most likely to meet outdoors. *
Nationwide, between 6,000 and 8,000 cases of poisonous snakebite are
reported each year, and between 12 and 14 people die as a result. The
massasauga — Michigan’s only poisonous reptile — has the second most potent
venom of any of the 31 species of rattlesnake in the Americas, but its venom
supply is small compared to, say, the western diamondback. So its death toll
is also much smaller.
Poison control centers in Michigan report only about 16 massasauga
bites each summer, and no deaths have been reported here. But for those few
who have a close encounter with a massasauga, like those few who are struck by
lightning, the experience can be dramatic and memorable.
The massasauga uses its venom to subdue its food — usually mice, frogs
and occasionally garter snakes. It attacks faster than the human eye can *
follow, by opening its mouth wide and unfolding two hinged, hollow fangs.
Muscles squeeze two venom glands at the back of its head, propelling poison
into the fangs that, like hypodermic needles, inject poison into the snake’s *
Mice and frogs fall limp to be devoured. Humans usually live to tell
ZOOLOGISTS HAVE NAMED IT SIS- trurus catenatus catenatus, but pioneers
called it “swamp rattler, “pygmy rattler,” “black snapper,” or “black
In 1838, the naturalist Paruline D.E. Kirtland, after whom a certain
rare Michigan warbler is named, noted that Ohioans were calling this stubby
rattlesnake “massasauga,” a word white settlers concocted from two Ojibway
words — misi, meaning “great,” and zaagi, meaning “river mouth.”
Misi zaagi. Great river mouth. Its closest relatives, the western and
desert massasaugas, can live in dry climates, but the eastern massasauga
demands wetland. It spends the winter months in crayfish holes, often in
marshes near streams, hibernating immersed in water and well below the frost
line, where it will not freeze but where its skin will stay wet. Occasionally,
the snake may poke its head above water to breathe. *
In the spring, massasaugas move to higher, drier ground to mate. In
August, the females bear their young live. In the fall, they move back to
lower, damper ground.
Detroit’s summer playland, Belle Isle, low and surrounded by the
Detroit River, once was home to many massasaugas until, legend has it,
18th-Century settlers turned hogs loose on the island. Hogs are a well-known
remedy for an oversupply of rattlers. They grab the snakes with their snouts,*
tear them apart and eat them. Apparently, the snakes’ fangs merely glance off *
the pigs’ tough hides.
But the hogs didn’t finish their work; newspaper articles in the 1870s
reported sightings of rattlesnakes on Belle Isle. Now, though, naturalists
say there are no snakes at all on the island. *
Today, it’s not hogs but bulldozers and suburban development that are
killing off the massasauga, not only in Michigan but throughout the Northeast
and Midwest where it is found.
“Compared to the reports I used to get from people, it’s much less
common than it was in the late ’40s and early ’50s,” says Sherman Minton, a
retired professor of microbiology and immunology at the Indiana University
Medical School in Indianapolis. Minton is an authority on snakebite poisoning.
Still today, the massasaugas find hospitable habitats throughout the
state, even as far north as Bois Blanc Island in the Straits of Mackinac,
although none have been sighted in the Upper Peninsula .
Marshland beside the Huron River in the Kensington and Stony Creek
parks in Livingston, Oakland and Macomb counties have muck, skunk cabbage,
mayapples and cattails typical of prime massasauga territory. These little
rattlers have been known to wriggle near the door of Kensington’s Nature
Center, or lie idly alongside trails while hikers stood nearby photographing
and videotaping them. Once in a while they bite a visitor, usually when the
human tries to handle them.
In Lenawee County, a slope called “Rattlesnake Hill” near Adrian
overlooks wetlands stretching for miles along the River Raisin. Here, a man
who found a 27-inch rattler on his lawn warns, “They’ll come right up and tap
on your foot.”
Along Fleming Creek in the University of Michigan’s Matthaei Botanical
Gardens near Dixboro, the sound of massasaugas rattling has been mistaken for
crickets. But there was no confusing the rattler horticulturist Adrian O’Brien
“It was in the lobby, but we don’t want the public to know,” O’Brien
laughs. “We captured a baby in one of the greenhouses, too.” And others have
been spotted on the driveway.
Many visitors to these parks never see the massasauga, and that’s not
surprising. It is so well camouflaged, with its dull brown, gray and black
coloring (some are dark brown or even black), that a biologist equipped with a
radio receiver and directional antenna once couldn’t locate a radio-implanted
massasauga whose pulsing signal was coming from the ground in plain view at
Last year, a hiker never saw the massasauga sunning itself on a trail
at the U-M Botanical Gardens until she stepped on it and it bit her toe.
Says Adrian College biology professor Craig Weatherby: “They are so
secretive, we call them one of the unseen animals of Michigan.”
“RATTELL SNAKE,” CAPT. JOHN Smith, leader of the English settlement in *
Jamestown, Va., called it in 1631.
President George Washington called it the “rattletail snake.” *
European explorers found rattlesnakes from South America to what is now
Canada. Big ones, little ones, fat ones, long ones, hot-tempered rattlers like
the western diamondback and weird horned ones that wriggle their way sideways
across desert sands.
Other snakes can nervously vibrate their tails, even rustling leaves to*
make a sort of false rattlesnake sound, but only rattlesnakes have rattles.
They are born with a sort of button on their tails, adding another button each
time they shed their skins, two to four times a year. The buttons are horny,
roughly acorn-shaped and fit together loosely, as if they were shirt buttons
on a string. When vibrated rapidly, the buttons rub against each other — up
to 60 times a second — to make the characteristic rattlesnake hissing or
buzzing sound. The noise is meant to scare away the snake’s enemies, including*
The massasauga’s rattle is gentler than a diamondback’s. “You may not
recognize it if you’re thinking along the lines of television rattlesnakes,”
says Weatherby. Some who have heard it compare it to clinking ice, a swarm of
locusts, a very fast baby’s rattle, or the noise wind makes in dry grass.
The 14-inch, 2-year-old massasauga caged at the U-M Natural Sciences
Museum has six buttons on its tail. They’re not much wider than a pencil lead.
When the snake gets jittery, its tail vibrates and becomes a buff-colored *
The sound is like that of a fat housefly trapped between two windows. But
it’s coming from a very frightened, potentially dangerous reptile.
IMAGINE: YOU’RE STANDING IN THE middle of a grassy field. Suddenly the
ground rolls beneath your feet. A long, blinding stroke of white light flashes
Do you jump? Scream? Run?
Probably you hit the ground.
Now imagine that you’re a massasauga, suddenly confronted by a human
being. Let’s say it’s a 6-foot-4, 220- pound human being intent on casting
bait into a nearby pond, with no idea you are underfoot.
How would that look to you?
Rattlesnakes perceive their surroundings very differently than other
animals, even most other snakes. *
Rattlers have what are called “pit organs” on their snouts below and
in front of their eyes. These pits house delicate membranes connected by
nerves to an area of the snake’s brain that specializes in sensing infrared *
light radiated by warm-blooded mammals. The pit organs are a second set of
eyes that enable the rattlesnake to track dinner in perfect darkness.
What you, the massasauga, “see” with your infrared sensing organs
would resemble a black-and-white photographic negative, with heat-radiating
areas appearing as bright spots.
So, on a hot morning near, say, a farmer’s bass pond, you might have
been stalking a field mouse, sensing heat given off by the small rodent.
Suddenly, the white-on-black image of the mouse is wiped out by a
gigantic white blob. Unknown to you, it is the farmer, Vernie Hiler. The
white shape is huge and moving directly at you. Your belly picks up violent
tremors from the ground.
Maybe a part — we would call it a foot — of this giant mass of moving
heat clamps your small, thick body tightly against the ground. Your delicate
ribs and vertebrae grind against each other.
If you were a rattlesnake, what would you do?
VERNIE HILER’S RUN-IN WITH A MASSASAUGA was what herpetologists call an
innocent, or legitimate, bite. He didn’t provoke the attack.
Herpetologists — those who study snakes — disagree, but many believe *
rattlers, like wasps, usually will leave you alone if you leave them alone.
U-M herpetologist Dan York believes as many as 80 percent of all bites are
John Trestrail, associate director of the Western Michigan Poison
Center at Blodgett Hospital in Grand Rapids, describes a classic provoked
bite: Trestrail doesn’t recall the man’s name or where this happened —
only that a community hospital in Michigan called the Grand Rapids poison
center asking for advice about how to medically treat a man who saw a
massasauga slither across the road in front of his car.
“He drove over it, stopped his car, got out and went back to the snake*
to cut off its rattles as a present to his girl friend,” says Trestrail. “The
snake in its last act of defiance bit him on the thigh, and he was severely *
“Dead snakes can still bite for a few hours due to unconscious *
neurological action,” Trestrail says. “Leave a dead snake alone is lesson No. *
Mike Hicks won’t touch them anymore, dead or alive.
One hot summer afternoon in 1984, Hicks saw an 18-inch rattlesnake
slide under a friend’s mobile home in the hamlet of Flowerfield, about 25
miles south of Kalamazoo, and volunteered to capture it.
Hicks is a muscular young man who makes his living cutting brush away
from rural power lines. “I didn’t figure a little bitty baby rattlesnake like
that could hurt you.”
Hicks nabbed the snake, holding it behind the head. What happened next *
It was as if the snake’s mouth were made of rubber. The top of its *
mouth folded back, and the snake flicked its fangs backwards to stab Hicks’ *
“He nailed me twice in a split second.”
Immediately, Hicks felt the same burning pain in his arm that had
surged up Vernie Hiler’s leg.
Right away, Hicks’ finger started turning black.
“By the time I got to Three Rivers Hospital, my finger was about three
times its normal size and half of it was pure black. My arm swelled up four
or five times normal,” Hicks says. “It turned black all the way up to my
armpit and down to my waist. It was like a black stripe down my side.”
Snake venom is not intended to inflict pain, suffering and death on *
human beings. It is a highly sophisticated form of saliva.
Having injected its poison into, say, a big rat that might otherwise
fight back, the rattler need only wait for its victim to succumb. Once the
animal collapses, the snake can begin its slow process of swallowing its prey *
whole. Meanwhile, the victim’s heart has propelled venom throughout its
system, beginning the process of tissue disintegration even before the snake’s*
stomach juices finish the job.
The blackness that Hicks’ finger, hand, arm and side displayed after
his bite was evidence that the venom was already destroying some of his
That reaction to a snake bite is not unusual. Typically, a massasauga *
bite causes local pain and swelling, and perhaps nausea, vomiting, sweating
The venom causes a drop in blood pressure and at the same time reduces
the ability of the blood to clot. Red blood cells leak into tissues near the
bite, causing black-and-blue discoloration. Meanwhile, when the blood fails
to clot, there may be internal bleeding. A catastrophic hemorrhage of the
brain or other parts of the body may occur and cause death, says Minton.
That’s the doctors’ analysis. From the rattlesnakes’ perspective, what
happened inside the bodies of Hiler and Hicks was just good chemistry.
The men were, quite literally, being digested.
THE BAD NEWS IS THAT MASSASAUGAS are poisonous and dangerous, although
reasonable folks still disagree on how dangerous. The good news for
Michiganders is that the massasauga isn’t high-strung or short-tempered. It
is easygoing, even lethargic.
“You can pick a massasauga up with a snake hook, and it’ll hang there *
limp, like a wet rag,” says U-M’s York.
“They’re not inclined to chase after you,” says Kensington Park
naturalist Bob Hotaling.
At U-M’s Botanical Gardens, a 32-inch rattler — big for a massasauga
— stopped a sixth-grade class from leaving the grounds as it sunned itself
on a footbridge that was the only exit.
“Those boys poked it and threw sticks and stones at it and that
rattlesnake would not move,” says Pat Hopkinson, associate director of the
Botanical Gardens. Eventually, a grounds worker captured the snake so the *
class could cross the bridge and go home.
Compared to the western diamondback, the massasauga is downright
laid-back. “The western diamond is the most temperamental and aggressive of
the rattlers found in the United States,” writes Laurence Klauber, author of
the authoritative, two-volume book, “Rattlesnakes: Their Habits, Life
Histories, and Influence on Mankind.”
By comparison, he says, Michigan’s eastern massasauga is “a sluggish
snake . . . slow to bite . . . little inclined to use its rattle or to *
But the massasauga has the second most toxic venom of any North
American rattlesnake, ranked behind the Mojave rattler. The venom of the
western diamondback falls well below the massasauga’s in relative toxicity,
but with its much bigger venom glands, the diamondback carries on average 20
times more venom than a typical massasauga, whose head rarely grows bigger
than a normal human’s thumb.
Some familiar with the massasauga, like William Benninghof, former
director of the U-M Botanical Gardens, say victims of massasauga bites have
little to worry about. Of two people he knows who were bitten at the
Botanical Gardens, Benninghof says, “The most they suffered was a rather
“The venom is not strong enough or extensive enough that it will endanger
the life of an adult in good physical condition,” he contends.
But the experience of Vernie Hiler and Mike Hicks suggests otherwise. “I’ve
seen statements two or three times that there are no deadly poisonous snakes *
in Michigan, and that’s making the assumption that the massasauga isn’t
deadly, which isn’t strictly true,” says herpetologist Minton.
“We usually take them seriously when we hear about them,” says Minton, who
has records indicating at least four people have died of massasauga bites:
* The Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science in 1935 reported that
in the early 1930s a healthy 10-year-old boy was bitten on a farm in
northwestern Indiana. He died, probably from internal bleeding, after
suffering for two or three days.
* In a 1940s article about the area’s history, a South Bend newspaper
noted that a woman had died of a massasauga bite around the turn of the
* The Canadian Medical Association Journal in 1957 reported on a woman in
southern Ontario who was bitten after grabbing a massasauga she found
swimming in a lake. She was treated in a hospital, but signed herself out,
returned home and died of internal bleeding.
* An undated newspaper clipping from southern Ontario reports that a girl
about six years old was bitten by a massasauga near the shore of Lake Huron
and later died.
And, says Minton, “I know of a case that happened near the Michigan-Indiana
line of a man who went to the hospital very soon after he was bitten. The
doctor didn’t take his story seriously, and sent him home in 20 minutes. He
did get quite ill and had coagulation problems.”
Minton was talking about Vernie Hiler.
IT WAS 3 A.M. ON JULY 4, 1980 WHEN Jane Hiler decided she couldn’t wait any
longer. The pain had spread to Vernie’s groin, and he was forced to crawl
headfirst down the stairs of his farmhouse, dragging his grossly swollen
“He couldn’t even get a pair of pants on, his leg was so huge,” she says.
“My son was there — we just piled him into the car.”
This time, she didn’t bother trying Memorial Hospital. Twenty hours after
her husband was bitten, Jane Hiler swung into the emergency room parking lot
at Borgess Hospital in Kalamazoo, 30 miles from their home.
At Borgess, doctors debated what to do. They realized Vernie should have
been given antivenin — a serum made from horse antibodies to snake poison, *
used to treat snakebite in humans. Normally, antivenin must be given no later
than eight hours after a bite to be effective. It also poses dangers because
some people are severely allergic to the horse antibodies.
In Vernie Hiler’s case, more than a day had passed without proper
But the debate ended when tests showed Vernie was in grave danger.
“His blood vessels were beginning to break the skin. He was beginning to
bleed. His urine was straight blood,” Jane recalls.
At 11 p.m. on July 4, 36 hours after he was bitten, physicians began to
give Vernie the antiven intravenously.
“They were not positive that the serum wouldn’t kill him, but they said
he was going to die if they didn’t give it to him,” she says.
Vernie spent eight days in the hospital. He suffered a severe allergic
reaction to the antivenin, and didn’t fully recover for several months.
Later, the Hilers would sue the emergency room doctors who didn’t believe
Vernie, a consulting doctor, their professional physicians’ group, Memorial
Hospital and the Western Michigan Poison Center in Grand Rapids. At the poison
center, John Trestrail had advised against treating Vernie’s wound as a
snakebite. There is no room for guessing, he says, because the antivenin
medication is so powerful.
“There was no evidence of a snake,” he says now. “There was a puncture, *
and we were trying to figure it out — was this a snakebite or a thorn? I
like to have the snake in a jar.” *
In their lawsuit, the Hilers accused Memorial Hospital and the emergency
room physicians of malpractice and negligence. An attorney who defended the
doctors suggested that Vernie’s injuries may have resulted from his own
negligence, apparently in not keeping his eye out for snakes in the grass. *
In February 1985, the Hilers’ case was settled out of court.
After their attorney subtracted fees and expenses, the couple received
only $9,421 of the $20,000 award.
But Vernie Hiler thinks he sent the St. Joseph doctors a memo that should
be posted in every hospital emergency room:
“When a man says he’s got snakebite, treat him immediately.”
AFTER A SNAKEBITE
IF YOU ARE BITTEN BY A POISONOUS SNAKE: *
* Stay calm; don’t exert yourself.
* Keep the limb that was bitten below the level of your heart.
* If there is pain or swelling, draw a circle around the swollen area with
a ballpoint pen and repeat this every 10 minutes. This will give physicians a
measure of how rapidly venom is attacking the body.
* Call your family doctor or, better, the emergency room of the nearest
hospital to report that you’ve been bitten by a poisonous snake. If you know *
what kind of snake it is, let them know. *
* Don’t cut across the fang punctures and suck out the venom. The risk of
mutilation, artery damage and infection outweigh any good the incision would
* Don’t put ice on the wound.
* Don’t use a tourniquet.
Previous page: A snake’s view of farmer Vernie Hiler as he walks through the *
field where a massasauga bit him.
An eastern massasauga rattlesnake at the Detroit Zoo.
KEYWORDS: RATTLESNAKE; SNAKE; MICHIGAN; GUIDELINE *