Rubin: Don’t blame the snake — or the university

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

If you haven’t actually trod the turf where the rattlesnake struck, chances are you think “Massasauga” is the Chippewa word for “Call Geoffrey Fieger.”

The warning at the Graham Trail.

Rumblings on the radio say it’s only a matter of time until the lawsuit. From the ever-reliable comments sections online, it sounds like Matthaei Botanical Gardens turns its rattlers loose in the conservatory every morning, then collects them at 4:30 to rest until their next ravenous rampage.

Truth is, though, the only truly aggrieved party Monday afternoon was the snake.

A 47-year-old visitor to the University of Michigan’s horticultural wonderland wound up in the hospital after an unfortunate encounter with an Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake, Michigan’s only native venomous reptile.

Staffer Linda Neely says the woman was calm and collected as she sat in a shiny metal chair at a gray-topped table in the lobby of the conservatory, awaiting an EMS crew.

Six feet behind her, in a plexiglass case, was a stuffed Massasauga. Or maybe it’s a model; no one seems quite sure.

What’s clear is the warning on a sign propped atop the display. In large red letters, it says, “CAUTION!”

Below that advisory is a picture of a Massasauga and a brief biography of the animal. Because you can’t have too many exclamation points when you’re dealing with poisonous snakes, the description concludes, “keep a safe distance and do not disturb!”

The visitor, alas, did neither. And first, she took her shoes off.

In a sense, it’s hard to blame her. Sunny afternoon, deep grass, a stately stand of maples 30 yards off the Sam Graham Trees Trail, the apparent site of the bite.

“Who wouldn’t want to walk into that shady grove?” asks Matthaei’s Joe Mooney, the director of marketing and wearer of several other hats.

But keep in mind: The snake was there first. And its ancestors were there before ours.

Furthermore, there are no snakes in the conservatory, the 15,000-square-foot, glass-enclosed hall of wonders that people picture when they think of the botanical gardens.

The snakes live outdoors, on the rest of Matthaei’s 300 acres.

“If anyone has anything to fear,” Mooney says, “it’s them.”

A display on the front desk at Matthaei Botanical Gardens warns of Michigan’s only venomous snake.

The smallest rattlesnake

To be clear, Mooney isn’t blaming the visitor. He just isn’t blaming the snake for doing what a fundamentally reticent reptile does when it feels threatened.

At 2- to 3-feet long, the Eastern Massasauga is the smallest rattler found in the United States, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Dwindling in number and protected in Michigan, it has the least toxic venom, potentially fatal only to babies or someone already ailing, and its short fangs can’t generally penetrate Reeboks or Wranglers.

It mostly eats mice and voles. In turn, sometimes it gets eaten by hawks.

Nature can be tough. So can Goodyears; Mooney has seen a few Missasaugas squashed in Matthaei’s parking lots, where they sometimes foolishly bask in the sun.

More often, they’re in the underbrush, which is why there are warnings in the Matthaei visitor guide and on signs along roads and trails.

The bite victim walked through tall grass toward these maple trees.

Missing a sign

If the Graham Trail area was indeed where the encounter took place, as the woman’s description suggested, she strolled past one of the signs.

Anyone can make a mistake, and that one surely hurt. The venom isn’t fatal, but it isn’t pleasant, so please feel free to sympathize.

Matthaei — pronounced MATH-eye — deserves some compassion, too.

It’s 300 gorgeous acres of deep woods, vibrant flowers and frolicking butterflies surrounding a conservatory full of things you’d never expect to see in a state where people own snow shovels.

Admission is even free, for heaven’s sake, but the only time we hear about it is when a snake gets fed up or something especially peculiar happens, like when an 80-year-old agave tree flowered last year.

We like unusual trees. Snakes, not so much. Spot one in the backyard and we’re a lot less likely to fetch a field guide than we are to grab a flat-nosed shovel.

For all the talk this week about lawsuits, maybe they’re the ones who should call Geoff Fieger.