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Snakes, And The Snake Wranglers Who Love Them

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Jobs on natural gas drilling sites can have funny-sounding names: There are roustabouts, mud men, doodlebuggers and snake wranglers. That last one — snake wrangler — is exactly what it sounds like.

Everyone hates snakes, right?

Even Indiana Jones hates snakes.

But — not everybody.

Matt Wilson loves snakes. He's loved them since he was 6 years old, when he caught a snake and brought it inside to show his mother.

"My mom said, 'Oh, what do you have, Matt?' I said, 'I don't know what it is, mom.' And she said, 'Oh, that's a snake. Isn't it pretty?' I said, 'Yeah, that's pretty neat.'"

Wilson has been catching snakes ever since; it's just that these days, he does it professionally. Wilson works on natural gas drilling sites — well pads and pipelines. When a worker finds a snake, he calls Wilson.

"We remove rattlesnakes that are in the way," he says. "Then we take them into the woods and release them."

Drillers are finding more and more timber rattlesnakes as gas operations expand in northeast Pennsylvania. The snakes are what's called a "candidate species" — they aren't protected, but state regulators think the species may be in danger. So the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission is doing a lot of research to track and monitor them.

The commission has convinced energy companies to hire people like Wilson, who remove snakes from drilling sites and record their GPS location. It's an important job, and it's one that Wilson loves.

It's just that, sometimes it's hard to explain to people.

"Basically, they think I'm nuts," he says.

Wilson works with Shell, but the company won't let reporters on its drilling sites. So on one of his rare days off, he takes me to the Elk State Forest to look for snakes. Wilson's wife, Paula, comes too. Riding through the forest in a truck, she says she's also loved snakes since she was little.

"My mom said nobody wanted to ever empty out my pockets on wash day," she says, "because they never knew what I was going to have in my pockets. I usually had snakes, or worms, or frogs."

Paula and Matt didn't know they were both so into snakes until long after they were married. When Matt found a snake during a camping trip, they both realized their shared interest. Paula now has the same job as Matt, wrangling snakes for natural gas drillers.

"The snakes do have their own personality," she says. "Some are grumpy. Some are real curious as to what you are."

Asked what a grumpy snake is like, Paula answers, "Oh my. They'll hiss at you, they puff up and they go haaaa."

We drive to a natural gas pipeline path and get out of the truck. Matt and Paula grab their tongs and sacks, and we start looking for snakes in rock clusters and bushes.

"Here we go," Matt says, holding up a snake whose rattle gave off a steady buzzing noise. "Just a little tiny guy, that's a yellow face."

The snake is yellow and green, and about 3 feet long.

Paula says if you catch one snake, it's a good day. We see three.

The Wilsons both say their job is hard, but it's worth it — so much so that Matt has kept wrangling, despite a near-deadly snake bite in 2002.

As proof his work is paying off, Matt points to a recent breakthrough. Three drillers had found a snake on a road, and one wanted to kill it.

"The Pennsylvania fella said, 'I kill everyone of them I see. I'm a logger, and I don't like them,' " Matt says. "Well, these fellas, because I had been preaching to them and talking to them — they kept him from running the snake over. That probably was the highlight of my summer, at that point."

It was probably a highlight for the snake, too.

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