Preventing Close Enounters Between Rattlesnakes and Gas Drillers-Part One

Interview with Lisa Olszak and Bob Zumstein  about rattlesnakes/Marcellus Shale
by Ed Becker, Staff Writer/ (TMS)

Photo by Ed Becker. Nothing says, "Back Off!" like the rattle from a rattlesnake. Photo taken along the Pine Creek Gorge Trail, PA.


First, the good news–no one has died from a snake bite in Pennsylvania in the last 25 years.

Now the bad news–there are still a number of people who are bitten in this state each year.

However the best news is that being bitten by a rattlesnake is largely avoidable if one employs common sense, takes necessary precautions, and listens to the experts who have considerable experience in dealing with the reptiles.

Drilling companies, particularly in the central northern tier of Pennsylvania, are indeed listening to the “experts”– in this case, Bob Zumstein and Lisa Olszak.

Earlier this year a driller was bitten and but did not require hospitalization. The incident has gotten the attention of drilling companies who find themselves working deeper in the backwoods, thus increasing the chance of encountering snakes—particularly the timber rattlesnake.

Bob and Lisa give presentations to drilling companies on precautions and how personnel should proceed when they come across venomous snakes. In fact, Lisa is interested in starting up a new business marketed exactly for this purpose.

Recently the married couple, whose shared interest is rattlers, gave an exclusive interview to TMS.  In Part One, you’ll find out why the paths of Marcellus Shale drillers are intersecting with Bob  and Lisa, and how they want to educate the workers (and general public) about the facts regarding these creatures.

Joining Bob and Lisa in the TMS interview is Jim Chestney, Venomous Species Conservation Coordinator
Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

TMS: First, let’s learn a bit about your backgrounds.  You both obviously have an interest in rattlesnakes. Tell me how that developed—was it something you set out to do or learn about, or did the interest attract you later in life?

I grew up in the country and my parents, who had nine children in twelve years, told us that the sun and fresh air made us grow faster.   As a result, all of my siblings and I spent a lot of time outside in the hopes that we might grow to be faster, bigger and stronger.   Much of our outdoor time was spent exploring the woods and being raised in a hunting family; we had a strong respect and admiration for animals.

In 2000, my wildlife biologist brother invited me to accompany him while searching for timber rattlesnakes.  Prior to that time I had never seen a timber rattlesnake.  From the first time I saw one I fell in love with their beauty and have been hooked ever since.   Bob and I met searching rattlesnakes so I also have them to thank for bringing us together.


Photo provided by Lisa Olszak. Bob Zumstein and Lisa Olszak are a married couple whose passion for snakes has led them to educate gas drilling workers about the creatures.

TMS:  How about you, Bob?  How did your interest in snakes develop?

Growing up, I was always around rattlesnakes.  My grandfather was a rattlesnake advocate, taking snakes to the county fair for demonstration and education.  As a young child, I would sneak over to my grandfather’s snake pen to watch them flick their tongues and rattle their tails.  When my grandmother saw me near the pen, she would scream, “Get away from that snake pen!”

Her screams were a losing battle because by the time I was twelve, my grandfather was teaching me to use my eyes, ears and nose to look for rattlesnakes.  As a young adult I moved to Texas and discovered even more diversity in rattlesnakes.  Shortly after I returned to Pennsylvania in the mid-1990s, my grandfather passed away and my uncle and I began exploring many of my grandfather’s “old sites”.  Since then, every spring when the weather breaks, I am out observing the snakes.


TMS: Before we talk about the issues of gas drillers encountering snakes please give us a little education about the creatures.  Talk about the top three things that people either don’t know, or believe to be true about snakes in general, and timber rattlers in particular.

People tend to think that timber rattlesnakes are aggressive or will attack them.  Unless provoked, these snakes prefer to flee from humans or lie motionless in hopes that they are unnoticed.  The vast majority of bites occur when people attempt to poke, grab, step on or kill a snake.

A common misperception is that a rattlesnake bite will kill you.  The reality is that Pennsylvania has not had a death from a rattlesnake bite in more than twenty-five years.

Because of many people’s natural fear of snakes, they may believe, “The only good snake is a dead snake.”  All snakes, venomous included, play an important role in our ecosystem.  They keep the rodent population in check and are now the focus of medical research. Cancer cures are one example.


TMS: What areas are of highest probability for encountering either the timber rattler, or other venomous snakes in Pennsylvania?  In what PA counties are they most frequently seen?

Photo by Ed Becker. Looking down into the rugged PA Grand Canyon in Tioga County, located in the North Central part of PA. This is the most heavily populated area of the state with timber rattlesnakes.

The north central part of the state is the most heavily populated with timber rattlesnakes.  This region of the state is the most remote and forested in Pennsylvania offering prime conditions for the timber rattlesnake’s habitat.  Roughly 49 of Pennsylvania’s counties have timber rattlesnake populations.

If you count all of Pennsylvania’s venomous species (including the copperhead and eastern massasauga rattlesnake), nearly all counties have some type of venomous snake.  The southern half of the state carries the copperhead population.  The eastern massasauga, a protected and endangered species, belongs to the pygmy rattlesnake family and is found only in a few western counties.

TMS: Have either of you been bitten by a snake?  If so, share that experience.

I was bitten in 2004.  I released a snake that I was measuring and believed it was crawling away.  I took my attention off it for a second, reached to pick up my equipment and the snake struck.  I blame myself for not continuing to watch the snake move fully away. The bite was minor so receiving anti-venom at the hospital with an overnight stay was sufficient.

I was bitten in 1998.  It was negligence on my part because I took my eyes off the snake I was working with and received a bite on the inside of my leg in the upper calf.  I walked 1.5 miles to the vehicle and my partner drove me to the hospital.  I received 15 vials of anti-venom and spent 3 days in the hospital.


TMS: Lisa, Jim, in your opinion why does anyone typically get bitten if there are so many opportunities to NOT get bitten?  How does it happen?

The vast majority of bites occur when an individual has an opportunity to back away and does not.  Jim Chestney, from the PA Fish and Boat Commission, recently told us that the Fish and  Boat Commission investigates bites and has difficulty finding one cause that is a pure accident such as a hiker unknowingly sitting down beside a snake.

Reported snake bites are usually investigated by a local Waterways Conservation Officer.  It is a rare situation to find what we call a legitimate snake bite, meaning that it was purely and accident.  Most people are bitten because they are interacting with the snake by handling it, trying to pick it up, or trying to kill it.

The typical snake bite victim is male between the ages of 25 and 35, is usually bitten on the hand, and alcohol is usually involved. 

TMS: Bob, you  recently gave presentations about rattlesnakes to Marcellus Shale organizations and drilling companies.  Tell us in general what you told the audience.

We customize the presentation to the company’s needs, audience and time constraints.  However, in general, the presentation covers:

    • Venomous species identification (venomous versus non venomous).  We are able to bring both venomous and non venomous snakes to the presentation along with many photos so that personnel can see the snakes and the variations in color and size.
    • Safety precautions: where you are most likely to find snakes, protective shoes and clothing, safe behavior
    • Bites and what to do if bitten
    • Preservation


TMS: There must be some man/snake encounters if companies have asked for some education on them. Based on what you know, how big of a problem is encountering venomous snakes for employees out in the field?  Do you have any stories of incidents that have occurred?

Marcellus Shale testing is placing more and more employees in remote areas where snakes are typically found.  As a result, field personnel are seeing  them more often, which in turn, has drawn the concern of the companies and their safety personnel.  One of the companies for which we did a presentation had an employee bitten during an encounter with a timber rattlesnake.


TMS: Tell us about the idea for creating a business to educate workers about venomous snakes.  What made you realize such a need was out there?

I have  been running my business, Olszak Management Consulting, for over twenty years and so am predisposed to look for new market opportunities. This idea, however, is as much about testing the opportunity to create a business around something that we are passionate about and can do together as it is about creating a hugely successful venture.

We love timber rattlesnakes and consider ourselves to be goodwill ambassadors that have an opportunity to promote safety along with education.

Read Part II of our article later this week.

Further Reading:  Snakes In Western Pennsylvania, by Andrew Shiels, Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission



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