Rattlesnakes, Facebook a bad combination in Pennsylvania

(Photo by Heather Paul/Flickr)

The Rattlesnake Renegades page on Facebook is hardly a secret. As of April 1 it had 26,056 likes and 26,507 follows. Obviously, lots of snake enthusiasts visit often to see images of big, scary Pennsylvania timber rattlers.

Page owner Karl Miller, 37, who has posted more than 40 poisonous snake videos there, calls the site “a place to share stories, pictures and other enjoyments of rattlesnakes and/or copperheads.”

A long-time member of the Keystone Reptile Club and a two-time state-champion rattlesnake hunter, Miller, of Canton, Pa., is proud of his skills and expertise related to venomous snakes – and of his Facebook page. He spends hours responding to posted questions.

And he believes he was treated unfairly and defamed by a story in our last issue, headlined “Fish & Boat Commission Finally Puts Bite on Snake ‘Renegades’” and he wants to clear his name. To be clear, I didn’t write this blog as an endorsement or defense of Miller – I don’t know him. But the case is interesting, and he may well have a point, so we’ll let you decide.

The story in question was an accurate report of a briefing Pennsylvania Fish & Boat commissioners heard at a public meeting in Harrisburg from Tom Burrell, who heads up law enforcement activities in the northern half of the state for the agency.

He said a follow-up investigation after a fatal rattlesnake bite a few years ago by a waterways conservation officer revealed that the victim “was involved with a fairly close-knit group of rattlesnake hunters from throughout the north-central region.”

Burrell told commissioners the “Rattlesnake Renegades” were catching lots of snakes, but abiding by almost none of the snake-hunting rules. The commission knew that, he explained, because the hunters kept giving themselves away.

“They were posting photos on Facebook, traveling on properties they didn’t have permission to be on, and they were recording all this through their social network,” Burrell said, adding that the commission conducted a long investigation.

Finally, after 18 months, Burrell noted, a dozen suspects were identified. The commission focused on the four “major players” and served three search warrants.

“Eventually we charged 10 individuals with a variety of violations, from illegally taking snakes over the limit to sale,” Burrell said. Two members of the group were also charged with controlled substance violations.

Miller, who spent two weeks in intensive care after being bitten by a rattlesnake a few years ago, doesn’t dispute most of that, but said there’s no group called “Rattlesnake Renegades” – that’s just a name he picked for his Facebook Page. “Rattlesnake Ramblings was taken, so I had to settle for Renegades,” he said.

“I feel like I am being called guilty by association in all of this. Do I know some of the guys who were arrested? Yes. Have their photos been on my page? Yes. But I had nothing to do with their violations, I don’t condone them and there is no social network.”

Miller admits he was cited for moving a live rattlesnake off a backroad in Michaux State Forest almost two years ago for its protection, and that he paid a fine and forfeited his fishing license and snake hunting permit for a year. “I did the wrong thing for the right reason,” he said. “I’d do it again.”

Lastly, as a small businessman – he’s a carpenter – Miller wants it known he doesn’t do drugs. He feels the linking of controlled substance violations to his Facebook page has ruined his reputation. He’s a snake nut, he admits, but not an outlaw, and he’s angry at the commission for making him look like one.

Categories: Pennsylvania – Jeff Mulhollem