By Dave Russell
William Hurley didn’t know it, but he picked up a hitchhiker somewhere near his home in Tilley Creek and took it to Walmart with him lassssst Thursday.
A three-foot long timber rattlesnake had climbed into the undercarriage of his Toyota truck, only to slither down to the asphalt parking lot after he went inside the store.
Another Walmart customer saw the snake and warned Hurley when he came out.
The snake climbed back into the truck’s undercarriage, an action it repeated several times.
Sylva police and firefighters showed up to keep an eye on the snake, and N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission Officer Nate Rowlan was called from Bryson City.
Rowlan told Hurley to drive to the rear of Walmart and drive his truck up and down over the curb. The snake apparently had enough of the jarring experience and dropped out of the truck and slithered through the grass to the woods behind the store.
People on the scene and on social media who saw posts about the incident, asked why the poisonous snake was not killed and why it was released in an area so close to the public.
“As a wildlife officer, I have two jobs,” Rowlan said Tuesday. “One is public safety, and a lot of people will question why we didn’t kill the snake as a public safety concern. My other job is to protect wildlife. Sometimes those come into conflict.”
Rowlan said that in this situation, he protected both the snake and the public by removing it from the parking lot safely and letting a protected species go somewhere it could survive.
“Even if that snake lives another five years it is unlikely that that snake will ever be seen again,” he said. “Like a lot of animals, if they have a bad experience somewhere, they do not want to go back there. Just like if you go to a bad restaurant, you don’t want to go back there again.”
North Carolina is home to two kinds of rattlesnakes, the timber and the eastern diamondback, Rowlan said.
“Both of them are protected species,” he said. “The timber rattlesnake is not federally listed, but it is a protected species by North Carolina statute.”
Rattlesnakes generally like wooded forests and rocky areas where they can hide, he said.
“They really don’t like being around people,” he said.
The snake’s climb into the truck’s undercarriage was probably prompted by the weather, he said.
“My guess is that it was a warm, dry place for the snake to get out of the rain,” he said. “We’d had quite a bit of rain and the temperature had dropped a bit that evening.”